President Obama announced today (July 14th) that the P5+1 Group (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany along with the European Union) concluded a long-term comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran that will “verifiably” prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be for peaceful uses for at least the next 10 years in exchange for economic sanctions relief. Given all the dueling rhetoric in the media from politicians, foreign leaders, and cable news pundits, I don’t know if this deal is a good one or not.   What I will say, though, is my calculus for judging the merits of this agreement is whether the sanctions relief are enough to cause Iran to stop spinning its centrifuges in order to suspend its development of nuclear weapons.  So, rather than dive into the political pool of polemics about whether or not this agreement puts U.S. national security at risk, what I would prefer to explore with you is the impact I see this agreement with Iran having on the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

Most obvious is the stress the agreement puts on the IC that it can detect (and if need be verify) with national technical means whether Iran is cheating.  Or stated differently, that the IC has the ability independent from international inspectors to warn policy makers authoritatively and in a timely manner of Iranian non-compliance.  The President and Secretary of State clearly have confidence that the IC can effectively monitor any steps Iran takes to covertly continue its nuclear weapons program.  Skeptics, though, will immediately point to the 2002 Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Iraq’s nuclear weapons capabilities as proof that such confidence in the IC is not deserved.  The strategic concern is that Iran will cheat and we won’t know it until it is too late.  The burden is clearly on the IC to at least neutralize, if not convince, naysayers that it has the technical capabilities and analytical skills to effectively monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.  In this regard the IC has its track record of verifying arms agreements with the Soviet Union/Russia to fall back on.

As the plot line is being written for the Congressional hearings on the nuclear accord with Iran, the IC in the person of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Jim Clapper will be cast in a no-win position by both supporters and opponents of this agreement.  The IC will certainly be expected by all sides in both open and closed hearings to document the Islamic Republic of Iran’s anti-American policies dating back to 1979, its number one ranking as the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, its current role in disrupting Iraq, its willingness to trade oil for arms with North Korea, its animosity towards Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as the covertness of its nuclear activities over the last decade.  The IC should also be expected to give an accounting of its capabilities to monitor Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement negotiated in Vienna.  Here opponents of the accord, which will include Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Chairman Richard Burr and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Chairman Devin Nunes, will be interested in having the DNI explain the inherent limitations of intelligence so as to cast doubts on the IC’s abilities to inform policy makers in a timely manner whether Iran is cheating or not.

If the DNI expresses “high confidence” that the IC will be able to discern Iranian compliance as well as non-compliance, he will be quickly reminded of  Director Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet’s [in]famous “slam dunk” assurance that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Alternatively, if the DNI attempts to manage expectations by saying he has “reasonable confidence” in the IC’s abilities to monitor Iran’s nuclear developments, he will be seen by many as confirming the limits of what the IC can do and will be characterized as “uncertain.”

Those who watch the IC closely will also be looking to see if DNI Clapper’s National Intelligence Mission Managers (NIMMs) construct for “integrating” intelligence from across the community is up to the task of detecting and warning if Iran does not meet its commitments under this agreement.  The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) ongoing reorganization into 10 integrated mission centers will also get an early test as it works to keep IC Customer #1 up to speed on Iranian compliance/non-compliance with this agreement as well as on Tehran’s future intentions regarding nuclear weapons.  Should Iran cheat and it not be detected in a timeframe that matters, this will be perceived as a strategic intelligence failure not unlike Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or the 2002 assessment that Iraq possessed WMDs – all of which lead to damning external reviews of the IC’s performance and then to major overhauls of the IC.

So while people are trying to figure out if this nuclear agreement with Iran is or is not in line with America’s national security interests, I have little doubt that this agreement just made the job being the DNI significantly more difficult – along with the NIMMs for Iran, Warning, and Science & Technology.  Success is expected; however, failure will not be tolerated!

That’s what I think; what do you think?

The ISIS Conundrum

I just finished watching a 17 minute discussion from the Wednesday night PBS NewsHour (10 June) moderated by anchor Judy Woodruff  with Leon Panetta, Michele Flournoy, Tony Zinni, and Andrew Bacevich discussing US policy/strategy in Iraq in light of President Obama’s decision to send 450 combat advisors there.   This link (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/can-obamas-plan-defeat-destroy-islamic-state/ ) provides both the video of the discussion and a transcript.

