A High Price to Pay for Ignorance

May 3, 2007

The Pentagon and White House continue to argue that they
are not planning a war against Iran in spite of the
continuing buildup of naval forces in the Persian Gulf,
which will peak with the arrival of a third carrier group
at the end of May. The naval aviation and missile resources
available, which are not being used to support combat
operations in neighboring Iraq, far exceed any reasonable
level required to send Iran a warning or to reassure Gulf
Arab allies. The carrier concentration has even weakened
U.S. ability to respond militarily elsewhere, most
particularly in the Western Pacific, where an unpredictable
North Korea continues to pose a genuine threat. Multiple
carrier groups in the Persian Gulf can only mean that
another preemptive war, this time against Iran, is either
about to take place or is being viewed as a serious option.

Critics of an air and naval assault on Iran have provided
many good reasons why war between Washington and Tehran
would be a disaster for U.S. global interests, ranging
from a spike in oil prices to the unleashing of worldwide
terrorism. What is not being appreciated clearly either by
the media or policy-makers is the central dilemma in war
planning with Iran, which is the apparent lack of reliable
intelligence on Iranian intentions and capabilities.
Planning for war without good information has a surreal
quality, like a blind man trying to describe something
he cannot see, with guesses and “what-ifs” replacing

There has been a notable silence on Iran coming from the
intelligence community. Late in 2006, shortly before he
was forced to resign over his unwillingness to cook the
intelligence on Iran, Director of National Intelligence
John Negroponte responded to congressional criticism by
conceding that there were major deficiencies in what
information was being obtained about the Islamic Republic.
Since that time, a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran
has been stalled because of White House demands that the
product be more useful, i.e., demonstrative of Iranian
bad behavior and intentions. CIA analysis suggests that
it cannot be demonstrated that Tehran currently has a
nuclear weapons program, though the case either for or
against Iran rests on a paucity of information, not on a
solid understanding of what is going on inside the country
and among its leadership. On a purely practical level,
leaving moral and ethical considerations aside, until the
United States can answer key questions about Iran, includ-
ing its ability to retaliate, its terrorism resources, and
the nature and location of its nuclear program, no military
action should be contemplated.

The impending intelligence failure on Iran is very similar
to that which took place regarding Iraq, and for many of
the same reasons. From a practical point of view, it is
very difficult to spy on a country if you do not have an
embassy in its capital and also have an embargo or
sanctions in place that prohibit business relations. It
is even more difficult when that country has a very small
group of decision-makers that control all information care-
fully. Spy fiction notwithstanding, most effective agents
are volunteers who offer to provide their services,
whether for money or for idealism. Oleg Penkovsky, the
Russian who was the most important Western spy of the 20th
century, was an idealistic volunteer who had to make
several attempts to contact the British and American
embassies in Moscow before he finally succeeded. Put
simply, when the volunteer cannot reach you, you don’t have
any spies. It is reasonable to assume that America has very
few real spies inside Iran.

Politicians who are ignorant of the Middle East frequently
confuse advocacy with intelligence and allow the former to
become the basis for policy formulation, sometimes by
default. Lacking good intelligence resources, much so-
called information that is reaching policy-makers in
Washington comes from émigré groups and lobbyists with an
agenda – again very much like what happened in the lead-up
to the Iraq war. These groups are all interested in
emphasizing the threat from Iran, not in objective analysis
that might exonerate the mullahs.


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The leading Iranian émigré group is the National Council of
Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which pretends to have a network
of independent sources within Iran but actually is largely
dependent on information from Israeli intelligence. The
“critical analysis” of events in Iran that reaches policy-
makers in Washington frequently comes from it and other
lobbying and advocacy groups such as the American Enterprise
Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy, and the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC), all of which share an “Iran
agenda” that calls for regime change. AIPAC is known to be
the source of a position paper on Iran that most congress-
men rely on to shape their own views. Israel’s advocates,
including peripatetic politicians such as ex-Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, make frequent visits to the United
States, where they have good access to the media and
potential supporters, to reinforce the case that Iran must
be dealt with forcefully.

There is also a tactical problem caused by poor
intelligence. Without good information, Iran’s nuclear
program becomes hard to target in a military sense, and
a massive air and sea attack might not even solve the
alleged problem. There are hundreds of known nuclear-
related targets in Iran, with many others still undiscover-
ed and hidden. Many of the sites are located in cities,
meaning that an attempt to take them out would result in
numerous civilian casualties. Iran has been preparing for
an American attack for some years, and there are reports
that many of the sites are deep underground and hardened
with layers of concrete, meaning that a genuine attempt
to completely destroy them could require tactical nuclear
weapons. The unilateral use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.
would change the world, and not for the better, as it would
let the genie out of the bottle and create the worst
possible precedent for other nuclear powers like India,
Pakistan, and Israel.

Poor intelligence also means that Iran’s capacity for
retaliation is unclear. If one of the purposes of war is
to inflict more damage on the enemy than the enemy inflicts
on you, it is essential to know your foe’s capabilities.
One possible retaliatory scenario considered to be likely
and currently being war-gamed by the Pentagon and the
intelligence agencies involves Iran’s stirring-up of its
Shi’ite co-religionists in neighboring Iraq against
American forces, cutting supply lines and making every
Iraqi neighborhood a safe haven for insurgents. Today’s
chaos in Baghdad would look positively benign in comparison
to the national uprising that would ensue.

Iran could also use its missiles and biological and
chemical weapons to strike against other U.S. forces in the
region, in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. It could effectively
attack regional U.S. friends and allies such as the
Emirates, Kuwait, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. It might, for
example, call on the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain to rebel
and overthrow the Sunni emir, leading to an immediate loss
of the base for the U.S. Sixth Fleet. It almost certainly
would use Silkworm missiles and suicide boats to close the
narrow Straits of Hormuz, cutting off petroleum from the
entire Gulf region and driving oil up to $400 per barrel.
If it were really lucky, it could sink an American aircraft

Worldwide, Iran could have Hezbollah terrorist cells
believed to be underground in the United States and Europe
stage terrorist attacks. It could destabilize all of Asia
by assassinating Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and
Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, possibly resulting in an
Islamic Republic in Pakistan that would be armed both with
nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Attacking
Iran for the wrong reasons and with the same poor
intelligence that produced the Iraq catastrophe would cause
American influence and power to collapse throughout the
Middle East and central Asia, an extremely high price to
pay for ignorance.

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