Sunday, January 03, 2010

Strategic Leaking on Iran (from Gary Sick's public blog)

From Gary Sick's public blog

Note from William O. Beeman:
Gary Sick's superb analysis of recent information leaked from the White House to the Washington Post
and the New York Times has the ring of truth. The New York Times article appeared on Sunday, January 3, but carried
a dateline of January 2. It can be found at 
Pretend for a moment that you are the president of the United States and 
you have gotten yourself into a bit of a hole with your Iran policy.

First you offered to negotiate with Iran over nuclear (and potentially 
other) issues without the Bush preconditions. But there were powerful 
political forces that felt this was an example of your inexperience and 
even appeasement tendencies. So you unwisely accepted a six month deadline 
for the negotiations to show that you meant business. You tried to soften 
that by saying you would take another look at the issue at the end of the 
year, but everyone ignored that and let you know that January 1 was the 
drop dead date to solve all the negotiating problems with Iran.

In the meantime, the most serious internal revolt in thirty years exploded 
in Iran. It was not clear how this would affect the behavior of the regime 
on international issues. Some said the regime was weakened and vulnerable 
and so would more readily yield to pressure; others thought Iran's rulers 
would become more belligerent internationally to compensate for their 
internal weakness.

You had a couple of rounds of meetings with the Iranians and jointly came 
up with a fiendishly clever ploy. Iran would ship out quite a lot of its 
low enriched uranium (LEU), thereby reducing its stockpile that might be 
turned into a bomb, and Russia and France would provide them with more 
highly enriched fuel to be used in their research reactor that makes 
medical isotopes. Everybody wins. But when the Iranians took this home, 
they were savaged by their own political opposition for buying a pig in a 
poke. In disarray, they backtracked and started looking for a face-saving 
alternative, specifically to conduct the swap on Iranian soil or, later, 
in Turkey.

This situation was complicated by the discovery (or Iranian announcement, 
we're not quite sure) of a previously unannounced uranium enrichment site 
which was immediately inspected by the IAEA. Some think that this was 
Iran's Plan B, to have a separate enrichment capability if the primary 
site at Natanz was bombed by Israel or the US; others think the site was 
intended as a covert production line to produce a bomb. The punditocracy 
decides that it was a covert bomb production line.

Moreover, the punditocracy, which had already decided on the deadline of 
January 1, now decides that the Iranians negotiated in bad faith and the 
negotiations were at a total dead end. The congress, which had reluctantly 
stayed quiet on the subject, now returned to its usual political game of 
looking tough by bashing Iran. Sanctions bills threatening interdiction of 
gasoline shipments to Iran were passed overwhelmingly in the House and 
were due to pass with equal margins when the Senate returned in January.

Your critics (who wanted merely token negotiations followed by crippling 
sanctions and, if possible, war) rubbed their hands in anticipation. A 
leading neoconservative gleefully remarked that everything was proceeding 
according to script. AIPAC issued a triumphant declaration as gasoline 
sanctions rolled through the congress -- Thread 15 or at:

So, Mr. President, here you are on January 1. The "deadline" is upon you. 
Your allies and your opponents in congress are ready to hit you with a 
dilemma -- either impose crippling sanctions or look like an appeaser. Yet 
you know that gasoline sanctions are perhaps the worst idea to come out of 
the Congress since they opposed the purchase of Alaska. The sanctions 
would enrich and empower the Revolutionary Guards, undercut the Green 
opposition, identify the US as the enemy of the ordinary citizen in Iran, 
and possibly start us down the slippery slope to another disastrous war in 
the Middle East. But it looks great on a bumper sticker, and Glen Beck 
will savage anyone who dares oppose it.

So what to do?

Well, Mr. President, you have some cards of your own up your sleeve. You 
know that Israel is not really going to attack Iran. They can't do 
anything significant without US help, and George Bush already told them 
not to expect that. But they have invested so much in their campaign to 
convince the Israeli population and the entire world that Israel's 
survival as a nation is imminently in peril that they can't be seen to 
back down. They might welcome some help to get them off their own sticky 

You also know that the Iranian nuclear program is nowhere near a bomb and 
has actually made little progress in that direction for years, regardless 
of the punditocracy consensus to the contrary in defiance of the facts. 
There is plenty of time if you can just calm the domestic political furor.

It's time for some strategic leaking.

First, give an exclusive interview to the Washington Post just before the 
New Year's "deadline" -- Thread 15 or 
that makes two major points: (1) The administration's policy of engagement 
has succeeded in creating turmoil and fractures within Iran's leadership, 
i.e. the policy has been a success, not a failure; and (2) the 
administration is planning for highly targeted sanctions that will hit the 
Revolutionary Guards rather than the average Iranian citizen. That sends a 
clear signal to the congress that its infatuation with petroleum sanctions 
is not replicated in the White House, for all the reasons listed above, 
and to the uber hawks that there will be no rush to war with Iran in the 
new year. At the same time, launch a major rhetorical campaign by the 
president in support of the civil and political rights of the Iranian 

It works. The increasingly hawkish Washington Post editorial board 
commends the president for his "shift" on human rights (though piously 
calling for more) and ignores the sanctions game in congress.

Of course, having fed the Washington Post, the New York Times is jealous 
and needs its own exclusive. Provide that over the New Year holiday by 
letting as many as six top administration officials meet privately and 
anonymously with two NYT reporters to let them in on some more secrets: 
(1) In another cunning success, the administration has outed the covert 
Iran bomb production facility at Qom thereby rendering it useless; (2) 
hint that the administration may be responsible for sabotaging Iran's 
centrifuges, which accounts for the fact (completely unacknowledged until 
now, despite being reported for the past two years by the IAEA) that Iran 
is not actually using about half of its installed centrifuges; (3) 
reiterate that the coming sanctions are to be aimed at the Revolutionary 
Guards, not the average Iranian citizen, and are likely to succeed because 
the regime is so weakened internally; and (4) declare unequivocally that 
the Iranian "breakout capability," i.e. its ability to shift from nuclear 
energy to actually building a bomb, is now years away.

This also works. The two NYT reporters, though apparently a bit confused 
about this U-turn in threat assessment from only three months ago, 
dutifully report what they have been told. The administration is credited 
with several successes, and the reporters seem convinced that the White 
House is showing toughness and skill in derailing the Iranian nuclear rush 
to the bomb. In the meantime, the reporters scarcely note that the 
administration is not declaring the negotiations dead after all and is 
pursuing the Turkish option of a uranium swap. No mention of a deadline.

Finally, the NYT reports that the Israelis have been persuaded that the 
targeted sanctions now being discussed are worth trying "at least for a 
few months." That was attributed to a senior Israeli official on the basis 
of back channel talks, but it had actually been announced by Prime 
Minister Netanyahu to the Knesset a week earlier in a speech that received 
almost no attention in the U.S. See Thread 26 or 
No more talk of deadlines, crippling sanctions or air strikes.

In short, Mr. President, you have taken what appeared to be a losing hand 
and, with a few well-placed leaks, transformed it into a victory over 
Iran. You have converted a lose-lose proposition of crippling sanctions vs 
appeasement into an Iranian nuclear collapse. The imminent threat of Iran 
has become an indefinite delay of its breakout capability. The huffing and 
puffing of the congress has been rendered irrelevant even before it hits 
your desk. A deadline has become a new beginning of negotiations. And you 
brought the Israelis along with you, without a peep of complaint. As for 
the punditocracy, so far so good.

Not bad for a beginner, Mr. President!