I found this roundtable discussion both informative and distressing.  Informative because it framed the issues and exposed the various policy options. Distressing because all but Bacevich see ISIS threating US national interests, and yet Panetta and Flournoy believe we need Sunni Iraqis to defend those interests for us!  The elephant in the room mentioned but not really addressed is how to defeat (destroy?) ISIS without a long term US ground force commitment to the region.  Neat trick if it can be done.

With “due respect” to Ms. Flournoy, absent a large ground force commitment to Iraq I do not see Iran’s influence (military, religious, cultural, economic, and diplomatic) in the region waning.  Ergo, a reasonable strategy is for the US is to get out of the way and let Iran deal with ISIS while the US prepares to deal with Iran as an adversarial nation state regional power.  Does this mean the end of a sovereign Iraq?  Probably, but isn’t Iraqi sovereignty mostly de jure vice de facto?

It is my sense that what the American people want to hear is “no long term military commitment of ground forces to Iraq,” so if there is a threat to their safety from ISIS then the national security leadership needs to forcefully make that case … and expect it to be accepted or rejected in the 2016 election.  Alternatively, if the threat is now clear and present the President could request from Congress a declaration of war against ISIS or the Congress could offer such a declaration to the Commander in Chief.

Regarding the threat ISIS is presenting, I found Alex Ward’s recent article How Much Does ISIS Really Threaten America in THE NATIONAL INTEREST (http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-much-does-isis-really-threaten-america-12993?page=show ) well-reasoned.

Agreeing with Ward, I would observe that ISIS is fully engaged in creating vice operating from a safe haven in Eastern Syria and Northwestern Iraq as it fights Iraq, Iran, and elements in Syria to create the Islamic State.  As threatening as ISIS inspired “lone wolfs” are it is difficult for me to see any of  them as being  more dangerous to the safety of American citizens in the homeland than James Holmes (Aurora Movie Theater mass murder), Adam Lanza (Newtown School Shooting), Jared Lee Loughner (Congress Woman Gifford shooting),  etc. all of whom were not ISIS motivated.

As Leon Panetta observed in the NewsHour roundtable, the destabilization ISIS is causing in the Middle East represents a  threat to US interests, but a case can be made that ISIS is actually an artifact of the instability that already existed in region from the Syrian Civil War and an ethically Balkanized Iraq.  More importantly though, how does ISIS enhancing the regional instability threaten the strategic safety of the US or even Israel?  They could achieve nation state status, but the Islamic State would be a poor country in rough neighborhood.  How about as a state sponsor of terrorism?  I don’t see the Islamic State as being in the same league as North Korea, Iran, Somalia, or even fracturing Yemen.  Without Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), terrorism is the tactic of choice of the militarily weak.

As effective as ISIS recruiting and radicalization appears to be, they have not shown the ability for their recruits to plan, let alone conduct, coordinated attacks.  Actually it is this inability to mount synchronized attacks that makes ISIS “lone wolves” difficult for the Intelligence and Law Enforcement Agencies to identify and disrupt them.

Alex Ward makes several recommendations for dealing more effectively with the ISIS threat as it exists (stop hyping it, focus on tracking returning “foreign fighters,” stop looking at motivation and pay attention to how ISIS attacks), to which I would add work on intelligence driven “honey pots” to identify ISIS radicals amongst us and develop analytics that extract “lone wolf” signatures out of their low signal to noise environments.  More strategically the US needs a narrative that dilutes if not counters the appeal of the ISIS narrative for disconnected people to fight and die for ISIS.

I find it disconcerting that 14 years after 9/11 and all the blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US still has not developed a rational for countering radical jihadism.  Beyond that over two administrations and several Congresses we have not yet agreed on what national interest are at stake in Iraq since it was found not to have WMD and Saddam was removed.  Nor have we developed a consensus around a national strategy for dealing with the rise of Iran.  In retrospect, preventing the North from overrunning the South and containing the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia was actually a more coherent strategy for American war policy in Vietnam than anything we have seen in the last ten years in the Middle East!

That’s what I think; what do you think?

A Holy War on the Arabian Peninsula?

