July 17, 2015 | The Weekly Standard

How Will We Know?

One might think that after the last Iraq war Democrats would be wary of allowing intelligence to dictate policy. Yet that is effectively what Barack Obama has done with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14. The agreement with Iran is strategically premised on the notion that greater commerce will transform the virulently anti-American, antisemitic, terrorism-fond, increasingly imperial Islamic Republic into something more pleasant. Tactically, the agreement depends on Western intelligence against the Iranian nuclear target. The odds are high that American intelligence, which is certainly superior in its collection capabilities to that of our most accomplished allies (the French, British, Germans, and Israelis), is woefully insufficient to fulfill the task that President Obama has assigned it.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, is competent at static surveillance—that is, monitoring known sites to which its inspectors are given unfettered access. The IAEA’s efficiency declines in direct proportion to the deceptive hostility of the host country. Since the clerical regime has declined to confess its past weaponization research, we can be certain it will continue to treat the IAEA with deceptive animus, as it has since the mullahs’ clandestine nuclear handiwork was revealed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002.

The mullahs are not wrong to view the IAEA as a Western antibody. Without the assistance of Western powers, especially the permanent Western members of the U.N. Security Council, the IAEA would not be able to function. Although by no means an extension of Western intelligence services, the IAEA does need Western spooks to help it try to see what a mendacious regime is trying to hide. As IAEA inspectors who have operated inside Iran will confess, Western intelligence agencies have often provided information to inspectors, who operate in the Islamic Republic with little institutional support against a regime that has lied to, and sometimes intimidated, the IAEA’s staff, both on the ground and at its headquarters in Vienna. William Tobey, a former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration and now at Harvard, trenchantly pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that the IAEA is on an impossible mission in Iran since the regime has refused to divulge its past weaponization activities and President Obama has declined to make it a red line. “Normally,” Tobey wrote,

“to do their job, inspectors require access to records and knowledgeable individuals who can support a country’s declaration of the state of its nuclear program. They need to examine invoices, lab notes, personnel files, organization charts, production inventories, building plans, and other documents and to discuss the material with scientists and program managers. As former U.N. and U.S. weapons inspector David Kay recently explained to me: “Unfettered access to people and documents is required to tell inspectors what to look for and where to go.”

From there, the inspectors—in a genuine nuclear-inspections program—would construct a comprehensive mosaic of the country’s nuclear programs, overt and covert. Tile by tile, they would pursue missing pieces and flag false or inconsistent ones for closer scrutiny. This would have to proceed until the IAEA concluded that it had a complete and correct declaration covering all nuclear-related activities. To do its work, the IAEA needs to probe gaps and inconsistencies, which are often more difficult to hide than covert enrichment facilities.”

Both Secretary of State John Kerry and director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan have proudly suggested that American intelligence—primarily the CIA and the eavesdropping National Security Agency—has been quite capable of knowing what the Iranians were up to clandestinely. An Iranian confession of the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear endeavors is thus unnecessary. The House and Senate intelligence committees can undertake a simple test of whether this claim has validity. In 2002 in Paris, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (the People’s Holy Warriors), a Marxist-Islamist Iranian dissident group now known as the National Council of Resistance, revealed the existence of the uranium-enrichment site at Natanz and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. The intelligence committees should ask the CIA and NSA to provide all the intelligence reports they produced on these two sites before they were revealed. Probably there are none.

Kerry and Brennan could argue that American intelligence against the Iranian target has become a lot more accomplished since 2002. Again, this would be easy to prove. The committees could ask Langley and Fort Meade to pull up all of their intelligence reports on Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the so-called Robert Oppenheimer of the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. Are they mostly biographical? Is there any operational reporting on what Fakhrizadeh did at a given location? Is the reporting constant? That is, does it cover one subject continuously, indicating strongly that the CIA has at least one source inside Fakhrizadeh’s organization? The committees could do a search of all intelligence produced since 2002 on Revolutionary Guard nuclear activities. We know that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has operational control over the regime’s nuclear-weapons quest. A review would likely reveal, quite quickly, that the CIA does not possess a single active agent—that is, an asset who is reporting clandestinely from Iran—within the Revolutionary Guard Corps’s nuclear or long-range ballistic missile programs. We are well aware of several nuclear research facilities and the key personnel that are linked to the weapons effort. Congressional committee staffers could start picking facilities and scientists for intelligence reviews. The CIA could, if Congress obliges it to, produce intelligence file reviews. When the need is urgent, case officers in the field can obtain decent summaries of the dossiers on targeted individuals and subjects within a week, and an operative can usually ascertain, even if headquarters wants to put a happy spin on the information, whether the agency knows much at all. 

