By George Friedman
Two major leaks occurred this weekend over the Iran matter.
In the first, The New York Times published an article reporting that
staff at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.
nuclear oversight group, had produced an unreleased report saying that
Iran was much more advanced in its nuclear program than the IAEA had
thought previously. According to the report, Iran now has all the data
needed to design a nuclear weapon. The New York Times article added
that U.S. intelligence was re-examining the National Intelligence
Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which had stated that Iran was not actively
pursuing a nuclear weapon.
The second leak occurred in the British paper The Sunday Times, which reported that the purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly publicized secret visit to Moscow
on Sept. 7 was to provide the Russians with a list of Russian
scientists and engineers working on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The second revelation was directly tied to the first. There were many, including STRATFOR, who felt that Iran did not have the non-nuclear disciplines needed for rapid progress toward a nuclear device.
Putting the two pieces together, the presence of Russian personnel in
Iran would mean that the Iranians had obtained the needed expertise
from the Russians. It would also mean that the Russians were not merely
a factor in whether there would be effective sanctions but also in
whether and when the Iranians would obtain a nuclear weapon.
We would guess that the leak to The New York Times came from U.S.
government sources, because that seems to be a prime vector of leaks
from the Obama administration and because the article contained
information on the NIE review. Given that National Security Adviser
James Jones tended to dismiss the report on Sunday television, we would
guess the report leaked from elsewhere in the administration. The
Sunday Times leak could have come from multiple sources, but we have
noted a tendency of the Israelis to leak through the British daily on
national security issues. (The article contained substantial details on
the visit and appeared written from the Israeli point of view.) Neither
leak can be taken at face value, of course. But it is clear that these
were deliberate leaks — people rarely risk felony charges leaking such
highly classified material — and even if they were not coordinated,
they delivered the same message, true or not.
The Iranian Time Frame and the Russian Role
The message was twofold. First, previous assumptions on time frames
on Iran are no longer valid, and worst-case assumptions must now be
assumed. The Iranians are in fact moving rapidly toward a weapon; have
been extremely effective at deceiving U.S. intelligence (read, they
deceived the Bush administration, but the Obama administration has
figured it out); and therefore, we are moving toward a decisive moment
with Iran. Second, this situation is the direct responsibility of
Russian nuclear expertise. Whether this expertise came from former
employees of the Russian nuclear establishment now looking for work,
Russian officials assigned to Iran or unemployed scientists sent to
Iran by the Russians is immaterial. The Israelis — and the Obama
administration — must hold the Russians responsible for the current
state of Iran’s weapons program, and by extension, Moscow bears
responsibility for any actions that Israel or the United States might
take to solve the problem.
We would suspect that the leaks were coordinated. From the Israeli
point of view, having said publicly that they are prepared to follow
the American lead and allow this phase of diplomacy to play out, there
clearly had to be more going on than just last week’s Geneva talks.
From the American point of view, while the Russians have indicated that
participating in sanctions on gasoline imports by Iran is not out of
the question, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did not clearly state that Russia would cooperate,
nor has anything been heard from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
on the subject. The Russian leadership appears to be playing “good cop,
bad cop” on the matter, and the credibility of anything they say on
Iran has little weight in Washington.
It would seem to us that the United States and Israel decided to up
the ante fairly dramatically in the wake of the Oct. 1 meeting with
Iran in Geneva. As IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei visits Iran, massive new
urgency has now been added to the issue. But we must remember that Iran
knows whether it has had help from Russian scientists; that is
something that can’t be bluffed. Given that this specific charge has
been made — and as of Monday not challenged by Iran or Russia —
indicates to us more is going on than an attempt to bluff the Iranians
into concessions. Unless the two leaks together are completely bogus,
and we doubt that, the United States and Israel are leaking information
already well known to the Iranians. They are telling Tehran that its
deception campaign has been penetrated, and by extension are telling it
that it faces military action — particularly if massive sanctions are
impractical because of more Russian obstruction.
If Netanyahu went to Moscow to deliver this intelligence to the
Russians, the only surprise would have been the degree to which the
Israelis had penetrated the program, not that the Russians were there.
The Russian intelligence services are superbly competent, and keep
track of stray nuclear scientists carefully. They would not be
surprised by the charge, only by Israel’s knowledge of it.
This, of course leaves open an enormous question. Certainly, the
Russians appear to have worked with the Iranians on some security
issues and have played with the idea of providing the Iranians more
substantial military equipment. But deliberately aiding Iran in
building a nuclear device seems beyond Russia’s interests in two ways.
First, while Russia wants to goad the United States, it does not itself
really want a nuclear Iran. Second, in goading the United States, the
Russians know not to go too far; helping Iran build a nuclear weapon
would clearly cross a redline, triggering reactions.
A number of possible explanations present themselves. The leak to
The Sunday Times might be wrong. But The Sunday Times is not a careless
newspaper: It accepts leaks only from certified sources. The Russian
scientists might be private citizens accepting Iranian employment. But
while this is possible, Moscow is very careful about what Russian
nuclear engineers do with their time. Or the Russians might be
providing enough help to goad the United States but not enough to ever
complete the job. Whatever the explanation, the leaks paint the
Russians as more reckless than they have appeared, assuming the leaks
And whatever their veracity, the leaks — the content of which clearly was discussed in detail among the P-5+1
prior to and during the Geneva meetings, regardless of how long they
have been known by Western intelligence — were made for two reasons.
