The Central Intelligence Agency has been burned badly in recent years. It was criticized, however unfairly, for failing to prevent the September 11 attacks. It suffered again for exaggerating Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities before the invasion of Iraq. Both events greatly undermined the CIA’s credibility and led to a massive reorganization of the intelligence community.
Now the agency faces another critical issue over nuclear proliferation, as Iran progresses towards the ability to create weapons-grade material. How should it approach the Iranian problem? After losing so much prestige with policymakers, how can it possibly influence U.S. policy towards Iran?
Assuming that Tehran is serious about developing a weapons program, the CIA can reestablish its role by helping policymakers prepare a coherent strategy before Iran goes nuclear. The CIA should address two puzzles that, once solved, will help deter Iran from proliferating nuclear materials and using its own arsenal coercively: First, it should attempt to isolate the unique characteristics of nuclear material produced at Iranian facilities, allowing forensic specialists to locate the origin of fissile material and making it impossible for Iran to remain an anonymous dealer. This will help deter Iran from proliferating to other states and terrorist groups. It will also deter Iran from using nuclear weapons because samples taken at the site of a detonation provide the same fingerprint. Second, the CIA should provide a detailed analysis of Israel’s ability to strike Iranian facilities. The White House has already warned Iran that Israel may launch a preventive strike against its conversion and reprocessing centers, but the difficulties in such an operation are substantial. Overstating the Israeli threat may cause Iran to redouble its efforts and increase the size of its program, potentially increasing the amount of fissile material available to terrorists.
These technical puzzles are clearly relevant to U.S. policy on Iran, and they provide usable information that goes beyond the inherently vague predictions about Iranian intentions and its timeline for weapons production. Such ambiguous estimates are sometimes called “mysteries” because they are essentially unknowable. The answers to intelligence mysteries depend on the motives of foreign states. Discerning these motives with any certitude is extremely difficult, especially because foreign statesmen can always change their minds. Does Iran intend to create nuclear weapons, as we suspect, or does it merely seek nuclear power generation, as it claims? The second question—when will the weapons be ready?—depends on the first. Both questions have given rise to a host of answers both inside and outside the community, as think tanks and media pundits compete with government analysts for the ear of decision makers. The CIA carries little cache on these kinds of political judgments after the Iraqi debacle. Moreover, its notorious lack of human intelligence in the region and dearth of language skills make it more dubious in the eyes of the policy community.
But two factors work in favor of the CIA:
First, the mystery about Iranian intentions is not the only relevant question for policymakers. As stated above, more technically concrete issues offer the CIA an opportunity to make a positive impact on U.S. foreign policy towards Iran. By focusing on soluble puzzles rather than insoluble mysteries, the agency can exploit its advantage in secret information instead of becoming just another prognosticator.
Second, unlike the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush Administration currently has no clear policy preferences. The military is occupied in Iraq and the domestic costs of that operation make another preventive war unlikely. So far the Administration has been willing to tolerate European diplomatic initiatives without staking itself to any particular course. The absence of policy direction means that it has no need to rally public opinion, and therefore no need to politicize intelligence. Because this is the case, policymakers will be more open to different interpretations and less hostile to analysts who challenge the conventional wisdom.
The Iraqi experience should serve as a cautionary tale for intelligence and policy officials alike. As a result of sloppy analysis and political pressure, the CIA made a number of serious blunders in its analysis of Iraqi WMD. The CIA director has since lost his position as principal advisor to the president, replaced by the new Director of National Intelligence. For their part, policymakers who justified regime change on the basis of weapons of mass destruction are now left to fight an increasingly lethal insurgency in a place where no such weapons existed. Public faith in the CIA and the White House has fallen precipitously, and allies look upon the United States with understandable wariness. This article looks at how the intelligence and policy communities can avoid the same fate in Iran.
Iran’s Nuclear Trajectory
Tehran’s long interest in nuclear research suggests that it is committed to acquiring a full fuel cycle; the recent revelations of large-scale research done in secret suggest that it also seeks a weapons program.
Iran’s nuclear trajectory began in the 1950s, but accelerated in the late 1960s when it acquired a research reactor from the United States and became a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In the 1970s the Shah moved aggressively on civilian nuclear energy, signing contracts for additional power plants and fuel with the United States, Germany, South Africa, and France. Iran was also widely suspected of launching a nuclear weapons program, although details remain sketchy. Both programs stalled with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, both because of a massive exodus of scientists from the country and because of Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaration that indiscriminate nuclear weapons were not consistent with the tenets of Islam. Interest in nuclear energy was renewed in the late 1980s as the Ayatollah became increasingly incapacitated. After signing nuclear cooperation agreements with China, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union, Iran focused its efforts on forging closer ties with Moscow. This effort culminated in 1992, when Russia expanded its existing cooperation treaty and agreed to construct a nuclear power plant at Bushehr.
During the 1990s Iran attempted to expand its circle of nuclear suppliers, but the United States successfully blocked agreements with Argentina and China. Washington’s ability to frustrate the delivery of conversion and enrichment facilities may have convinced Tehran to pursue a homegrown nuclear program. It increasingly sought dual-use components from western producers, a practice that ultimately led to extensive U.S. sanctions and pressure on European suppliers to halt delivery of sensitive technologies to Iran. Despite these efforts, Iran was able to continue progressing towards a full-fuel cycle. In 2002 an exiled opposition group announced that Iran had surreptitiously constructed a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak. The head of the IAEA subsequently confirmed the impressive progress Iran had made at the previously unknown centrifuge plant. Later that year Iranian leaders announced their intention to rely on indigenous resources after discovering uranium ore in Yazd province.
