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Iran and the Intelligence Process

7 December 2007

Iran and the Intelligence Process

By Gwynne Dyer

For four years the Bush administration told us that Iran must be subject to sanctions, and maybe to military attack, because it was secretly working on nuclear weapons. Suddenly, last week, the US intelligence agencies tell President Bush that for the past four years Iran has NOT been working on nuclear weapons. So he announces that unless Iran abandons its civil nuclear power program it must be subject to sanctions and maybe to military attack anyway, because “what’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons programme?”

Even the sixteen US intelligence agencies (sixteen!) that produce the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) didn’t expect to shake Bush’s determination to go after Iran. That’s why they insisted that the new NIE be declassified and published so quickly. It was a pre-emptive strike against the White House, to make it more difficult politically for Bush to press ahead despite the evidence.

Like the US armed forces, the intelligence services are in a state of near-mutiny as they watch President Bush drag the country towards another unnecessary and unwinnable war. But how come the same intelligence agencies were telling us two years ago with “high confidence” that Iran was developing nuclear weapons?

I have been saying in this column all along (with moderate confidence) that Iran probably has no immediate intention of developing nuclear weapons. A few other people have been saying it, too, of course, and if they come forward I’ll gladly join them in a bid to take over the provision of strategic intelligence to the US government.

We’d do it for half the current budget, give back a billion dollars every time we got it wrong, and still end up rolling in wealth. Because the intelligence agencies have a huge and cumbersome array of electronic and human “assets” that feed them a torrent of mostly irrelevant or misleading information in little bits and bites, whereas we outsiders just apply common sense and a little local knowledge to the process.

Common sense is no help at all when you are trying to figure out radio frequencies, missile ranges, and all the other technical details that the military want to know about the armed forces of a potential opponent. For that, you need electronic intelligence-gathering and/or spies. STRATEGIC intelligence is a quite different matter, however, and here all the clutter of electronic and human data must be subordinated to a political analysis of the other country’s interests and intentions. But that rarely happens in practice.

Take the comment in the latest NIE that the suspension of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme in 2003 in response to international pressure showed that Tehran’s decisions “are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.” Gosh, what a revelation! And here we all thought that the Iranian regime were a bunch of mad mullahs who desired nothing more than nuclear martyrdom.

Well, not all of us thought that, but I suspect that the political analysis of the Tehran regime’s goals and strategies inside the US intelligence agencies did not rise far above that level. Whereas if you just assume that the people running Iran are rational human beings and put yourself in their shoes, you can pretty easily figure out what their strategic concerns and priorities will be.

Obviously, they wouldn’t dream of attacking Israel with nuclear weapons even if they had any, because that would unleash a nuclear Armageddon on their own country. Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, and the only imaginable use for a few Iranian ones would be to deter Israel from a first strike because of the risk of Iranian retaliation. And why would Iran suddenly want such a deterrent now, when it has been a target for Israeli nuclear weapons for at least thirty years?

We know that Ayatollah Khomeini cancelled the Shah’s nuclear weapons programme after the revolution in 1979 because it was “un-Islamic.” We know that Tehran started the programme up again in the mid-80s during the Iran-Iraq war, when it became clear that Saddam Hussein was working on nuclear weapons, and that it stopped again after international inspectors declared Iraq nuclear-free in 1994. We think that it was re-started once more in 1999 or 2000, and now we are told that it stopped again in 2003. What was that about?

Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998 and then had a military coup, which must have worried the Iranians a lot. Then after 9/11 the United States began claiming that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons again, which must have frightened them even more. So Tehran started working on nuclear weapons yet again — and then stopped in 2003, after Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the United States and Pakistan turned out to be relatively stable after all.

That was also the year when it became known that Iran was working towards a full nuclear fuel cycle for its civil nuclear power programme. That’s quite legal, but as it also gives the possessor the potential ability to enrich uranium to weapons grade, Iran came under international pressure to stop — so it suspended the enrichment programme for three years and stopped the weapons programme.

