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Thursday, April 27, 2006

The CIA and Iran 

My esteemed co-blogger Cardinalpark observed a couple of days ago that the CIA's quite obvious bureaucratic war against the policies of the elected President of the United States is at least as much the product of that agency's seemingly dismal track record -- particularly with regard to al Qaeda and Iraq -- as its heartfelt belief in truth, justice and the American way. The fact of that history of error and the effort that a certain faction within the Agency seems to have expended to distract our attention from that history causes one to worry about how well we understand Iran. Indeed, the CIA's experience in interpreting threats from that country is none too comforting.

Mark Bowden's excellent new book on Iran, Guests of the Ayatollah : The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam, which I bought in San Francisco's airport this afternoon, contains this bit about the capture of the American embassy in Tehran:
In retrospect, it was all too predictable. An operating American embassy in the heart of revolutionary Iran's capital was too much for Tehran's aroused citizenry to bear. It had to go. It was a symbol of everthing the nascent upheaval hated and feared. Washington's underestimation of the danger was just part of a larger failure; it had not foreseen the gathering threat to its longtime Cold War ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the now reviled, self-exiled shah. A CIA analysis in August 1978, just six months before Pahlavi fled Iran for good, had concluded that the country "is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation." A year and a revolution later America was still underestimating the power and vision of the mullahs behind it. Like most of the great turning points in history, it was obvious and yet no one saw it coming.

Oops.

The point is not so much to bash the CIA -- I appreciate that there are lots of smart analysts whose insight is lost or dulled in the bureaucratic process of developing a consensus intelligence estimate -- but to remember that we have tended to estimate the most important threats in that part of the world incorrectly. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is, well, an estimate of the time it will take for Iran to develop an atomic bomb. The NIE cannot, by definition, tell us what our policy ought to be.

13 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Apr 27, 06:57:00 AM:

The point is not so much to bash the CIA but to remember that we have tended to estimate the most important threats in that part of the world incorrectly

Absolutely right. They tend to see WMD threats which do not, in fact, exist. Like, say, Iraq. In other words, they overestimate.
So when the CIA says "Iran is ten years away from building a nuclear weapon", a sensible person would say "Well, looking at how badly you fouled up on Iraqi WMD, Iran is probably not even building a nuke at all."

And, when faced with the elected President etc. and his cabinet saying that there is a "grave and growing" threat, and making references to mushroom clouds, a sensible person should say "Hang on, I've heard this before, and it turned out to be even wronger than what the CIA said." Remember the Team B analysis of the USSR. How wrong was that?

Let's just take four things on board.

1) Iran has no nuclear weapons. Thus, it is not currently in a position to 1a) nuke New York 1b) give a nuclear weapon to al-Qaeda 1c) incinerate Tel Aviv - or anything else which involves having nuclear weapons.

2) The NIE says that there is no information linking Iranian nuclear research to a nuclear weapons program.

3) Iran has an inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear research programme. This right was affirmed in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by both the USA and Iran. As an international treaty, the NPT is defined by the Constitution as US law.

4) The IAEA has also found no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Now, I am sure that people will point out that the CIA, the DIA, the NRO, the NSA, State Department Intelligence, the DOE and the IAEA - not to mention the foreign intelligence services who cooperate with the US - could all have completely missed it. But it's then incumbent on them to lay out the evidence which would convince them. Because we are getting into what Carl Sagan would call "invisible dragon" territory.

If you say there is an invisible, immaterial, heatless, weightless dragon in your garage, then two points arise: first, there is no test I can do that can prove you wrong; and second, why exactly are you so sure it's there in the first place?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Apr 27, 07:13:00 AM:

Prior editions of the NIE underestimated Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

As for Iran, I agree that estimates are all over the map. There are two reasons that people are nervous about Iran's passion for nuclear power.

First, there is no good legitimate reason for the power program. The shah initiated the program because the Iranian power grid sucked, and he wanted to export a higher percentage of the oil he pumped. Since then, Iran has discovered vast natural gas reserves, enough to power the country for an extremely long time. The benefit of a nuclear power program today is not even close to its costs. So why the program?

