The CIA has revealed that Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear “scientist” who returned back to Tehran, was one of the sources for the much disputed “National Intelligence Estimate” in 2007. Amiri’s return has embarrassed the CIA, gave a much needed “victory” to the isolated regime of Tehran and finally strengthened the suspicion that he could have been a double agent from the beginning.
The 2007 NIE document that asserted Iran halted its work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 had a huge impact in defusing US and international pressure against Iran and consequently bought precious time for the Iranian regime to advance its program. Few days after the release of NIE in 2007 the Los Angeles Times wrote:
“The new U.S. intelligence report is suddenly raising concerns among the political center and left, as well as conservatives who have long called for a hard line against the Islamic Republic. The report made any new economic sanctions unlikely, most analysts agree… Experts of varying political affiliations in Washington believe that efforts to successfully apply pressure on Iran have been hurt by the report. Gary Samore (current Obama non proliferation Tsar) said the report undermined Bush's warnings about Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons and left Tehran in a strong position, allowing it to develop its enrichment capacity without a substantial challenge from the United States and its allies.”
Later, the intelligence agencies backed away from that blunder and recently the New York Times reported “American intelligence officials now believe the design work on a weapon was resumed and continues to this day.” In a recent interview, President Obama emphasized on the military aspect of the Iranian program:
“Iran is the only country that has not been able to convince the International Atomic Energy Agency that they are pursuing nuclear power for peaceful means. It's not hard to do, but they haven't been able to do it because all indicators are that they are in fact pursuing a nuclear weapon.”
Amiri’s possible role in manipulating American agencies could highlight the endemic American intelligence failure with Iran and its toll on US policy in the Middle East. Another troubling example was Ahmad Chalabi, an Iranian agent who had a key role in making the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a strategic mistake that dramatically shifted the balance of power in favor of the Iranian regime.
But intelligence failures have political causes behind them; in this case “misconceptions about the nature and intentions of Iranian regime” that makes the intelligence agencies eager to buy what Iranian agents are willing to sell. It is good to remember that the 2007 NIE assertions were even contrary to common sense, let alone numerous European, Israeli and Russian intelligence that categorically rejected the report. But the US agencies easily accepted this hoax.
Arguably, what has caused the confusion and failure in American policy with Iran is mainly emanated from the lack of political expertise. For example, administration after administration has held the ill-conceived hope that a moderate will emerge from the gloom of tyranny in Tehran who will extend them the olive branch.
In September 2008, the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech in Washington and masterfully defined this dominant aspect of US policy toward Iran in the past three decades: (official transcript) “I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. (Laughter.) Every administration since then has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed.”
The “search for illusionary moderates” as Robert Gates put it (that caused laughter among his audience) has caused American officials to being the subject of public ridicule. In 1986 President Reagan who sought friendship with “moderate” Rafsanjani secretly sent his National Security Advisor to Tehran. In addition to the supplying arms requested by the Iranian regime, McFarlane also offered as souvenir a cake in the shape of a key, symbolizing a new opening in the US-Iran impasse!
Later, Bill Clinton’s wrong [incorrect or mistaken] judgment about “reformist” Khatami pushed him to ridicule when he addressed the UN general assembly in 2000. He hoped for an “accidental” friendly encounter with the Iranian president to thaw the ice and wall of mistrust. What happened next was humiliatingly bizarre awkward. While Clinton was waiting in the UN hallways to shake hands with the Iranian president, Khatami hid in the men's room refusing to come out!
What could have President Clinton done differently when the top Iran experts insisted that the reform movement was irreversible, Khatami was in full command and the whole Iranian leadership was willing to have a deal with the US?
The US intelligence community is not the sole entity to be blamed for its failure in 2007 when the most respected think tanks were praising the Iranian pragmatists who command the country’s foreign policy and willing to accommodate the international community.
Beginning in July 2007, two of this country’s pre-eminent Middle East policy research institutions, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, joined forces and asked 15 of their scholars to focus on the crucial challenges facing the next president in the Middle East. The result was published in late 2008 in a book and their top Iran-experts, Ray Takeyh and Suzanne Maloney wrote the third chapter of the book directly related to Iran: “Pathway to Coexistence: A New U.S. Policy toward Iran". With no surprise they wrote that the only good option is to put aside pressure and sanction and engage Iran:
“Any fresh policy review will inevitably present the new president with an array of options that sounds strikingly familiar—regime change, military action, coercive and economic containment, or engagement. Washington has employed elements of each of these approaches over the past three decades, with little success. A review of each suggests that only the last option—engagement—offers a serious prospect of decisively altering the enduring antagonism between Tehran and Washington and enhancing the context for promoting and protecting American interests in the region.”