It all makes sense, and you don’t need a single spy to figure it out. In fact, given the motives of most spies, you’re probably better off without them entirely.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Common…practice”; and “That…entirely”)

Iran: The Slow-Motion Crisis

5 August 2005

Iran: The Slow-Motion Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

Everybody will drag their feet as much as possible, because nobody, including the Bush administration, really wants the United States to attack Iran. There may be as much as eight to twelve more months of diplomatic manoeuvring before the crisis hits. But there is going to be a crisis, and it is going to be big and dangerous.

“We hope to restart work by the beginning of next week when preparations are complete,” said Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani last Wednesday. The seals on Iran’s uranium enrichment project, put into place last November when Tehran agreed to a temporary suspension of its programme to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle, will be removed as soon as the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency can get its surveillance equipment back into place in Isfahan.

The last offer of the “EU-3” (Britain, France and Germany) — a package of economic inducements designed to persuade Iran to abandon its ambitions — was duly delivered to Tehran on Friday, but that game is over. Rohani is leaving his job to make room for somebody more congenial to the new, hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran is calling the Europeans’ bluff. It may be calling the American bluff, too.

There is a significant possibility that President George W. Bush is bluffing when he hints that he might attack Iran if it doesn’t halt its nuclear fuel programme. He doesn’t actually say he will, just that all options are on the table — and his options are not actually very good.

It’s clear that the Bush administration, already up to its neck militarily in Iraq, is deeply reluctant to get into a war with Iran, and the best evidence for that is the recent US National Intelligence Estimate, which says that Iran is ten years away from developing nuclear weapons. Just six months ago, it was saying five years.

The US intelligence agencies whose estimates go into the NIE generally offer a range of possible conclusions, given the diversity and unreliability of intelligence sources. The administration that provides the agencies’ budgets can usually manipulate the process to highlight the conclusions that it prefers (as in the case of case of the invasion of Iraq). The fact that the NIE now says ten years, while Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, says three years, is a fairly reliable indication of the relative enthusiasm in the US and the Israeli governments for an attack on Iran.

Neither estimate need be true, of course. Iran insists that its civil nuclear power ambitions are not a cover for a nuclear weapons programme, and the fact that it has lots of oil does not prove that it is lying. It can make good economic sense to export oil for a huge profit and generate your own electricity: nobody says that Mexico must not build nuclear power plants. But the fact that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear enrichment capacity that would make nuclear weapons possible is deeply suspicious, since it would be far cheaper just to buy the enriched uranium abroad.

Iran probably does want nuclear weapons, or at least the option of developing them fairly quickly. Nevertheless, nothing that it is planning to do at the moment is in any way illegal or contrary to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which guarantees member states the right to develop civil nuclear power in return for the promise that they will not develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, it even promises them help in doing so.

So all the bold talk in Washington about hauling Iran before the United Nations Security Council and imposing sanctions on it is so much moonshine. The fact that Iran hid the size of its nuclear programme for some years, presumably in order not to attract unwelcome American attention, is suspicious, but none of the activities it hid were actually illegal. There is no legal case for sanctions against Iran, and the Security Council will not vote to impose them. Even if Washington could arm-twist its way to a majority vote in favour of sanctions, Russia and/or China would veto them.

What should President Bush do about this putative threat that is perhaps ten years away? The best answer might be nothing: Iran’s intentions are not certain, the government may be very different ten years from now, and any US military action now, without proof that Iran really is seeking nuclear weapons, would be completely illegal. But none of those considerations stopped Mr Bush from invading Iraq, and he is busily painting himself into a corner on this issue with his tongue. Might he actually do it again?

Attacking Iran would achieve nothing in military terms, since the United States lacks the spare military capacity to invade and occupy such a large country. All it could do is bomb Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities in Isfahan and elsewhere, and annoy Iranians to the point where they started causing trouble (and they could cause a great deal) in Iraq, the Gulf and the wider Middle East.

It would alienate even America’s most loyal allies by its sheer lawlessness, and it wouldn’t play very well at home either. Americans are turning against the cost and futility of the war in Iraq, and they will not be up for another. There will be mid-term Congressional elections next year, so that should be a decisive factor. But the truth is that nobody knows what Mr Bush will do — probably not even he himself. We live in interesting times.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“The last…too”; and “Neither…abroad”)