Much Ado About... Everything

TEHRAN, IRAN - JULY 15:  Shahram Amiri speaks to journalists during a press conference after arriving at Imam Khomini Airport
TEHRAN, IRAN - JULY 15: Shahram Amiri speaks to journalists during a press conference after arriving at Imam Khomini Airport July 15, 2010 in Tehran, Iran. Iranian scientist, Shahram Amiri, has charged that he was abducted by the CIA in Saudi Arabia a year ago, harshly interrogated and taken to the U.S. The State Department denied that Amiri was kidnapped, saying he had been in the U.S. 'of his own free will' and was free to go. Amiri denied involvement in Iran's secretive nuclear program. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iran has been in the headlines lately, and not in a way that is complementary to the administration of President Obama or either of the major candidates seeking to replace him in office. First there was the report about a $400 million payment to Iran -- in cash -- in order to secure the release of Americans held prisoner in Tehran. Next there was a leaked document detailing the precise limitations placed on Iran's centrifuge operations as part of the nuclear agreement -- not nearly as restrictive, it turns out, as had been depicted by the Obama administration. And finally the tragic news out of Iran that Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear physicist who had defected to the United States under mysterious circumstances in 2009, only to return under equally mysterious circumstances in 2010, had been executed.

Iran bashers in the U.S. media immediately went on the attack, calling the $400 million payment a "ransom," denouncing the nuclear agreement as a little more than a "secret side deal" between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency that accelerates rather than retards Iran's pathway to a nuclear bomb, and linking Amiri's death to the decidedly unsecure e-mails sent on Hillary Clinton's private server. But fact is always more compelling than fiction, and the truth of these matters, upon closer scrutiny, shows that the events sold by the Iran bashers as clear-cut examples of misconstrued policy ("America doesn't engage in paying ransom for hostages"), Iranian duplicity ("the secret agreement will lead to instability and war") and further proof that Hillary Clinton cannot be trusted with national security secrets ("Clinton e-mail led to execution in Iran") were, in actuality, little more than tempests in a tea pot.

The $400 million involved in this case was Iran's own money. Since ransom implies the extortion of money by holding a prisoner hostage until the agreed upon sum of money is paid, the fact that the money involved was Iran's, illegally (as it turns out) held by the United States since 1979, and the release of which was negotiated separately from both the nuclear agreement and an Iranian-American prisoner exchange, undercuts any notion of a "ransom" being paid. Certainly, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck... but in this case, it doesn't. The issue at stake centered more on Iran's absolute distrust of the United States regarding the financial aspects of the broad U.S.-Iranian negotiation (and the fact that the United States continues to push for global restrictions on Iran's ability to access the international banking system only confirms Iranian concerns in this regard). The American prisoners were released on what was known as "implementation day", when the IAEA certified Iran's compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement, and international sanctions that had been linked to Iran's nuclear program were lifted. Side agreements, such as the release of the prisoners and the transfer of Iran's funds back to Iran, were tied to this event. The $400 million wasn't part of a secret quid pro quo deal, but rather part of a larger, much more complex implementation process tied to a single moment -- implementation day.

Likewise, there is nothing truly "secret" about the leaked Iran-IAEA document detailing Iran's plans to introduce more capable centrifuges as part of its uranium enrichment capacity after the 10-year mark of the nuclear agreement. The existence of the document was known by all -- its "secret" nature more a reflection of the reality that all agreements between the IAEA and member states about the safeguarding procedures involved in implementing the terms of the specific monitoring provisions required under the non-proliferation treaty are confidential matters between the IAEA and the member state involved. But the gist of the agreement, including Iran's ability to upgrade its centrifuges after the 10-year mark, was very much in the public domain. The intensive and intrusive inspection monitoring regime Iran agreed to as part of the nuclear deal will remain in place, and restrictions on how Iran can employ the upgraded centrifuges will remain in place for another 5-10 years after their installation. The leaked Iran-IAEA document only reinforces the reality that the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West is a well-conceived and properly implemented arrangement that adds to, rather than detracts from, regional and global stability.

The tragedy that was the life of Shahram Amiri had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or her unsecure e-mail server. It was Amiri who allowed himself to be wooed by the CIA, serving as an agent in place where he passed state secrets pertaining to the nature of his own work -- radioisotope research -- and his observations about the work of others. His own carelessness may have led to his role as a western agent being suspected by Iranian intelligence, leading to his contrived defection while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. His subsequent debriefings by American, European and Israeli intelligence services provided information that was acted on -- the U.S. dramatically revised its national intelligence estimate of Iran's nuclear capabilities while publicly "outing" what it termed a secret nuclear enrichment facility at Fordow (where Amiri occasionally worked), and Israel increased its assassination efforts targeting Iranian nuclear scientists known to Amiri. His decision to return to Iran, ostensibly because he missed his family, was termed by the CIA as "suicide," and it was. Amiri was executed because he betrayed his country, based upon information he himself provided to Iranian authorities during a lengthy interrogation process that lasted years. The Clinton emails, which do in fact refer to Amiri, had nothing whatsoever to do with determining his fate.

One could draw the conclusion that the headline-grabbing stories about Iran that dominated much of the news cycle this past month were, in fact, much ado about nothing -- no ransom, no secret agreement, no charges of murder levied against Hillary Clinton. Such a conclusion, however, can only be had through a shallow analysis of these events, where the lessons learned are driven by a narrative derived from a simple rebuttal of the baseless claims and charges leveled by the usual cast of Iran bashers (the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Donald Trump, Tom Cotton, etc.) But a deeper analysis shows something much more disturbing, especially for those -- the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton -- who feel they may have dodged a bullet through the collapse of the various conspiracy theories spun from the "ransom," "secret deal" and "Hillary killed Amiri" story lines. In fact, when these three stories are examined up close, one finds out that there was much ado about... everything.