President Obama fell for this wisdom and prepared the ground for successful negotiations with the Iranian regime. Consequently, he made numerous friendly overtures, sent several secret messages, public letters and video greetings to the Iranian dictators. When the Iranian uprising started in June, Mr. Obama refrained from offering full support to Iranian people and tried to maintain the cap for a deal with the Mullahs. In October 2009, in the middle of the Iranian uprising, while millions were challenging the regime, president Obama sent his delegates to Geneva to negotiate with the Supreme Leader’s envoys. President Obama got nothing in return as he recently declared:
“Since taking office, I’ve made it clear that the United States was prepared to begin a new chapter of engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We offered the Iranian government a clear choice. It could fulfill its international obligations and realize greater security, deeper economic and political integration with the world, and a better future for all Iranians. Or it could continue to flout its responsibilities and face even more pressure and isolation. To date, Iran has chosen the path of defiance.”
Obama is not the only president who received wrong and inappropriate advice on Iran. In July 2004, at the end of Khatami’s presidency and the demise of the reform movement, the Council on Foreign Relations released its Task Force Report on Iran. While a large number of Iranian analysts, political scholars and intellectuals inside and outside the country were warning about the rise of a new faction related to the Revolutionary Guards, the CFR report discovered an “ascending pragmatic faction” in Iran. This was just before Ahmadinejad seized the power:
“Iran is experiencing a gradual process of internal change that will slowly but surely produce a government more responsive toward its citizens’ wishes and more responsible in its approach to the international community.” (page13) …. the pragmatists who appear to be ascendant in Tehran ...” (page19) …. Some conservatives appear to favor a ‘China model’ of reform that maintains political orthodoxy while encouraging market reforms and tolerating expanding civil liberties.” (page 15)
The discovery of imaginary pragmatists in Iran mainly served the erroneous argument that the regime is ready for a deal with US. An example is the CFR’s top expert Ray Takeyh who Regardless of the time, situation or who is in power in Iran, always maintained that it is a unique time to deal with Iran.
2000 (Khatami’s presidency and peak of the power of reformists): “We get a better deal on all issues of concern, the holy trinity – weapons, terrorism, and Israel – from the reformers, who are more pragmatists than the hard-liners.” 1
2002: “This time, with public opinion in favor of reaching out to Washington, Iranian political groups of all complexion are loath to let the opportunity pass.” 2
2004 (Defeat of reformers and rise of radical faction): “The recent demise of the reform movement has facilitated the ascendance of pragmatic conservatives willing to have a far-reaching dialogue with the United States. At a time when the challenge of Iran seems most acute, the prospect of Tehran accommodating Washington has never been greater.” 3
2004: “For the first time in more than 20 years, the United States has the opportunity to deal with rational, pragmatic interlocutors who, by virtue of their standing in the government, are in a position to negotiate. It is an opportunity that should not be squandered.” 4
2005 (The radical fundamentalists gain power. Ahmadinejd is elected as the president): “Despite the election of a hard-line government in Iran, the time surprisingly might be ripe for a deal.” 5
2007: “In Iran today the idea of negotiating with the United States as late as 1999, 2001, was a contentious issue. Now there is a consensus in Iran, across political spectrum, blessed by the supreme leader that Iran is willing to negotiate with the United States.” 6
End of 2008, advice to Obama: "It is also clear that today’s Iranian leaders are capable of selective, constructive dialogue with the United States and that they have cross-factional support for direct, authoritative dialogue with their American adversaries—a condition that did not exist for most of the past thirty years."[Emphasis is mine] 7
Interestingly, under very different situations, and cast of characters in power in Iran, Takeyh arrived at the same conclusion. In case one asks these experts why consecutive Presidents could not reach a deal with Iran, the answer would be that the US was not generous enough.
The Amiri’s story and its NIE implications are new awakening calls to reexamine three decades of US failure with Iran and draw new policies that are sound and in accordance with American national interests. This demands courage to learn from the mistakes. A good example is Richard Haas, the very influential president of CFR who recently expressed regret about his wrong judgment on Iran and the policy advice given to the administration:
“Obama administration reversed George Bush’s approach and expressed a willingness to talk to Iran without preconditions… The other options—using military force against Iranian nuclear facilities or living with an Iranian nuclear bomb—were judged to be tremendously unattractive. And if diplomacy failed, Obama reasoned, it would be easier to build domestic and international support for more robust sanctions. At the time, I agreed with him. I've changed my mind. The nuclear talks are going nowhere… Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago.”
1. Takeyh, R., “US policy toward Iran,” Middle East Policy Council. December 12th, 2000.
2. Takeyh, R., “The west's unlikely ally in the Middle East” Financial Times. November 4, 2002.
3. Takeyh, R., “Tehran's pragmatists are ready to talk”, International Herald Tribune. August 24, 2004.
4. Takeyh, R., “Pragmatism in the Midst of Iranian Turmoil” Washington Quarterly. Autumn 2004.
5. R. Takeyh, “Apply Korea Lessons to Iran Stalemate”, The Baltimore Sun. September 26, 2005.
6. Takeyh, R., "Time For Detente With Iran". CFR speech, February 22, 2007
7. Ray Takeyh and Suzanne Maloney: “Pathway to Coexistence: A New U.S. Policy toward Iran".
CFR & Brookings Institution, October 2008