The Pentagon and White House continue to argue
that they are not planning a war against Iran in spite of the continuing buildup
of naval forces in the Persian Gulf, which will peak with the arrival of a third
carrier group at the end of May. The naval aviation and missile resources available,
which are not being used to support combat operations in neighboring Iraq, far
exceed any reasonable level required to send Iran a warning or to reassure Gulf
Arab allies. The carrier concentration has even weakened U.S. ability to respond
militarily elsewhere, most particularly in the Western Pacific, where an unpredictable
North Korea continues to pose a genuine threat. Multiple carrier groups in the
Persian Gulf can only mean that another preemptive war, this time against Iran,
is either about to take place or is being viewed as a serious option.
Critics of an air and naval assault on Iran have provided many good reasons
why war between Washington and Tehran would be a disaster for U.S. global interests,
ranging from a spike in oil prices to the unleashing of worldwide terrorism.
What is not being appreciated clearly either by the media or policy-makers is
the central dilemma in war planning with Iran, which is the apparent lack of
reliable intelligence on Iranian intentions and capabilities. Planning for war
without good information has a surreal quality, like a blind man trying to describe
something he cannot see, with guesses and "what-ifs" replacing certainties.
There has been a notable silence on Iran coming from the intelligence community.
Late in 2006, shortly before he was forced to resign over his unwillingness
to cook the intelligence on Iran, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte
responded to congressional criticism by conceding that there were major deficiencies
in what information was being obtained about the Islamic Republic. Since that
time, a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has been stalled because of White
House demands that the product be more useful, i.e., demonstrative of Iranian
bad behavior and intentions. CIA analysis suggests that it cannot be demonstrated
that Tehran currently has a nuclear weapons program, though the case either
for or against Iran rests on a paucity of information, not on a solid understanding
of what is going on inside the country and among its leadership. On a purely
practical level, leaving moral and ethical considerations aside, until the United
States can answer key questions about Iran, including its ability to retaliate,
its terrorism resources, and the nature and location of its nuclear program,
no military action should be contemplated.
The impending intelligence failure on Iran is very similar to that which took
place regarding Iraq, and for many of the same reasons. From a practical point
of view, it is very difficult to spy on a country if you do not have an embassy
in its capital and also have an embargo or sanctions in place that prohibit
business relations. It is even more difficult when that country has a very small
group of decision-makers that control all information carefully. Spy fiction
notwithstanding, most effective agents are volunteers who offer to provide their
services, whether for money or for idealism. Oleg Penkovsky, the Russian who
was the most important Western spy of the 20th century, was an idealistic volunteer
who had to make several attempts to contact the British and American embassies
in Moscow before he finally succeeded. Put simply, when the volunteer cannot
reach you, you don't have any spies. It is reasonable to assume that America
has very few real spies inside Iran.
Politicians who are ignorant of the Middle East frequently confuse advocacy
with intelligence and allow the former to become the basis for policy formulation,
sometimes by default. Lacking good intelligence resources, much so-called information
that is reaching policy-makers in Washington comes from émigré
groups and lobbyists with an agenda – again very much like what happened in
the lead-up to the Iraq war. These groups are all interested in emphasizing
the threat from Iran, not in objective analysis that might exonerate the mullahs.
The leading Iranian émigré group is the National Council of Resistance
of Iran (NCRI), which pretends to have a network of independent sources within
Iran but actually is largely dependent on information from Israeli intelligence.
The "critical analysis" of events in Iran that reaches policy-makers
in Washington frequently comes from it and other lobbying and advocacy groups
such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC), all of which share an "Iran agenda" that calls for regime
change. AIPAC is known to be the source of a position paper on Iran that most
congressmen rely on to shape their own views. Israel's advocates, including
peripatetic politicians such as ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, make frequent
visits to the United States, where they have good access to the media and potential
supporters, to reinforce the case that Iran must be dealt with forcefully.
There is also a tactical problem caused by poor intelligence. Without good
information, Iran's nuclear program becomes hard to target in a military sense,
and a massive air and sea attack might not even solve the alleged problem. There
are hundreds of known nuclear-related targets in Iran, with many others still
undiscovered and hidden. Many of the sites are located in cities, meaning that
an attempt to take them out would result in numerous civilian casualties. Iran
has been preparing for an American attack for some years, and there are reports
that many of the sites are deep underground and hardened with layers of concrete,
meaning that a genuine attempt to completely destroy them could require tactical
nuclear weapons. The unilateral use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. would change
the world, and not for the better, as it would let the genie out of the bottle
and create the worst possible precedent for other nuclear powers like India,
Pakistan, and Israel.
Poor intelligence also means that Iran's capacity for retaliation is unclear.
If one of the purposes of war is to inflict more damage on the enemy than the
enemy inflicts on you, it is essential to know your foe's capabilities. One
possible retaliatory scenario considered to be likely and currently being war-gamed
by the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies involves Iran's stirring-up of
its Shi'ite co-religionists in neighboring Iraq against American forces, cutting
supply lines and making every Iraqi neighborhood a safe haven for insurgents.
Today's chaos in Baghdad would look positively benign in comparison to the national
uprising that would ensue.
Iran could also use its missiles and biological and chemical weapons to strike
against other U.S. forces in the region, in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. It could
effectively attack regional U.S. friends and allies such as the Emirates, Kuwait,
Israel, and Saudi Arabia. It might, for example, call on the Shi'ite majority
in Bahrain to rebel and overthrow the Sunni emir, leading to an immediate loss
of the base for the U.S. Sixth Fleet. It almost certainly would use Silkworm
missiles and suicide boats to close the narrow Straits of Hormuz, cutting off
petroleum from the entire Gulf region and driving oil up to $400 per barrel.
If it were really lucky, it could sink an American aircraft carrier.
Worldwide, Iran could have Hezbollah terrorist cells believed to be underground
in the United States and Europe stage terrorist attacks. It could destabilize
all of Asia by assassinating Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Pervez
Musharraf of Pakistan, possibly resulting in an Islamic Republic in Pakistan
that would be armed both with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
Attacking Iran for the wrong reasons and with the same poor intelligence that
produced the Iraq catastrophe would cause American influence and power to collapse
throughout the Middle East and central Asia, an extremely high price to pay