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”)