Looking Beyond the Iraq/ISIS Crisis: The Iran Challenge
"Has U.S. policy on Iran transitioned to acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran as 'inevitable'?"
The situation on the ground in Iraq is deteriorating. The Iraqi government and the United States appear to have been caught off guard by the pace at which the insurgent group ISIL (or ISIS) has swept through the country. As has become customary, U.S. policy makers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are reacting—scrambling to develop and implement a strategy to counter the threat posed by these militants and, hopefully, stop Iraq from becoming a safe haven for Sunni-backed or Al Qaeda-inspired and -affiliated jihadists.
This seemingly hyper focus on one set of terrorists is troubling, as is the administration’s reported engagement of Iran as a potential partner that could include the sharing of intelligence with Tehran. This approach rewards the Iranian regime for wreaking havoc, fomenting instability, and supporting terrorism in Iraq and beyond. It weakens efforts to compel the Iranian regime to cease activities that threaten global peace and security. It undermines long-standing U.S. policy on terrorism and nonproliferation and could potentially violate prohibitions on collaboration with, and assistance to, gross human rights abusers.
Congress especially needs to look beyond the immediate, quick fix in Iraq—beyond air strikes and “boots on the ground”—and not lose sight of what is happening on the Iran front.
Iran as Arsonist and Firefighter
Iran has spent decades developing a global jihadist network, which in recent years, includes Iraq. Iranian-backed fighters and terrorist proxies have killed many, including Americans. The United States has known this and has selectively applied a range of tools to combat this foe. For example, IRGC Qods Force leaders, including the mastermind behind the strategy in Iraq, are under U.S. sanctions for their role in Iran’s nuclear program and terrorist activities worldwide. However, as the world is witnessing today, the United States failed to contain Iran’s advances in Iraq and failed to undertake a comprehensive, integrated approach to the broader Iranian threat.
General Petraeus warned in 2007 that arms supplies from Iran, including 240mm rockets and explosively formed projectiles, "contributed to a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support. . . . The evidence is very, very clear." He and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, testified before Congress about the depth of Iran’s intervention in Iraq and the regime’s efforts to create a force there similar to Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy operating out of Lebanon.
Seven years later, the most recent State Department terrorism report noted Iran continued to train, fund and provide other support to Iraqi Shia militant groups. Specifically:
the [Qods Force], in concert with Hizballah, provided training outside of Iraq as well as advisors inside Iraq for Shia militants in the construction and use of sophisticated improvised explosive device technology and other advanced weaponry. Similar to Hizballah fighters, many of these trained Shia militants then use these skills to fight for the Assad regime in Syria, often at the behest of Iran.
The evidence is clear: Iran continues its role as regional provocateur, despite pledges to the contrary that it would support Iraq’s stabilization. The regime’s actions contradict Rouhani’s rhetoric, including during his recent visit to Turkey where he said Iran would make fighting violence, extremism and terrorism a primary objective.
Iran’s overtures on Iraq are designed to elevate Iran’s stature by interjecting the regime as the only solution to a crisis it helped create and magnify. Iran has tried to do the same in Syria but, until now, has been excluded from multi-party talks on the Syrian situation.
Those who have been victimized and continue to be threatened by Iran and its terrorist proxies have said it many times but it merits repeating: Iran has no interest in peace. It wants to be the hegemon and with a nuclear weapon, a renewed Persian superpower with global influence.
Stop Reading Tea Leaves—Pay Attention to Actions
The Iraq situation highlights dangerous trends taking hold of the U.S. approach to the Iranian threat. First, Iran’s nuclear pursuit, other WMD and missile programs and state sponsorship of international terrorism, are being considered in isolation and separate from each other, when it is the intersection of these issues that make Iran a threat to global peace and security. Second, administration officials and others in Congress appear intent on accepting the myth of “moderate” Iran, when the opposite is true. On the nuclear front, the focus appears to be on divining intent and detecting when Iranian officials have decided to pull together the components for a nuclear weapon.
During testimony earlier this year to the Congressional intelligence committees, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addressed Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure. Clapper detailed how “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.”
In 2012, when discussing the Iranian role in the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., DNI Clapper stated: “Iranian officials–probably including supreme leader Ali Khamenei–have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.” Can the United States be certain the regime has not expressed the same feelings regarding nuclear weapons?
The focus on Iranian ‘will’ begs the question: which Iranian officials and factors are being evaluated? Are assessments based on Iranian statements or actions?
Which Iran is to be believed? The façade of moderation in the figure of Rouhani or the Iran that stones women and hangs dissidents and human-rights activists from cranes in the public square? Which statements are to be believed—those delivered in multilateral meetings or those for consumption by Iranian audiences? Is the use of relativism adequate in assessing an adversary’s intentions or ‘will’ when vital U.S. national-security interests are at stake?
We Won’t Trust, but We Can Verify
The additional narrative advanced by administration officials and other ‘experts’ to assuage concerns about the U.S. approach is that Iran would not be able to achieve final nuclear breakout capacity without being detected.
However, the Defense Science Board’s Task Force Report on Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies identified gaps in the United States’ global nuclear monitoring, where even “technologies and processes designed for current treaty verification and inspections are inadequate to future monitoring realities.” It noted “the nature of the problem is changing significantly in a number of dimensions,” including “security risks from threshold states” and “the consequences of failing to detect clandestine materials/capabilities.”
The United States, other Western nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency failed to detect decades of Iranian covert nuclear activity until in 2002, an Iranian opposition group publicly unveiled the regime’s decades of deception. Since then, monitoring and verification have relied heavily on limited disclosure and access provided by Iran.
In this setting, do U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies assess with high confidence, moderate confidence, or low confidence that they will be able to detect—in time to counter—when Iranian officials have “decided” to pull the components together to build a nuclear weapon?
What is the level of confidence when considered alongside the international community’s record on Syria, for example?
The full extent of Syria’s nuclear work was unknown until Israel’s September 2007 attack on the al-Kibar nuclear facility, which was built with North Korean assistance. Sure, the U.S. intelligence community had expressed concerns about “Syria’s intentions regarding nuclear weapons” in National Intelligence Estimates on foreign missile programs. There had also been reports about Syrian outreach to illicit nuclear networks. Nothing, however, indicated Syria was so far along until the only viable option to prevent further escalation of the threat was a military strike.
With respect to Iran, is the current focus on ‘detection’ the Obama administration’s way of indicating support for the military option? What of undeclared or unknown Iranian nuclear facilities? Is the reference to detection and verification more of a nod to the North Korean case? Officials with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) assured in May that CTBTO can detect any new atomic explosion conducted by North Korea and inform member states. Cold comfort for U.S. allies within striking range.
Has U.S. policy on Iran transitioned to acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran as “inevitable”?
Time to Change Course on U.S.-Iranian Approach
Much time has been lost playing games with Iran on its nuclear pursuit. The United States and like-minded countries have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the regime, granting it concessions and legitimacy it does not deserve. The Obama administration risks falling into a similar trap with Iraq. Will it stop there or will the United States then engage the Iranian regime on Syria? Will it ignore Iranian advances in establishing terrorist footholds beyond the Middle East?
U.S. laws and policy relating to Iran, dating back to the 1980s, are grounded in national emergencies affirming that the regime’s policies and activities pose an “unusual and extraordinary threat. . .to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” President Obama renewed these in March 2014. Yet, the U.S. response does not match the threat.