A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

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?

From the “Guns of August” to the “Serenity of September?”

Wow!  What an amazing 30 days going from the “Guns of August” to the “Serenity of September!”  Instead of discussing whether U.S. cruise missile attacks as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons against rebels on 21 August would deter their future use or lead to a wider regional conflict, I am wondering why Assad chose to give up his chemical weapons in response to a Russian/US brokered United Nations Resolution.   Even more startling was Iran’s new President Russan Rouhani launching a “charm offensive” in the midst of Iran’s ally Syria bending to international pressure to give up its chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  In interviews with several western journalists, Rouhani said Iran was enriching Uranium for legitimate energy purposes and not for weaponization.  Relative to his predecessor, President Rouhani’s speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly was moderate and again eschewed the pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Within a day of this speech, Secretary of State Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart to discuss lifting sanctions against Iran in return for verification that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program.  Then prior to departing New York for Tehran, President Rouhani’s agreed to a 15 minute telephone conversation with President Obama – the first time the leaders of both countries have spoken since the Carter Administration in 1979 when the Shah was in power!

Hallelujah!  Noble Peace Prizes for all our “friends” (i.e. Putin, Assad, and Rouhani).

So how did we get from the U.S. being backed into a trap between two bad choices of either not responding to Syria killing over 1,400 people with chemical weapons or launching an ineffective military response that the President said he would take only with the concurrence of the Congress?  My guess is that Vladimir made Bashar an offer that he along with his Iranian and Hezbollah cronies couldn’t refuse.  Since there is no way you can ever use chemical weapons again without the international community coming after you and your Alwite regime, why not give them up?  Russia will broker the a deal with the UN that will keep the U.S. and Israel out of Syria’s internal affairs regarding the turn over the weapons. Russia will also stand firm against any international action to take down the Assad government.   Rouhani and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah will endorse the deal and assure Assad they will help him win the civil war with the rebels so the “Assad Dynasty” can continue.  Everybody wins:  the U.S. gets Syria to give up its chemical weapons in response to a UN resolution without resorting to force; NATO doesn’t have to be concerned about supporting U.S. military action against Syria; Russia shows the world that it still matters while holding the line on the international community bringing about regime change;  Iran keeps one of its few allies; Hezbollah retains its Syrian sanctuary;  and Assad gets to stay in power – all because Syria agreed to turnover chemical weapons that it could never use again anyway!

OK, I suppose this could explain what is going on with Putin and Assad, but why is Iran overtly signaling at the same time its interest in discussing with the U.S. whether or not it will pursue nuclear weapons as Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons?  Rather than events in Syria driving what Iran is doing they are just serving to have a megaphone effect on what Iran is trying to achieve.  I see Rouhani’s actions being part of an independent Iranian strategy to take advantage of the world stage provided by the annual opening of the UN General Assembly to change Iran’s standing in the world while protecting its nuclear weapons options.   First there are the economic sanctions Rouhani needs to get relief from before they create an “Arab Spring effect” in Persian Iran.  This means showing the world that he really does represent the moderate Iranians who legitimately elected him.  Next there is the important message that unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Rouhani Administration wants Iran accepted as a rational player by the international community.   Then there is the potential that Iran is not as close to having a deliverable nuclear weapon as U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe them to be.  Finally, the Iranian religious leadership may also be recalculating the value of having nuclear weapons (where could they be used, to what effect;  would Iran’s Islamic Revolution survive the overwhelming retaliation in kind from their use; would U.S. containment of a nuclear Iran cripple Iran’s economy and regional influence?).  No matter; what Rouhani did achieve at the UN is to buy Iran time to keep the U.S. and Israel from acting against its nuclear program while talking about talks.  If sanctions are relaxed in order to reward Iran for being more moderate in tone without agreeing in a verifiable way to cease pursuing nuclear weapons then Rouhani will have accomplished a strategic success for the cost of being no more than polite and well behaved!

Of course, the serenity of September was violently pierced by a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16th that resulted in 13 dead and raised considerable concern about the “insider threat.”  Then there was the Nairobi Westgate Mall seizure/hostage situation between 21 and 24 September that saw 68 killed by al Shabab terrorists bringing to life again the fears about how committed radical jihadists can wreck havoc in urban areas with nothing more than automatic rifles.

While Aaron Alexis had no terrorist connections, al Qaeda will recognize, that as with Major Hassan at Fort Hood, insiders can access secure military bases with weapons and “punish” those they see as responsible for killing their jihadist warriors.  Even more chilling, the Nairobi Mall attack shows how local terrorists can make what is common place fearful to the point of negatively impacting quality of life and economic activity.

Perhaps law enforcement and intelligence assessments are correct that al Qaeda and its franchises like al Shabab or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are not capable of executing a Nairobi mall attack inside the U.S., but media headlines about the Washington Navy Yard shootings at least make me think otherwise.

That’s what I think; what do think?