Second, Iran could develop even a nuclear power program with technologies that are far harder to weaponize. It has chosen particularly suspicious "dual use" technology. I am not an expert, but see this post.  

By Blogger allen, at Thu Apr 27, 07:36:00 AM:

“what our policy ought to be”

A policy requires a premise. The Islamic Republic of Iranian has been in a de facto state of war with the United States since 1979. For its part, the United States, under the administrations of five presidents, has been unable or unwilling to reciprocate in a rational, consistent, or serious manner. Consequently, unless and until this failure of will is rectified, I cannot see a meaningful policy formulation, quality of intelligence notwithstanding.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Apr 27, 09:51:00 AM:

A policy requires a premise.

Uhuh. Or a rational set of them. And one premise is that liberal democracy is better than totalitarian rule. As to what our policy should be with respect to that premise is still in debate, although speaking directly to the people of Iran in his 2006 State of the Union Address, the President said, "America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran."

Respect and hopes are all well and good, but the problem remains: How do our presumptive closest of friends "win their own freedom" in the face of the kind of control and oppression that currently exists in Iran? Should our policy move beyond mouthing blandishments to embrace some more active kind of support?

I don't know, but at the same time I don't know why not.  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Thu Apr 27, 02:12:00 PM:

A couple of points.

I really don't want to take the gamble that "anon" proposes. I'm worried about Iran's behavior.

Next, why do so many assume that the CIA is doing nothing?

yes the CIA hasn't handled the "big picture" stuff so well, but I'm not convinced that this is the best use of the agency.

We need tactical CIA stuff. And I believe that we're getting some. Of course we don't know about it, that's the point.  

By Blogger Mark White, at Thu Apr 27, 02:53:00 PM:

The CIA doesn't seem to have a very good handle on Iran, but then, that doesn't mean the whole security establishment is clueless. The Marines seem to have a very good idea about what's important in Iran:

http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/intervention/iran/general/2006/0224marinesiran.htm

The Persians running Iran often run roughshod over the minority populations in the Iranian Empire, creating an opening for the US to liberate Iran's Arabs and defund the mullah's nuclear program (since the Arabs are concentrated as a majority in the one Iranian province that produces most Iranian oil). With the Army coming in overland and the Marines coming off the sea, a pincer movement could quickly cut off the Persians over the Zagros Mountains in Tehran, uniting Iran's Shiite Arabs with their moderate brethren in Iraq.

The Marines' research tells them exactly who can lead these Ahwazi Arabs into a new Shiite Arab federation uniting the Shiite Arab populations all around the Persian Gulf -- Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia (the Saudi Shiite majority in the oil-producing Eastern Province are quite ready for liberation as well) -- with Anglosphere + Japan tutelage on oil production and infrastructure spending.

With no oil, the Persian mullahs will no longer have money for nuclear scientists to build and operate centrifuges and reactors to produce the enriched uranium and plutonium they'll need for their bomb designs. Nor will they have money to fund Hezbollah abroad and Revolutionary Guards at home. And taking Saudi Arabia's heavily-Shiite oil-producing Eastern Province at the same time will defund the Saudi Wahhabis with their al Quaida terrorists, their radical clerics, and their own nuclear ambitions. You can bet the Marines know something about that as well.

And lest you doubt we can do this, just remember how much bigger an operation taking all of Iraq was compared to taking a couple of provinces, and how friendly a reception we got from Shiite Arabs who had long suffered under Sunni domination. And when we do it, we'll cut off funds Sunni Arabs and Shiite Persians are using to cause us trouble in Iraq and elsewhere. As Tigerhawk's post on the Tanker War reminds us, Iranian naval forces were even less effective against us than Iraqi ground forces, so we can expect a rollover if Iranian and Saudi forces foolishly try to confront our forces as we escort Iraqi Shiites in to liberate their brethren.  

