Today’s front page New York Times feature detailing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran isn’t working to build a nuclear weapon ought to provide encouragement for those opposed to tough American action on the issue. Bookended with parallel arguments being put forward by many in the Washington foreign policy establishment that a nuclear Iran would be easily contained, this presents the country with a pair of calming notions: Iran isn’t going nuclear but even if it is, it’s no big deal.
However, the most distressing aspect of the piece, which is the product of highly placed anonymous sources within the intelligence establishment, is not so much the lack of alarm on the part of those who are supposed to be the nation’s eyes and ears so much as the fact that they are also willing to admit that they haven’t a clue as to what is actually happening in Iran. The article contains startling admissions that the Islamist tyranny is a mystery to American officials. One went so far as to say that U.S. intelligence agencies view it as even more of a closed book to them than the hermit-like regime in North Korea. Considering their disgraceful failure to prepare the government for the possibility that the North Koreans were on the brink of nuclear capability, this confession should undermine the credibility of the same officials’ boast that they are certain no Iranian nuke is in the works.
Many writing about the intelligence about Iran continually speak of the days before the invasion of Iraq when we were assured by the government that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. Since it was already proven that he had used chemical weapons on his own people and had a nuclear program before Israel destroyed the Osirak reactor in 1981, these were not unreasonable conclusions even if they turned out to be wrong. However that failure, which led to charges that the intelligence community’s convictions about Iraq were wrongly influenced by political considerations, has led to a passionate determination on the part of those in charge that they will never sign off on any conclusion about this sort of an issue again if it will be used as an excuse to go to war. Like generals who always prepare for the surprises they faced in the previous war, America’s spies will never raise the alarms about WMDs again.
Fear of repeating mistakes is understandable. But history rarely repeats itself in this manner. That makes beliefs grounded in that fear often as wrongheaded as the original errors. If the intelligence community’s beliefs about Iraq were incorrectly influenced by a desire to agree with the Bush administration’s predilections then it is just as easy to argue that its current views about Iran might be just as mistaken.
But no matter what is influencing their opinions, it is difficult to work up much confidence in the conclusions of agencies that are so open about the fact that they are flying blind in Iran. Though the anonymous officials have confidence in their non-human assets, they are quick to dismiss any evidence, such as the recent satellite images that have led the International Atomic Energy Agency to suspect that work on weaponization of nuclear material is being carried on in Iran simply because it does not fit into their preconceptions about the regime. But it’s clear that the lack of input about Iranian intentions that can only come from real human intelligence has crippled American agencies to the point where it has become an article of faith on their part that they must be right, even if they can’t back up those conclusions with any evidence.
What we are witnessing here is the sort of cyclical group-think that will be reversed once again if the Iranians confound our spooks the way the supposedly easier to read North Koreans did. Another U.S. intelligence failure will simply make their analysts lean more on the side of action the next time around. But the problem for Israel, the Middle East and the world is that if they are wrong about Iran, the consequences of that mistake will be far worse than even those generated by the Iraq disaster.