With the surprise announcement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran on Tuesday that Iran “welcomed” the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, rumors are flying about what is really happening behind the scenes in the murky world of the Iranian leadership.
At issue are key questions of who is really in control of the levers of power in Tehran, and whether the U.S. claim that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in late 2003 is accurate, partially true, or whether it represents successful disinformation planted by Iranian intelligence.
Speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday, ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, reiterated skepticism of the recent National Intelligence (NIE) on Iran that he first expressed to Newsmax last week.
The NIE “raises a lot more questions than it answers,” Hoekstra said. “It has been met with great skepticism by people with better intelligence than we have . . . who have proven sources” in the region.
Hoekstra contrasted the little the U.S. intelligence community actually knew about Iran, with the vast amount it didn’t know, and expressed admiration for Iran’s ability “to keep things secret from our intelligence community” and to carry out disinformation.
A series of conflicting events in Tehran in recent days has fueled fears that the U.S. intelligence community lacks sources to get a clear understanding of what is really going on behind the scenes.
Ahmadinejad’s public statements on Tuesday caught many observers off guard, especially when he suggested that the NIE had opened the way “for the resolution of basic issues in the region” and specifically for renewed relations between the U.S. and Iran.
Newsmax sources in Tehran believe that Ahmadinejad has come out on top of a recent power struggle with his chief rival, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who has portrayed himself as a “pragmatist” willing to come to an accommodation with the West.
But other sources believe that Rafsanjani continues to play a major role in checking Ahmadinejad’s power, and could succeed in toppling him before his presidential term expires in the spring of 2009.
On Wednesday, Rafsanjani said that he believed the NIE had been “issued either by the Democrats or independent groups,” since it concluded that Iran did not intend to acquire nuclear weapons.
One clear sign of the behind-the-scenes jockeying for power was the forced resignation last week of a Rafsanjani protégé, Gen. Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, from his position as deputy interior minister in charge of intelligence affairs.
Gen. Zolqadr, a former deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, rallied to the Rafsanjani camp along with his former boss, Gen. Mohsen Rezai.
He is best known for his role in providing training and support to al-Qaida during the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden was still based in the Sudan, as I reported in my 2005 book, Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.
Adding to the confusion were rumors of a foiled assassination plot against Rafsanjani last week, when his convoy was attacked by armed men who succeeding in wounding two bodyguards. Apparently forewarned, Rafsanjani was traveling separately in an unmarked car when the convoy was attacked.
Ahmadinejad was summoned to the residence of Supreme Leader ayatollah Khamenei on Thursday, Dec. 6, during the early morning hours, just as the Zolqadr controversy was brewing.
He cut short an official visit to Ilam province to make the meeting and was accompanied by body guards from the Ansar-e Mehdi, a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps that is personally loyal to him.
“The regime is nervous that the US and the Europeans have spies inside the nuclear program,” said Sardar Haddad, an Iranian dissident living in the United States.
The shadowy kabuki dance would appear to be an effort to smoke out the positions – and the vulnerabilities - of various Iranian leaders.
Haddad pointed to the arrest earlier this year of former nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian, whom Ahmadinejad accused in public of being an American spy.
“The Mousavian business is serious. He has been attacked because he is close to Rafsanjani,” Haddad told Newsmax.
According to one interpretation, each faction in Tehran is trying to blame the other for having leaked real information that wound up in the NIE. According to another, each side is trying to take credit for having passed off false information to the CIA.
Despite the spying charges, Moussavian was later released, a move seen in Tehran as a defeat for Ahmadinejad and his faction.
“It is true that they have rolled up U.S. [intelligence] networks in Iran,” said Haddad. “But they have also found people who were just about to defect, and have given them bogus info to feed to the Americans and to other intelligence services, to give a wrong impression of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
Reading the Tehran tea leaves is becoming an art as complex as Kremlinology, a major CIA pastime during the Cold War.
But for some observers, the nuances make little practical difference.
On Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said there was no doubt that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, despite what the NIE claimed. “Everyone agrees that what the Iranians are doing has no civilian explanation,” he told the French weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur. “The only debate is whether they will have military capability in one year or in five years."
California Democrat Brad Sherman, speaking in Washington, agreed. “It doesn’t matter” whether the NIE is accurate or not in its central conclusion that Iran shut down a secret military program in late 2003, he said on Wednesday.
“What is important is what’s going on in Natanz,” where Iran continues to enrich uranium. “This is giving them the capability to build a nuclear bomb.”
Echoing Sarkozy, he said that the Natanz plant “has no possible reason for existence except as part of a nuclear weapons program.”
Rep. Sherman believed Iran would chose to build a nuclear weapon that “can be smuggled” into the United States rather than a missile. “Why? Because it gives them deniability.”
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