One of the great myths of our time is that Iran was compelled to the nuclear negotiation table by stringent economic sanctions imposed on it by the West, led by the United States, and that under pressure, Iran was forced to "give up" its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Obama administration, this story goes (aided and abetted by none other than Hillary Clinton), saved the world from the threat of an Iranian nuclear menace. But this storyline, however compelling, is little more than pure fiction. It wasn't Iran that was dragged to the negotiation table, but rather the United States, and only after its carefully crafted house of cards argument about an Iranian nuclear threat collapsed under the weight of its own lies.

What the Amiri tragedy underscores more clearly than anything else is the fact that the United States had absolutely nothing -- nothing -- in the way of accurate, actionable intelligence about an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Iran had been denying the existence of such for years, but these denials fell on deaf ears when faced with a concerted disinformation campaign -- fed in large part by a mysterious laptop computer sourced to Iranian opposition forces -- that infected the nuclear safeguards process with notions of what was termed "possible military dimensions," or PMDs, to Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA and the West, despite its flimsy supporting narrative, embraced the PMD question as fact. The Amiri data, which many hoped to be the nail in the coffin of Iran's nuclear ambition, actually proved to be the needle that bled the air from the balloon that was the American-led allegations against Iran. Moreover, once Amiri returned to Iranian control, the United States knew the game was up -- his debriefing, which reverse-engineered the questions asked of Amiri by western intelligence, exposed the flimsy nature of the intelligence case against Iran. Simply put, the allegations against Iran were unsustainable, and as such the case for continued economic sanctions was collapsing. The Obama administration saw the writing on the wall, and pushed for a nuclear deal.

The "secret" deal between the IAEA and Iran reinforces one major point that most who comment on the Iranian nuclear agreement gloss over -- Iran got everything it wanted, and more, as a part of this deal. If one compares and contrasts the Iranian negotiating position in 2004 with the deal reached in 2015, one will see no movement on the part of Iran -- it insisted on retaining an indigenous uranium enrichment capability, and that is precisely what it got. The only thing that changed was that Iran's position became much stronger as time progressed -- Iran was willing to accept a very limited enrichment capability in 2004 of only a few hundred outdated centrifuges. By 2015, this number was in the thousands, with the ability to upgrade the quality of the centrifuges in ten years' time. The American position, however -- "not one spinning centrifuge" -- collapsed completely. The United States was forced to accept Iran's terms, because to not do so would have found the Americans and its allies confronting a reality where Iran had thousands of centrifuges, economic sanctions were crumbling to the point of ineffectiveness, and the fabricated intelligence case which "proved" Iran's nuclear weapons ambition would force a military confrontation. In the end, it was America's untruths, and not Iran's ambitions, which brought about the nuclear deal. The $400 million reimbursement issue was just the icing on the cake, proof positive that it was Iran who was calling the shots in the final moments of the deal.

This, of course, is not the narrative the Obama administration wants told on the nuclear agreement with Iran. Nor does it reflect well on Donald Trump's bombastic pledge to "rip up" the deal and renegotiate from a position of strength. Iran did the West a huge favor in signing the nuclear agreement, and got little in return. The United States continues to undermine Iran's economy by denying it full access to western banking systems, and by extension western markets, promised as a consequence of the nuclear deal. This was Iran's one big domestic draw for entering into a negotiated arrangement with a country it knew it couldn't trust -- the hope that the quality of life of its citizens would improve. The disingenuous implementation of the nuclear deal by the United States has only underscored the Iranian position, especially among the hardliners, that the United States can't be trusted on any issue linked to the improvement of relations between the two nations. The United States is, in the national psyche of Iran, the "Great Satan", and nothing the Obama administration has done can dissuade Iranians from embracing that notion. If Donald Trump wanted to walk away from the nuclear deal, Iran would only be too happy to help lead him to that door. Then the New York real estate mogul would find out what it means to be in a negotiation where you hold no cards and the other side is willing to walk.

As for Hillary Clinton and the Amiri emails, let there be no doubt -- while the former Secretary of State did not kill Amiri through her carelessness, she was very, very careless. The Amiri defection, like all such defections, was a highly classified affair. While Amiri was being run as an agent in place, his status and the information so derived would have been closely held at levels above Top Secret, involving compartmentalization requiring special access. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton would likely have been briefed on information gleaned from the Amiri recruitment, but more than likely not on the identity of the agent. Once Amiri defected, the classification level associated with his existence would decrease, but would not be eliminated. More than likely his status became "secret", with special considerations given to select nations who were involved in the joint debriefing program. This level of classification would have remained the same, or been upgraded, once Amiri entered the defector resettlement program -- even the Secretary of State wouldn't have a need to know about Amiri's whereabouts in the United States. While Amiri blew his own cover when he made his now-infamous YouTube video denouncing what he termed his "kidnapping," this did not absolve Hillary Clinton or any other official from their duty and responsibility regarding the handling of classified information. When Hillary Clinton and her aides discussed Amiri in their communications, there is no doubt that they were discussing classified information. She knew it, and those she communicated with knew it. Whether or not any foreign agents were exposed to this information by as-of-yet undiscovered "hacks" of her server is not the point. Whether such indiscretions serve to disqualify the former Secretary of State from becoming President of the United States is a matter for the American electorate. But one thing is clear -- these indiscretions did take place.

Scott Ritter is a former intelligence officer and weapons inspector. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West's Road to War, forthcoming from Clarity Press, Inc.