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?