By Blogger allen, at Thu Apr 27, 05:32:00 PM:

Anonymous

"The IAEA has also found no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program"

Iran shuns UN on eve of nuclear deadline

http://news.yahoo.com/fc/world/iran

There does seem to be a failure to communicate.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Thu Apr 27, 08:11:00 PM:

The CIA also did not predict the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Was that an overestimation of their WMD ambitions or abilities? Also, the first Soviet nuclear weapons test. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_atomic_bomb_project)

The IAEA found traces of plutonium in Iran in... 2003 I think, that is only usable for atomic weaponry. Iran's explanation? "It must have been on your tools when you got here." Seriously, that's what they said. Then there's the time when they said (recently) that if the UN does anything about their reticence to work with the IAEA they'll hide their atomic program even better than Iraq did. Who needs to hide their peaceful, legal nuclear program?

And you can't even lay this at the foot of the CIA. The European intelligence services *also* believe Iran is developing nuclear arms, to the point that France threatened to nuke them if they crossed a certain line, though he did it diplo-speak. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4627862.stm)

A plethora of hidden nuclear sites under the administration of the Iranian military whose existence was leaked by dissident Iranians who said "hey, we have a secret atomic weapons program," evidence in the form of plutonium, threats to completely destroy neighbors and to hide their nuclear program like Iraq did, and the complete unwillingness to come clean about something that if they did, and it turned out that they were telling the truth, would be completely legal and allowable by the international community? No rational, knowledgeable person can seriously believe that Iran is innocent. But the 'innocent until proven guilty' philosophy hamstrings the ability of the world community to do anything about it.  

By Blogger Elizabeth, at Thu Apr 27, 09:16:00 PM:

Well, let me tell you what I know about the CIA and the Iranian revolution: A former CIA officer who I know very well went to Iran shortly before the revolution. He came back and briefed some State Dept. and Congressional people along the following lines:

"This place is going to blow."

The response he received?

"Don't be ridiculous."

Don't blame the CIA.  

By Blogger Rich Casebolt, at Thu Apr 27, 09:24:00 PM:

But it's then incumbent on them to lay out the evidence which would convince them.

How about this ... they are totalitarians with expansionist proclivities, who have the will, resources, and location to wreck the global economy and kill millions of people to feed those proclivities -- while lacking the checks-and-balances needed to curb this activity.

Show me one like them in history, who stopped expanding and forswore totalitarian rule ON THEIR OWN, in the absence of the CREDIBLE threat of force being used against them.

If we are to continue to live, be free, and pursue happiness in an envrironment where we can thrive, civilization can no longer tolerate such as these ... for they will use our patience and good faith as stepping stones to domination over us.

They must be confronted ... just like the Soviets, Taliban, and Saddam & Sons were ... if we are to contain the threat ...

... for the only reliable containment of this kind of threat is its elimination.

Anything short of that, at best, produces an expensive, tense stalemate, like the Cold War that cost us trillions of dollars and millions of innocent lives in the Third World, as it dragged on ... at worst, it simply delays an INEVITIBLE armed conflict, inflating the price in blood and treasure during the delay.

Our enemies must either turn, or be destroyed. It is that simple.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Thu Apr 27, 11:35:00 PM:

"the only reliable containment of this kind of threat is its elimination"

Militarist.

South Korea's out there flaunting its capability. When do you want to bomb their sites? They've actually got nukes. Big ones. Where's your bluster now, kiddo?

Step One: Get an administration in the White House that won't incompetently manage most everything it does.

Step Two: Marshall international opinion

Step Three: Cooperate (haven't heard that word much in the geopolitical debate) with nations to strengthen non proliferation treaties and their enforcement.

Step Four: Lead. Work towards eliminating our own nuclear arsenal in a meaningful way. Folks want nukes because other folks have nukes. The sooner that nuclear weapons become anathema, the sooner we'll have international legs to stand on.

Nukes are bad in the wrong hands? Or are nukes just bad? I'm thinking the latter is true.

