Don’t Trust the Israeli and U.S. Intelligence Communities on Iran

Don’t Trust the Israeli and U.S. Intelligence Communities on Iran

It is fair to question the accuracy of these assessments, given the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities’ many failures in foreseeing political changes in Iran.

Senior American and Israeli intelligence officials recently assessed that Iran’s protests don’t seriously threaten the regime’s survival. Such pessimistic assessments, which could dissuade foreign countries from supporting the Iranian people and remove political pressure on the Islamic Republic, have unleashed a torrent of speculation about their reliability as well as the regime’s future. In fact, it is fair to question the accuracy of these assessments, given the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities’ many failures in foreseeing political changes in Iran.

The realities on the ground tell a different story. After three months of using brutal violence, the protests are still going; there are signs of disarray within the ruling elite, security forces suffer from low morale, and workers’ strikes across key industries are growing. Simply put, the regime is losing control over the protests.

The American intelligence community’s unenviable track record with the Islamic Republic begins with the 1979 fundamentalist Islamic Revolution, which it failed to predict. Not long before the revolution, on December 31, 1977, President Jimmy Carter said with assurances from the intelligence community that “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” In August 1978, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported to Carter that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation.” Six months later, on February 11, 1979, the Shah’s government collapsed, and Khomeinist revolutionaries took power. The CIA chief later confessed that the agency failed to predict Iran’s circumstances because it “didn’t expect a 78-year-old who was not in the country for 14 years to tie the forces so easily.” Some intelligence analysts contend the CIA failed to predict the coming storm because it relied on SAVAK, the Shah’s intelligence service, although the agency had 40,000 experts, advisors, and officers operating in Iran.

If the intelligence community had provided an accurate assessment, Carter might have offered the shah a guide to manage the situation instead of faulty public reassurances that the monarchy would stand. The CIA’s failure to predict the forthcoming upheaval resulted in not only the overthrow of America’s strategic partner and profound geopolitical change in the region but also the failure of Carter’s bid for reelection.

The second notable example of U.S. intelligence failure about Iran was the CIA’s assumption that President Mohammad Khatami, who became the president of the Islamic Republic in 1997, “represented a genuine break from the regime orthodoxy” and wanted to turn the Iranian regime into a normal behaving state. George Tenet, then CIA director, testified to Congress that Khatami was sincerely trying to end his government’s support of terrorism. Still, he needed time to consolidate his control over the intelligence and security services.

Having agreed on Khatami’s bona fide, the White House offered conciliatory gestures designed to help Khatami and his moderate followers in their struggle with conservatives and hardliners. Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, stressed that the Clinton administration “welcomed” Khatami’s dialogue and made several concessions, such as lifting the ban on imports of pistachios, carpet, and caviar, three of the Iranian most lucrative non-oil exports and a plan to release Iran’s assets that had been frozen since the embassy takeover in 1979.

More disturbing was that the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Khatami would terminate Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. However, the CIA assessment was off the mark entirely. Both nuclear and missile programs had their most significant progress during Khatami (compared to the Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad periods), with critical parts of the nuclear and missile programs being achieved during his tenure. Although many observers suggested Khatami was “out of the loop” on nuclear and ballistic missile matters, subsequent revelations indicated Khatami, while not involved in day-to-day nuclear decisions, was a loyal supporter of the clandestine projects.

Like their American counterparts, the Israeli intelligence community also failed to predict political changes in Iran. According to declassified reports, the Israeli delegation in Tehran believed that the shah achieved “internal stability” and the reign of the Shah “continues without significant disturbance.” It was only during the final year of the Shah’s rule that Israel began to understand that the Shah was in trouble.

Such a wrong assessment was offered in spite of the fact that Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, was heavily involved in Iran. Mossad and the Iranian SAVAK developed an extensive and exceptional intelligence relationship that included exchanging intelligence and performing joint counterintelligence operations until the Islamic revolution.

