April 18, 2019 / 12:00 AM / 5 months ago

Exclusive: Dispute flares among U.S. officials over Trump administration Iran arms control report - sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - (This April 17 story has been refiled to add dropped word in paragraph four.)

FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

A new Trump administration report on international compliance with arms control accords provoked a dispute with U.S. intelligence agencies and some State Department officials concerned that the document politicizes and slants assessments about Iran, five sources with knowledge of the matter said.

U.S. President Donald Trump is intensifying a drive to contain Iran’s power in the Middle East, which has raised fears that his administration wants to topple the Tehran government or lay the groundwork to justify military action.

The administration says it is trying to halt Iranian “malign behavior” in its support for Islamist militants in the region and denies seeking the overthrow of the Islamic republic’s government.

The clash among U.S. officials emerged on Tuesday when the State Department posted on its website, and then removed, an unclassified version of an annual report to Congress assessing compliance with arms control agreements that the sources saw as skewed against Iran.

The report’s publication follows the administration’s formal designation on Monday of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s elite paramilitary and foreign espionage unit, as a foreign terrorist organization.

Washington also has piled on tough economic sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. The administration also is waging a propaganda campaign, including over social media, aimed at fueling popular anger against Iran’s government.

Several sources said the report, which reappeared without explanation on Wednesday, made them wonder if the administration was painting Iran in the darkest light possible, much as the George W. Bush administration used bogus and exaggerated intelligence to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A State Department spokeswoman defended the judgment on Iran, saying in an email that it was “informed by careful assessment of all relevant information.”

The report was published to meet a mandatory April 15 deadline by which it had to go to Congress, the department said. A more comprehensive unclassified version will be provided after the completion of a review of what information in the classified report can be made public, the spokeswoman said.

The department did not address the internal dispute over the report or concerns of politicization.

The unclassified “Adherence to and compliance with arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament agreements and commitments” report omitted assessments of Russian compliance with landmark accords such as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the New START arms control treaty.

The State Department spokeswoman said that the U.S. position that Russia is in violation of the INF Treaty “is clear.”

The report also failed to include detailed assessments published in previous years of whether Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Syria and other nations complied with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Instead, the report replaced those assessments with a five paragraph section entitled “country concerns.”

The section made no mention of judgments by U.S. intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran ended a nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has complied with the 2015 deal that imposed restrictions on its civilian nuclear program.

Instead, it said Iran’s retention of a nuclear archive disclosed last year by Israel raised questions about whether Tehran might have plans to resume a nuclear weapons program.

It added that any such effort would violate the NPT, as would any Iranian retention of undeclared nuclear material, though it offered no evidence that Iran had done either.

“It’s piling inference upon inference here to try to create a scary picture,” said a congressional aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, as did the other sources. The aide added that by stripping out much of the report’s normal content, the documents largely had become about Iran.

“There is significant concern that the entire sort of purpose ... was to help build a case for military intervention in Iran in a way that seems very familiar,” the source said, referring to the Bush administration’s use of erroneous intelligence before the invasion of Iraq 16 years ago that ousted President Saddam Hussein.

The 12-page report, down from last year’s 45-page document, reflected a disagreement between Assistant Secretary of State Yleem Poblete, whose office is charged with its drafting, and her boss, Undersecretary of State Andrea Thompson, three of the sources said.

Two sources said Poblete had sought to include information such as news stories and opinion pieces in the report, which traditionally is based on legal analyses of U.S. intelligence reports.

The State Department did not comment on Poblete’s role.

“And it had other obvious errors,” said a former U.S. official familiar with matter. A draft of the unclassified version had included classified information, the official said. “It’s been described to me as just a big food fight within the department over an initially inadequate draft.”

A second former U.S. official said he believed that the report was being used to advance the Trump administration’s views on Iran rather than to reflect information gathered by intelligence agencies and assessments of that information by State Department experts.

“This ‘trends’ section is adding a political tinge or politicizing the report,” said the fourth source on condition of anonymity, saying the administration seemed to be using a once objective report “to back up subjective assertions.”

While saying they did not know why the report had been so abbreviated, removed and then restored from the website, analysts asked if there was an effort underway to demonize Iran.

“The worst case of course would be that we are observing signs of a politicization of intelligence for the purpose of serving what the top of the administration would like to accomplish,” said nuclear expert Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

“We have seen ... that in the past with the (Iraq) war,” he said. “This is a potential warning sign about that.”

Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool

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