These developments led to a flurry of talks between Iran and European negotiators from France, Great Britain, and Germany. These were initially promising, and Iran twice agreed to suspend its centrifuge operations. But as of this writing, European-Iranian talks have broken down. Iran rejected a more comprehensive proposal that called for it to scale down its nuclear activities in return for trade and other benefits, and resumed uranium conversion at its facility in Isfahan. It has since produced more than seven tons of uranium hexafluoride gas, enough for one nuclear weapon after centrifuge enrichment. Iran’s commitment to acquiring an indigenous full fuel cycle appears genuine, and it shows no signs of backing down even in the face of possible sanctions from the UN Security Council. There is probably is no way to sufficiently sweeten the deal for Tehran, no combination of sticks and carrots that will convince Iran to scuttle its nuclear ambitions. If this is the case, then the intelligence issues must shift from questions about whether Iran wants nuclear weapons to questions about what to do when they get them.
The Intelligence-Policy Context
As I argue below, this shift should provide CIA an opportunity to reestablish itself in the foreign policy process. But the process of restoration will not be easy, owing both to the deflated status of the agency and the fundamental problems of intelligence-policy relations.
Relations between intelligence agencies and policymakers are difficult even in the best of times. Friction is natural because intelligence can tacitly challenge the wisdom of policy decisions. Policymakers often voice concerns that intelligence is more interested in subverting policy initiatives than supporting them. Functional differences between the two communities compound the near-term political consequences of intelligence analysis. Intelligence idealizes objective judgment and a thorough examination of all relevant information. But time-starved policymakers cannot assess every perspective on every issue while building legislative and public support for policy initiatives. In addition, policymakers and intelligence professionals are cut from different cloth. Policymakers tend to be self-confident individuals who enter office which their own worldviews. They prefer current intelligence over long-term trends, brevity over length, and point predictions over conditional forecasts. Intelligence analysts, well aware that surprises are inevitable, tend to focus more on the uncertainty of international affairs.
Unfortunately for the CIA, intelligence-policy relations have soured in the Bush White House. Since the Nixon Administration, conservative policymakers have routinely suspected that the CIA is a bastion of liberalism as well as a cumbersome and risk-averse bureaucracy. These suspicions were shared by several of President Bush’s advisors, some of whom battled the agency in the 1970s and 1980s over arms control issues and U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom anonymous CIA officials complained that they were being pressured to bring their conclusions in line with policy preferences. Policymakers responded by accusing the CIA of a lack of creativity, and set up the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to explore alternative hypotheses about Saddam’s WMD capabilities and links to international terrorism. Although the CIA’s final estimate strongly supported the case for war, it exaggerated Iraqi capabilities by entertaining a number of unsustainable assumptions. Ironically, these analytical errors undermined its credibility on nuclear issues. Continuing hostility was revealed last fall, when Administration supporters accused the CIA of conducting an “insurgency” against the White House over differing estimates about the violence in Iraq.
History does not bode well for the CIA: policymakers have a long memory of estimates gone wrong. When the agency fails in one case, as it did with the Iraqi WMD estimate, it is subsequently ignored. Moreover, failure causes intelligence officials to become gun shy about challenging misguided policy beliefs, and too ready to support policymakers’ preferences. For these reasons, the Iraqi fiasco will hamper the agency’s ability to make a positive impact on the Iranian case.
The good news is that the Bush Administration has not committed to a firm course on Iran, meaning that it is more likely to remain open to alternative analyses from the intelligence community. Bogged down in Iraq and struggling to retain domestic support, it cannot commit aggressively to the Iranian problem. In lieu of such a plan, the Administration has supported European efforts to negotiate a settlement. At the same time, it seeks a revision of the NPT to prevent other countries from mimicking Iran and approaching a nuclear weapons capability without technically violating its treaty obligations. “We must therefore close the loopholes,” the President announced, “that allow states to produce nuclear materials that can be used to build bombs under the cover of civilian nuclear programs.” The final element in the United States’ strategy has been the tacit approval of an Israel strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, much like its 1981 bombing of an Iraqi facility. Last September Israel purchased 500 BLU-109 bunker-buster bombs from the United States. The BLU-109, which can penetrate up to seven feet of reinforced concrete, is well suited for an attack on Iran’s underground facilities. The Vice President told a radio host in January that Israel “might well decide to act first” if diplomatic efforts failed. In sum, the United States has sought arms control treaty revisions, while supporting European diplomacy and the quiet threat of Israeli preventive action. None of these positions are inflexible.
The absence of a rigid policy means that there is no pressing need to rally public support. When policymakers commit to a course of action, they often justify their decisions by pointing to consensus agreement among the national security principals. This makes politicization likely. But because the Administration has not made such a commitment regarding Iranian nuclear activity, it is free to entertain analyses and recommendations from various parts of the national security establishment. Thus the CIA can still contribute to Iran policy despite its falling out with the Bush Administration—if it asks the right questions.