Even after the takeover of Iran by Islamists, the Israeli intelligence community believed that Iran was a “natural ally” of Israel, and the Khomeinists’ fiery slogans against the Jewish State were just a short-lived revolutionary fervor rather than a strategic shift in Iran’s foreign policy. They believed that after the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary fervor would begin to cool, and Iranians would realize the importance of their relationship with Israel. This naive assessment led Israeli officials to arm Iran against Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who invaded Iran in September 1980. Israel even urged the United States to provide the Islamic Republic with military aid to keep up its defenses despite the hostage crisis. Counting on Khomeinists’ change of heart toward Israel, in October 1987, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that “Iran is Israel’s best friend, and we do not intend to change our position in relation to Tehran because Khomeini’s regime will not last forever.” Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, but Iran’s vocal animus remained.

Similarly, during the Oslo Peace process, when Palestinians’ hopes for making peace with Israel were ripe, the Israeli intelligence community (Aman, Mossad, and the Shin Bet) assessed that Iran, despite its rhetoric, would not be able to undermine the peace between Israeli and Palestinians. The intelligence community was unaware of Iran’s aggressive peace-spoiling efforts and its influence over Palestinian Islamist militants such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

When Israel engaged in talks with Yasser Arafat, top leaders of the Islamic regime in Iran decided that the Oslo peace posed an existential threat to the regime’s revolutionary ideology and geopolitical ambitions and ordered an all-out campaign to derail the deal. On orders from Tehran, Hamas embarked on a suicide attack campaign, resulting in the death of hundreds of Israelis. These attacks devastated Israeli public opinion to the extent that critics lambasted the intelligence community for misleading assurances, calling it a “dereliction of duty.”

Perhaps worse, the Israeli intelligence community was misguided about Iran’s influence over Lebanese Shiites and Hezbollah. When Israel decided to leave Lebanon, intelligence officials assured the public that the minute Israel left South Lebanon, the word Hezbollah would be erased from Israelis’ vocabulary. This, of course, was not the case. Hezbollah transformed South Lebanon into Iran’s military stronghold, and Iran officially declared Hezbollah part of its “Axis of Resistance” and an extension of its “border” against Israel.

None of this is to say that intelligence gathering is easy or predicting an adversary’s behavior is simple. No doubt the reasons the world’s two most powerful intelligence agencies repeatedly faltered in anticipating political changes in Iran are nuanced and multiple. The first is related to the nature of fundamental political change (revolution), which is inherently unpredictable. Revolution is the outcome of interactions among complicated factors, such as leadership quality during crises, which cannot be accurately assessed in advance. Second, change occurs when the ruling regimes suffer from a profound crisis of legitimacy. This process is hard to conceptualize, let alone measure. The third reason is paradigmatic. Usually, experts use paradigms to analyze the political reality of countries. That acts as a significant setback to foreseeing political change. For instance, the paradigms developed by Sovietologists in U.S. academic institutions played a crucial role in misinforming views of political change in the Soviet Union. In contrast, using “exception theories” for predicting change is a better alternative in some instances. Next the fact that forecasting political change is always vulnerable to errors. It is common for analysts to reject a “true hypothesis” and decide that change will not take place when, in fact, it will. Finally, regarding the specific case of Iran, the intelligence community’s pessimism stems from their overreliance on the information provided by the so-called “Iran advocates,” known for their portrayal of the regime as stable and invincible.

However, regardless of the cause of the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities’ repeated blindness to change, their public pronouncements have real world impacts. Their assessments drive perception. Their pessimism dissuades foreign countries from going “too far” in supporting the Iranian people in their protests and removes political pressure on the brutal regime in Tehran. In this way it’s harmful to the Iranian people, feeding their sense of isolation and tamping down their hopes for an Iran free of the Islamic Republic’s repression. As a result, these assessments might actually prolong the existence of the current regime, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, which is neither their intent nor in the interest of the United States or Israel.