Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear negotiations

Can Obama Interpret Iran’s Mixed Signals?

As we first noted last week, Iran’s program of diplomatic gamesmanship aimed at confusing and unnerving the Obama administration has begun. Last week, the Iranians started to dicker about the site of the scheduled talks with the West about their nuclear program that had already been decided. Now, as this report shows, the Iranians are proceeding to muddy the waters further by sending out conflicting messages–with one of their high-ranking officials signaling their willingness to compromise on their uranium enrichment and another that they would not. It’s the same old song they’ve been singing for years whose only purpose is drag out any negotiations so as to give their scientists more time to get closer to their nuclear goal.

But to focus on these shenanigans is somewhat beside the point. The problem is not what the Iranians are saying but Washington’s ability to interpret its true meaning. And it is on that score that Washington seems to be the most at sea. The Obama administration has been leaking reports about its intelligence prowess so as to undermine any notion that its evaluation of Iran’s capabilities is not underestimating Tehran’s nuclear progress or wrong about its not having made a decision to build a bomb. But as with previous intelligence disasters, including the one in Iraq that the CIA seeks to atone for, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the president or his team that they are desperately short of human insight on what the ayatollahs are thinking.

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As we first noted last week, Iran’s program of diplomatic gamesmanship aimed at confusing and unnerving the Obama administration has begun. Last week, the Iranians started to dicker about the site of the scheduled talks with the West about their nuclear program that had already been decided. Now, as this report shows, the Iranians are proceeding to muddy the waters further by sending out conflicting messages–with one of their high-ranking officials signaling their willingness to compromise on their uranium enrichment and another that they would not. It’s the same old song they’ve been singing for years whose only purpose is drag out any negotiations so as to give their scientists more time to get closer to their nuclear goal.

But to focus on these shenanigans is somewhat beside the point. The problem is not what the Iranians are saying but Washington’s ability to interpret its true meaning. And it is on that score that Washington seems to be the most at sea. The Obama administration has been leaking reports about its intelligence prowess so as to undermine any notion that its evaluation of Iran’s capabilities is not underestimating Tehran’s nuclear progress or wrong about its not having made a decision to build a bomb. But as with previous intelligence disasters, including the one in Iraq that the CIA seeks to atone for, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the president or his team that they are desperately short of human insight on what the ayatollahs are thinking.

The latest in the administration’s Iran leakfest was a Washington Post story published this past weekend in which a “senior intelligence official” bragged of the CIA’s high-tech spy drones that have produced so much interesting material for them to analyze. The piece was intended to portray the Iran task force in which the CIA, the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence operatives combine their efforts as having produced enough input as to give their political masters confidence there is no imminent danger of Iran succeeding in building a bomb or that they had even decided to build one in the first place.

Let’s hope they’re right, but the smug tone of this and similar pieces of puffery aimed at lionizing America’s spooks and pouring cold water on other, less optimistic evaluations of Iran’s nuclear program ought to worry anyone relying on this assessment. The problem is that even though America’s remote spying may be effective, as a previous leaked story from within the intelligence fold admitted, all the intercepted messages and satellite photos don’t give you the ability to understand what you are looking at. For that you need human intelligence, and on that score, Washington has admitted it has even less of that commodity from Iran than it does from North Korea. When it comes to understanding what the Islamist regime’s leaders are thinking, the U.S. is still flying blind.

That’s why the Iranians’ stall tactics and mixed signals on negotiations must be maddening to the administration. None of the satellite photos can tell them what Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s intentions are or whether he is capable of walking his country back from the brink of a conflict with the West that few believe President Obama really wants. Nor can they be sure they are taking the right pictures from the satellites.

As Iran prepares to once again try to hold the ball and run out the clock on Obama, none of the leaks whose purpose it is to instill perhaps unwarranted confidence in American intelligence can assure us that either he or his staff understands what the Iranians intend. So long as that is true, it is the Iranians who should be feeling confident.

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