Intelligence chiefs fear nuclear war between Israel and Tehran
Philip DorlingDecember 13, 2010
The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo: REUTERS/Joseph Eid
AUSTRALIAN intelligence agencies fear that Israel might launch military strikes against Iran and that Tehran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities could draw the US and Australia into a potential nuclear war in the Middle East.
Australia's top intelligence agency has also privately undercut the hardline stance towards Tehran of the United States, Israeli and Australian governments, saying that Iran's nuclear program is intended to deter attack and that it is a mistake to regard Iran as a ''rogue state''.
The warnings about the dangers of nuclear conflict in the Middle East are given in a secret US embassy cable obtained by WikiLeaks and provided exclusively to the Herald. They reflect views obtained by US intelligence liaison officers in Canberra from across the range of Australian intelligence agencies.
"The AIC's [Australian intelligence community's] leading concerns with respect to Iran's nuclear ambitions centre on understanding the time frame of a possible weapons capability, and working with the United States to prevent Israel from independently launching unco-ordinated military strikes against Iran,'' the US embassy in Canberra reported to Washington in March last year.
"They are immediately concerned that Iran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities would lead to a conventional war - or even nuclear exchange - in the Middle East involving the United States that would draw Australia into a conflict.''
Australian concerns about a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iran are also recorded in another US embassy cable, sent to Washington in December 2008, reporting on discussions between the then chief of Australia's top intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments (ONA), Peter Varghese, and the head of the US State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the assistant secretary of state, Randall Fort.
The embassy's report of the meeting, which included senior officers and analysts from both intelligence agencies, says that "ONA seniors and analysts were particularly interested in A/S Fort and INR's assessments on Israeli 'red lines' on Iran's nuclear program and the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities''.
A cable sent in July 2008 further records that the former prime minister Kevin Rudd was ''deeply worried'' that the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's intransigence concerning Tehran's nuclear program meant that the window for a diplomatic solution was closing and that "Israel may feel forced to use 'non-diplomatic' means".
Last week Mr Rudd called on Israel, which has a large undeclared nuclear arsenal, to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as part of a broader effort to head off the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and to establish the Middle East as a nuclear weapon-free zone.
The US embassy's report in March last year told Washington the Australian government was "more broadly concerned about the potential for renewed nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, driving south-east Asian states to abandon the [nuclear non-proliferation treaty] and pursue their own nuclear capabilities, which could introduce a direct threat to the Australian homeland".
Australian intelligence views on Iran were solicited by US officials in response to a request from Washington to ascertain reactions to the possibility that the US might seek to engage Tehran in dialogue on security.
The cables confirm the presence in Canberra of representatives of all US national intelligence agencies - the CIA, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospatial Agency, Defence Intelligence Agency and the FBI.
US intelligence liaison officers engaged all their Australian counterpart agencies on the Iran question - including ONA, the office of the National Security Adviser, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Defence Intelligence Organisation, the Defence Signals Directorate, the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
In its July 2009 report to Washington, the embassy noted that the Australian intelligence community "has increased its collection and analytic efforts on Iran over the past decade, demonstrating Australia's strategic commitment to engage substantively as a significant US partner on Iran''.
US diplomats expressed "high confidence'' that the Australian government would have no objections to US efforts to engage Iran, noting that while Australian troops remained stationed in Afghanistan "the Australians will look to increased US engagement with Iran to improve upon creating a realistic framework for an accelerated reduction and eventual cessation of Iranian support to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and related groups, and Hezbollah. Simultaneously, Australia will look for increased US-Iranian engagement to lead to a more stable governance environment for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the Levant''.
The cable on the December 2008 intelligence exchange on Iran reported Mr Varghese's view that possible conflict between Israel and Iran "clearly represented the greatest challenge to [Middle East] stability - and ONA was focusing most of its attention on Tehran because of it''.
ONA analysts expressed the view that the Iranian government appeared determined to acquire nuclear weapons, though this would probably be driven by the desire to deter Israel and the US than an intention to strike against other Middle East states.
"ONA viewed Tehran's nuclear program within the paradigm of 'the laws of deterrence', noting that Iran's ability to produce a weapon may be 'enough' to meet its security objectives,'' the US embassy reported to Washington.
"Nevertheless, Australian intelligence viewed Tehran's pursuit of full self-sufficiency in the nuclear fuel cycle, long-standing covert weapons program, and continued work on delivery systems as strong indicators that Tehran's preferred end state included a nuclear arsenal.''
ONA analysts told their US counterparts that they were not alone in this assessment, asserting "while China and Russia remain opposed to it, they view Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons as inevitable''.
But ONA urged a balanced view of Tehran as a sophisticated diplomatic player rather than a "rogue state" liable to behave impulsively or irrationally. Mr Varghese said ONA was telling the Australian government: ''It's a mistake to think of Iran as a 'rogue state'.''
The embassy cable reported: ''ONA analysts assessed that Tehran 'knows' about its lack of certain capabilities, but plays 'beyond its hand' very skilfully. ONA analysts commented that Iran's Persian culture was a key factor in understanding its strategic behaviour, commenting that a 'mixture of hubris and paranoia' pervades Iranian attitudes that in turn shape Tehran's threat perceptions and policies.
"ONA judged that Iran's activities in Iraq - both overt and covert - represented an extreme manifestation of Iranian strategic calculus, designed to 'outflank' the US in the region."
However, the Australian intelligence analysts "asserted that 20 years of hostility [towards the US] and associated rhetoric aside, regime attitudes 'have fairly shallow roots', and the most effective means by which Tehran could ensure its national security would be a strategic relationship with the US via some 'grand bargain'.''