The first was to tell the Iranians that the nuclear situation is now
about to get out of hand, and that attempting to manage the
negotiations through endless delays will fail because the United
Nations is aware of just how far Tehran has come with its weapons
program. The second was to tell Moscow that the issue is no longer
whether the Russians will cooperate on sanctions, but the consequence
to Russia’s relations with the United States and at least the United
Kingdom, France and, most important, possibly Germany. If these leaks
are true, they are game changers.
We have focused on the Iranian situation
not because it is significant in itself, but because it touches on a
great number of other crucial international issues. It is now entangled
in the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese issues,
all of them high-stakes matters. It is entangled in Russian relations
with Europe and the United States. It is entangled in U.S.-European
relationships and with relationships within Europe. It touches on the
U.S.-Chinese relationship. It even touches on U.S. relations with
Venezuela and some other Latin American countries. It is becoming the
Gordian knot of international relations.
STRATFOR first focused on the Russian connection with Iran in the wake of the Iranian elections and resulting unrest, when a crowd of Rafsanjani supporters began chanting “Death to Russia,”
not one of the top-10 chants in Iran. That caused us to focus on the
cooperation between Russia and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on security matters. We were
aware of some degree of technical cooperation on military hardware, and
of course on Russian involvement in Iran’s civilian nuclear program. We
were also of the view that the Iranians were unlikely to progress
quickly with their nuclear program. We were not aware that Russian
scientists were directly involved in Iran’s military nuclear project,
which is not surprising, given that such involvement would be Iran’s
single-most important state secret — and Russia’s, too.
A Question of Timing
But there is a mystery here as well. To have any impact, the Russian involvement
must have been under way for years. The United States has tried to
track rogue nuclear scientists and engineers — anyone who could
contribute to nuclear proliferation — since the 1990s. The Israelis
must have had their own program on this, too. Both countries, as well
as European intelligence services, were focused on Iran’s program and
the whereabouts of Russian scientists. It is hard to believe that they
only just now found out. If we were to guess, we would say Russian involvement has been under way
since just after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when the Russians
decided that the United States was a direct threat to its national
Therefore, the decision suddenly to confront the Russians, and
suddenly to leak U.N. reports — much more valuable than U.S. reports,
which are easier for the Europeans to ignore — cannot simply be because
the United States and Israel just obtained this information. The IAEA,
hostile to the United States since the invasion of Iraq and very much
under the influence of the Europeans, must have decided to shift its evaluation of Iran.
But far more significant is the willingness of the Israelis first to
confront the Russians and then leak about Russian involvement,
something that obviously compromises Israeli sources and methods. And
that means the Israelis no longer consider the preservation of their
intelligence operation in Iran (or wherever it was carried out) as of
Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Israelis no longer need to add to their knowledge of Russian involvement; they know what they need to know.
And second, the Israelis do not expect Iranian development to continue
much longer; otherwise, maintaining the intelligence capability would
take precedence over anything else.
It follows from this that the use of this intelligence in diplomatic
confrontations with Russians and in a British newspaper serves a
greater purpose than the integrity of the source system. And that means
that the Israelis expect a resolution in the very near future — the
only reason they would have blown their penetration of the Russian-Iranian system.
There are two possible outcomes here. The first is that having
revealed the extent of the Iranian program and having revealed the
Russian role in a credible British newspaper, the Israelis and the
Americans (whose own leak in The New York Times underlined the growing
urgency of action) are hoping that the Iranians realize that they are
facing war and that the Russians realize that they are facing a massive
crisis in their relations with the West. If that happens, then the
Russians might pull their scientists and engineers, join in the
sanctions and force the Iranians to abandon their program.
The second possibility is that the Russians will continue to play
the spoiler on sanctions and will insist that they are not giving
support to the Iranians. This leaves the military option, which would
mean broad-based action, primarily by the United States, against Iran’s
nuclear facilities. Any military operation would involve keeping the
Strait of Hormuz clear, meaning naval action, and we now know that
there are more nuclear facilities than previously discussed. So while
the war for the most part would be confined to the air and sea, it
would be extensive nonetheless.
Sanctions or war remain the two options,
and which one is chosen depends on Moscow’s actions. The leaks this
weekend have made clear that the United States and Israel have
positioned themselves such that not much time remains. We have now
moved from a view of Iran as a long-term threat to Iran as a much more
immediate threat thanks to the Russians.
The least that can be said about this is that the Obama
administration and Israel are trying to reshape the negotiations with
the Iranians and Russians. The most that can be said is that the
Americans and Israelis are preparing the public for war. Polls now
indicate that more than 60 percent of the U.S. public now favors
military action against Iran. From a political point of view, it has
become easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to act than to not act.
This, too, is being transmitted to the Iranians and Russians.
It is not clear to us that the Russians or Iranians are getting the
message yet. They have convinced themselves that Obama is unlikely to
act because he is weak at home and already has too many issues to
juggle. This is a case where a reputation for being conciliatory
actually increases the chances for war. But the leaks this weekend have
strikingly limited the options and timelines of the United States and
Israel. They also have put the spotlight on Obama at a time when he
already is struggling with health care and Afghanistan. History is
rarely considerate of presidential plans, and in this case, the leaks
have started to force Obama’s hand.
This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to www.stratfor.com