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Monday, December 17

When rationality takes a back seat to uncertainty and fear: the Orleans Rumor finds echoes in the NIE rumors

I'm proud to note that my fun with General Baluyevsky made it onto Zenpundit's coveted Recommended Reading list. Zenpundit had these comments about the post:
Pundita summarizes the serpentine shifts of the Russian MoD under Putin on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. I haven’t commented on the NIE much because the nine page declassified key assessments represents less than 10% of the NIE itself. Years of watching historians arrive at starkly different interpretations of identical primary sources makes me chary of accepting or rejecting reasoning I cannot cross-check myself.
I like the evocative "serpentine shifts" and I couldn't agree more with Zenpundit's rational reluctance to analyze the NIE. The problem is that within hours of the NIE publication, rationality had fallen by the wayside. Political factions, pundits, journalists, and droves of unnamed officials and their unnamed sources leaped to interpret the reasons for the NIE's conclusions and publication.

Within 15 days of the NIE's publication, the situation has taken on overtones of the infamous Orleans Rumor incident. The Orleans incident saw thousands of otherwise sane French citizens convinced on no evidence whatsoever that a gang was kidnapping Orleans girls and selling them into slavery.

DEBKAfile helped stoke fears about the NIE's implications by listing what they termed "repercussions" of Washington's "about face" on Iran's nuclear weapons threat:
DEBKAfile's sources disclose that Iran’s extremist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began purging the Iranian leadership of his opponents, emboldened by what he perceived as the victory of the intransigent nuclear policy he and the Revolutionary Guards had pursued.

Still in crowing mode, Iran’s oil minister Gholam Hossein Nozari announced Saturday, Dec. 8, the cessation of oil transactions in US dollars. He labeled the greenbacks an “unreliable” currency.

Less than 24 hours after the NIE was released, the Kremlin announced resumption of Russian work to finish Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr and the consignment of nuclear fuel.

In Lebanon, the Hizballah opened the door for the election of chief of staff Gen. Michel Suleiman as president. To buy a stable Beirut government, Washington accepted a pro-Syrian Hizballah sympathizer as president.

The prospects of tough UN sanctions against Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium dimmed dramatically. The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said there is no point in the light of the US intelligence reassessment. Saturday, the Iranian ambassador in Tokyo invited Japanese investors to put their money in Iranian oil production which he said could be expanded by 30 percent. Tehran has clearly lost its fear of international economic sanctions.
It is irrational, and just plain bad reporting, to identify a cause-and-effect relationship between the NIE and such situations. It is a matter of public record that:

> Ahmadinejad had begun the purge months prior to the NIE publication.

> Iran's oil ministry had been preparing for more than a year to abandon the petrodollar.

> Washington had been backing away from Fouad Siniora's government months prior to the NIE publication.

> Russia had started and stopped their work on Bushehr several times over a period of years over a matter of money, and

> Tougher sanctions against Iran would be a tough sell even without the NIE judgment that Iran had abandoned their nuclear weapons program.

The DEBKAfile post linked above also stoked the rumor that the NIE represented a clandestine bargain between Iran and the United States that was brokered by Saudi Arabia. Not to be outdone:
Saudi journalist Jihad El-Khazen gave his version of the course of events in the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat:

"Here is what happened: The rate of violent acts dropped in Iraq; therefore the American intelligence services discovered that Iran had halted its military nuclear program in 2003. This means that the resumption of violence will make American intelligence services find out that there is a secret military program that is different from the peaceful and famous one.

The Saudi reporter went on to ask: "Is there a deal between the Bush administration and Iran? I cannot categorically assert that a deal was concluded between the two parties through direct negotiations; however, there is an understanding resulting in the 2007 national intelligence report.”(1)
There are close parallels between the underlying reasons for the Orleans incident and rumors about the NIE's implications:

Both situations rose on fears about war (in the Orleans case, fear of war with the Soviet Union), uncertainty about a pivotal upcoming national election, and uncertainty fueled by rapid changes in society.

The worst that might have occurred as a consequence of the Orleans Rumor, which began as a prank by a group of schoolgirls, is that some shop owners (who were rumored to be aiding the rumored kidnappers) would have been hurt and their shops wrecked.

We've not seen the worst that might occur from rumors about the NIE's publication, but the threat of another war is worrisome enough. On Saturday the Associated Press reported:
... a senior Israeli Cabinet minister who once headed Israel's internal security agency issued the country's harshest criticism yet of the U.S. intelligence report, calling it a "misconception" that threatened to lead to a surprise regional war.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter compared the possibility of such fighting to a surprise attack on Israel in 1973 by its Arab neighbors, which came to be known in Israel for the Yom Kippur Jewish holy day on which it began.

"The American misconception concerning Iran's nuclear weapons is liable to lead to a regional Yom Kippur where Israel will be among the countries that are threatened," Dichter said in a speech in a suburb south of Tel Aviv, according to his spokesman, Mati Gil. "Something went wrong in the American blueprint for analyzing the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat."
Once the election resolved uncertainty about France's direction, rational observers in Orleans finally made a dent in the Orleans Rumor, which then blew over as quickly as it had begun.

The NIE has played into uncertainties the world over about how US policy in the Middle East will change with a new US administration. Yet we are still many months from the US presidential election. Until then many national governments, including Israel's, will be trying to cover all bets and jockeying for the best position whatever the outcome of the US election.

1) DEBKAfile
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