When we last engaged I was opining that the Intelligence Community (IC) seems least prepared to warn effectively against what it perceives as the most immediate and likely threat to the homeland – – –  the self-radicalized Islamic Jihadi “lone wolf” already residing  in the United States.  Then in the midst of the sentencing phase of Boston Marathon Bomber Tamerian Tsarnaev trial and the 20th Anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an eccentric Tampa area mailman flew his homemade gyrocopter down the Mall to a landing on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.  This act witnessed by thousands and seen by millions on TV seems to have more than anything else galvanized national concern about the threats “lone wolves” (whether foreign or domestic) can pose to national security.  Perhaps Postman Pat (a.k.a Doug Hughes) literally flying his gyrocopter under the radar into the restricted airspace of Washington D.C. after posting his intentions to social media and informing the press will make it obvious that DHS’ Intelligence and Analysis Directorate (I&A) needs to be aggressively applying modern analytics to the big data sets of human terrain information it has access to for discerning potential “lone wolves” in order to nominate them for investigation.   And yes, those charged with stopping the “lone wolves” among us should expect a high false positive rate from these DHS profiles.  Such is the nature of this threat.

Turning to the Iranian “nuclear agreement.” you won’t find me taking any kind of public stance on whether I think the “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program” (a.k.a “The Framework Agreement”) is a good deal or a bad deal, as it is just too early, at least for me, to tell.  What is clear though is that Tehran is anxious to have the economic sanctions imposed against it for its pursuit of a nuclear weapon lifted as soon as possible.  When asked about whether Iran “can be trusted” to formally agree to the provisions of “The Framework Agreement” and then not cheat on its implementation in return for sanctions being lifted, the President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense all have stated for the record that “verification” not “trust” is what the US will depend on for assuring Iran’s compliance.

The Framework agreement certainly puts the IC in the political and policy cross hairs of national security. Despite an excellent track record of keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear development, and if the New York Times is to be believed for having even slowed it down with STUXNET malware, there will be many ready to assert that the Iranians can hide from IC sensors their continuing enrichment of fissile material to weapons grade levels.  Moreover, the IC will be put in the position of having to prove a negative where the absence of evidence that Iran is not enriching uranium doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Even with international inspectors in country, there is the reasonable potential that Iran could move its nuclear weapons enrichment capabilities to undetected locations inside of Iran or off shore to North Korea.  Given these circumstances, the stage is set so that if the Framework Agreement keeps Iran from going nuclear with the benefit of IC monitoring it will be a policy success, but if Iran can continue its nuclear enrichment program without detection it will be an intelligence failure.

Before wrapping up, I want to take note that war has broken out between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Houthi proxies in what is now the failed state of Yemen, where Aden also remains the home base of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  As in Iraq where Tehran is supporting Shite military action against Sunni ISIS, Iran is providing military equipment and “advisers” to its Shia Houthi allies in Yemen.  More ominously, the Iranian Navy has deployed the destroyer ALBORZ and the logistics support ship BUSHER to the Gulf of Aden “to protect the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interests on the high seas.”  Subsequent reporting indicates Iran is sending a convoy of merchant ships to Yemen, presumably bringing war supplies for the Houthis.

The presence of Iranian naval forces in the region leads to the open question of whether Saudi Arabia will challenge them, and if so will the US Fifth Fleet become directly involved?  Having spent some tension filled time in this region (Iranian Hostage rescue 1979; Tanker War/Ernest Will escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers 1987) the potential for the unexpected to happen at sea is considerable.  The standing USN order post STARK to “defend yourself” makes for a volatile situation that can turn strategic almost immediately because of tactical decisions made by ship captains operating under almost constant stress.  It is probably premature, but you don’t need to be Robert Kaplan to see that Iranian military success at rolling back ISIS in Iraq and establishing Houthi control over at least part of Yemen looks like a pincer that could envelope Mecca and Medina wresting them from Saudi Arabia’s Sunni control for the Shia Mullah’s in Qom.  Extrapolating from the current situation it is not farfetched to infer the likelihood for a bloody religious war been Sunnis and Shiites playing out on the Saudi Peninsula before the next US Presidential election.

Assuming no outside intervention, I would expect a “holy war” on the Arabian Peninsula to settle into a drawn out stalemate between the Sunni forces of Saudi Arabia and the Shia forces of Iran that will negatively impact the supply and price of oil.  The more discouraging option, of course, is Iran over time becoming the dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula and reestablishing the Persian Empire with control of all the significant energy resources from the Red Sea to Afghanistan.  Such a greater Persia, with or without nuclear weapons, would shift Iran from being a regional actor to a strategic competitor with global economic and religious clout.

That’s what I think; what do you think?