Easy on the warmaking. Your president is precipitously low in the polls and has been for a year. If you want a war, he'll give you one, but how could you even begin to trust that his administration could competently prosecute it?

It's baffling really.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Fri Apr 28, 12:26:00 AM:

South Korea does not have nuclear weapons.

Step 1: Inflammatory partisan generalization.

Step 2: Elaborate misleading logic.

Step 3: Profit.

"Cooperate... with nations to strengthen non proliferation treaties and their enforcement."

That's what's happening now, genius. Iran is a signatory to something called the Non-Proliferation Treaty that allows them access to civilian nuclear technology in return for forswearing the development of nuclear arms and allowing verification by the IAEA. However, they have violated said treaty. So how are we supposed to enforce it now? Lack of enforcement jeopardizes the entire global non-proliferation regime of which the NPT is the foundation, but enforcing it may lead to a potentially nasty war. Therein is the current question.

"Folks want nukes because other folks have nukes."

*laughter deleted* So... joining the nuclear club looks good now because it's prestigious and gives a nation state some oomph in international affairs. Abolishing the club would put everyone on an even footing. Is that the logic?

Take it a step further.

Imagine no one in the world has nukes, because they gave them all up, except for you. How much relative power does that bring you? A nuclear monopoly? Abolishing nuclear arms just makes the pursuit of them even more tempting. Imagine a world where only North Korea has atomic weapons. Do you really think that they would be "North" Korea for long? Don't you think that that possibility, to win their civil war and guarantee the preservation of their government, would drive them to develop nuclear arms anyway? Of course it would.

As for being inherently bad, ponder this. The existence of nuclear arms prevented World War III. Why did the USSR and US never come into direct conventional warfare with one another? Because of a mutual nuclear deterrent that fully stabilized (yes, stabilized) in the late 60s with the advent of a Soviet secure second strike capability. Why didn't India and Pakistan go to war (again) a few years ago after the attack on the Indian parliament? The troops were there, the cassus beli was there, fire was exchanged... But the leadership defused it because both states now have a nuclear deterrent.

Past a certain critical mass point (with rational, responsible states, anyway) nuclear arms are actually a stabilizing force in geo-politics. A state with a strong nuclear deterrent feels secure, because no one would dare to fuck with them and risk retaliatory annihilation. A state with a small nuclear deterrent actually feels more at risk because they have atomic arms (which makes them dangerous to others) but it is too small to make an attack by another strong power unfeasible (which leaves them potentially vulnerable). So new applicants to nuclear capability are discouraged, because it is destabilizing (in the beginning). Also, current nuclear powers hate to see their influence diluted. The more states that have nuclear arms, the less yours matter. All of this leads to a global regime that discourages further proliferation of nuclear arms. Theoretically, only those who are interested in becoming more dangerous (offensive applicability) or are in mortal fear of imminent destruction by enemies (defensive applicability) have an interest in nuclear arms nowadays. Since Iran lacks any immediate threats (their biggest one was Saddam, ironically) they must be interested in atomic weapons for the offensive potential, right?

You're American, right? That makes him *your* president too, just like Clinton, Bush I, Reagan, et cetera were whether you voted for them or not. That's how a republic works. If that douchebag Kerry had won the election, I'd be following his orders now, because he would be my commander in chief. I don't get to just ignore him because I don't like him. If it's that important to you and you just can't stand to be in a country that he administers, emmigrate. But until then, he's still your President.  

By Blogger Rich Casebolt, at Sat Apr 29, 11:56:00 PM:

Militarist.

Not militarist ... and not a realist in the realpolitik/"stability" sense of the word, either.

All I've been doing is watching history unfold over my lifetime ... when we accommodated/proxified or even just ignored thugs like these, they grew stronger and bolder.

OTOH, when "cowboys" like Reagan and our current President ignored your advice and resolutely confronted our enemies ...

... millions were liberated.
... arms stockpiles were greatly reduced
... the threat of war was reduced.

