The US intelligence dilemma

The US intelligence dilemma


After weeks of hype over intelligence on the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration’s public statements on the recently released International Atomic Energy Agency report are curiously moderate.

Some administration officials would like to see harder evidence made public if for no other reason than supporting calls for more “crippling” sanctions on Iran. But U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly oppose more detailed disclosures for fear of jeopardizing intelligence-gathering and sources. The U.S. is, therefore, unlikely to secure more robust U.N. sanctions when it makes its case to the Security Council.

More important but less understood, however, are two longstanding and increasingly dangerous institutional problems within the U.S. government that this case has brought to the fore: an overreliance on intelligence and under-utilization of diplomatic resources when formulating Iran policy. By treating diplomacy with Iran as a reward to be earned rather than the vital national security tool that it is, American politicians have been administering a self-inflicted wound. The recent allegations against Iran show the critical role that intelligence can play in helping policymakers gather information and make decisions on the most challenging issues. However, intelligence is not meant to be appreciated in isolation. But when it comes to America’s Iran policy, it almost always is.

While serving in the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, I learned the 10 percent rule: Intelligence is meant to make up approximately 10 percent of the overall information used to analyze strategic issues. The remaining 90 percent consists of embassy reporting and unclassified, open-source information.

A diplomatic presence in Tehran is critical to ensuring America avoids repeating the mistakes of its recent past. Inherent limitations of intelligence make the status quo unsustainable. In Iraq, an overreliance on intelligence and dearth of diplomatic reporting allowed Bush administration officials to make decisions with impunity. They claimed highly classified, raw intelligence supported their policy, but failed to conduct the standard process of integrating it into the broader context with other reporting. Intelligence was not properly checked for accuracy and that led to imbalanced analysis and disastrous decision-making.

America closed its embassy in Baghdad and severed diplomatic ties with Iraq in 1991. For the following 12 years, it operated in an increasingly injurious information vacuum. The inability to complement intelligence with diplomatic reporting led policymakers to cherry-picking raw intelligence that lacked a fuller context. As this information vacuum grew, so did Washington’s misperceptions and miscalculations – to the point of choosing to launch a costly war. This proven recipe for disaster has alarming parallels to America’s Iran crisis.

The 30-year freeze in diplomatic relations with Iran has produced a U.S. government that knows precious little about a country that is integral to stabilizing U.S. national security interests in nonproliferation, terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq, energy security and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, diplomatic relations are a two-way street. With the Iranian government operating an Interest Section in Washington, it would almost certainly have to reciprocate a U.S. request to establish a similar diplomatic presence in Tehran, lest Iran’s leaders risk appearing even more obstinate. They do care about their international image, if only to avoid greater global consensus against them.

During my tenure at the State Department, we tried twice to push the idea of sending U.S. diplomats to Tehran. Both the Bush and Obama administrations decided against it. The 10 percent rule remains precariously imbalanced because the U.S. is trying to gauge the intentions of a country with which it has little direct contact, a situation that it rarely replicates elsewhere.

The executive and legislative branches must stop politicizing diplomacy vis-a-vis Iran and let diplomats do their job. More than any new sanctions legislation, this is how U.S. politicians can truly act in pursuit of vital national security interests.

*Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council and a former Iran desk officer at the State Department. This article originally appeared on Khaleej Times Online.