South Korea's out there flaunting its capability. When do you want to bomb their sites? They've actually got nukes. Big ones. Where's your bluster now, kiddo?

Confrontation does not necessarily lead to a shooting war ... and in the case of NK, we are not dealing with a suicidal fanatic, nor are we the only force they have to contend with. China is holding NK's chain ... and is smart enough to hold them back.

Right now, I'm more worried about suicidal fanatics who have no one holding their chain ... where's your sense, bozo?

Step One: Get an administration in the White House that won't incompetently manage most everything it does.

Incompetent?

> Taliban ... out of business.

> Saddam & Sons ... out of business.

> The first comprehensive weapons inspection of Iraq.

> A new Iraqi government, turning the nation away from sectarian conflict, having already been liberated from Saddam's tyranny.

> Al Quada ... just announced ... moving operations to the Sudan ... they tried to move to Gaza, but Hamas wouldn't have them!

Competence? Google "History's Verdict", and look for the article by Victor Hanson ... see how this Administration stacks up against men now considered great wartime leaders.

Step Two: Marshall international opinion

Big problem -- too many in the international community share your pig-headed ideas of peace through universal impotence, and/or promote it because they see the only way for themselves to advance in world affairs is to drag America back.

They think that, because they are not targets right now, it's just fine to dismiss our calls for action.

Of course, what do you expect from a community that treats dictator and democrat with equal deference in its relations? Their lack of absolute morality, and its replacement by realpolitik and corruption, renders their
criticism moot.

They aren't coming around to acknowledging the truth, because they do not perceive it to be in their interest.

Step Three: Cooperate (haven't heard that word much in the geopolitical debate) with nations to strengthen non proliferation treaties and their enforcement.

The fictional Tsion Ben-Judah said it best:

A truce is worth the character of the man on the other side of the table.

Your tactics work against thug regimes only when (1) they are faced with the alternative of destruction and (2) are rational enough to respond to that threat.

In Iran, you have a regime that shows almost ZERO respect for human life and liberty ... has supported the targeting of innocents through terrorism for decades ... and is more than able to turn your good-faith efforts at negotiation into time to finish a few weapons -- never intending to accommodate your wishes, but instead buying time until your wishes are almost irrelevant ...

... unless you are willing to glass over large swaths of the Iranian population.

Step Four: Lead. Work towards eliminating our own nuclear arsenal in a meaningful way. Folks want nukes because other folks have nukes. The sooner that nuclear weapons become anathema, the sooner we'll have international legs to stand on.

No ... "folks" like the Iranians want nukes for far more than what you give them credit for. When the Iranian president states categorically that America and Israel must be destroyed ... isn't is wise to take him at his word, at least until clear proof to the contrary has been discovered?

Nukes are bad in the wrong hands? Or are nukes just bad? I'm thinking the latter is true.

You'd have a great future in the TSA, where a concentration on the tools of terror ... and not those who perpetrate terror, as that could be construed as "profiling" ... is the order of the day.

Let me tell you what is bad ... it is when nations are hijacked by thugs and used to expannd totalitarian rule to other nations, who are then in turn hijacked by the same thugs ... you see where this is going.

We, the British, French, Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, and Israelis all have proven that we can keep nukes and not abuse them.

Iraq had not proven that ... Iran has not proven that ... and neither has North Korea.

The problem is not the tool ... it is the character of the ones wielding them.

Easy on the warmaking. Your president is precipitously low in the polls and has been for a year. If you want a war, he'll give you one, but how could you even begin to trust that his administration could competently prosecute it?

Because he has what you and your ilk lack ...

... a clear view of the situation -- that modern civililzation cannot tolerate terrorism and/or totalitarian rule that denies innocents their life and liberty ... a modern civilization whose functionality is simply incompatible with traditional, passive-defense security measures, and therefore compels us to confront thug regimes and terror groups at the first sign of their intent.

It's baffling really.

Only to those with the "September 10" mindset, like you ... and/or are suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS).

The rest of us get it.

We won't be fooled again.  

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