The State Department’s Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary for political affairs, who has been intimately involved in the nuclear negotiations, has asserted that the United States didn’t need to include long-range ballistic missiles in its list of sensitive nuclear issues to discuss in Europe. Despite the fact that such missiles have never been built to carry conventional warheads, Sherman argued that Washington needed to concern itself only with the design and construction of atomic warheads. This is a vastly more difficult intelligence task since warhead design—including the development of nuclear triggers—is easily concealable. The intelligence committees should accept Sherman’s challenge: Pull up CIA intelligence reports on Iranian warhead research. The odds are again high that they will not find a single asset in Iran reporting on this issue before 2003, when the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Nuclear Capabilities and Intentions suggested that the clerical regime had stopped or paused its work on implosion devices. Sherman and Brennan could be asked to explain how exactly Washington intends to monitor any future Iranian efforts to design nuclear warheads; Brennan could be asked to explain why the CIA appears fairly confident that Iranian engineers aren’t currently working on such devices. Since the clerical regime isn’t providing any “possible military dimension” information to the IAEA, Brennan should have field-produced human intelligence reports to back up this confidence. 

Walk-ins (volunteers who come to American intelligence), defectors, and fortuitously acquired laptop computers can provide brilliant images of the clandestine undertakings of our enemies. But they provide only snapshots. In-country agents alone can give Langley a continuous feed on suspicious activity. And the NSA, despite the brouhaha about its mega-data collection, is in a very tough business where it is largely losing. Defense almost always beats offense in encryption, no matter how many high-powered computers are committed to the task. And Iranian mathematicians aren’t bad. Iranians can be blabbermouths on unsecured phones, but such intelligence collection is episodic and frustrating at best. 

The truth is that the CIA and the NSA are largely flying blind inside the Islamic Republic on the nuclear question. We know a lot about the program—the occasional defector, to us or to others, and other lucky operational endeavors have given us critical information and allowed us to know, beyond a shadow of doubt, the capacious mendacity of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the MIT-educated head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi. Yet the administration appears supremely confident that the IAEA, backed by the Western powers, will be able to verify sensitive sites through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under the agreement, a demand for access to a suspicious site would be made by a majority of the members of the new Joint Commission—the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and Iran. This means the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany would all have to agree on such a demand (not an easy feat of diplomacy, especially once European business returns to Iran). The Iranians would then have 24 days to respond—or to clean any suspect site before risking censure.

That’s a long time. Diplomatically and bureaucratically the process is likely to be even longer—a reading of the JCPOA’s terms for dealing with alleged violations could lead to convoluted discussions among the Joint Commission, foreign ministers, and the Security Council that could tie things up for 103 days before new sanctions might be imposed on the mullahs. But leaving aside whether Iran would have 24 days or 103 to clean a site before worrying about possibly “snapped-back” sanctions, how exactly would suspicions arise about Iran’s activities? 

Until now, Iran has blocked discussion of the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear ambitions (and the day Fakhrizadeh sits down for lengthy, document-rich discussions with an IAEA inspector is the day the Islamic revolution is over). The IAEA therefore will not be able to push any leads it has that Iran has refused to address. The United States is obviously not going to make an issue of the past (see Kerry: “What we’re concerned about is going forward”). So that means the CIA, and secondarily the NSA, will be America’s frontline in detecting suspicious nuclear activity in Iran. The CIA has a nearly flawless record of failing to predict foreign countries’ going nuclear (Great Britain and France don’t count). With the possible exceptions of North Korea and China, the Iranian nuclear effort has been Langley’s hardest target to track accurately. 

In the future, we are likely to see more Iranian walk-ins or dissident-supplied information about the nuclear program. Before the revelations in Paris in 2002, if you’d asked State Department, CIA, or National Security Council staff whether the United States should take seriously nuclear information supplied by the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, nearly all would have answered “absolutely not.” And for cause: The Mujahedeen often got such things wrong or even lied. But they could also get things right, and in 2002, they found massive concealed nuclear plants that the CIA probably had either missed or mis-analyzed. 

A real inspections regime in Iran would have to include the right for IAEA inspectors to follow up any dissident information, especially dissident information that the CIA did not have and disbelieved, with unchallenged, immediate inspections. But does anyone really believe that President Obama will compromise his greatest foreign-policy achievement over information supplied by Iranian dissidents? Or how about an untested CIA agent reporting from Iran? Without IAEA inspections, the CIA will have a very hard time confirming the veracity of any report on sensitive nuclear issues that cannot be seconded by a satellite. Or consider a random intercept that we pick up from a loose-lipped mullah or Revolutionary Guard commander. Intercepts are rarely ideal. They usually consist of bits and pieces that have to be melded together to amount to much. Does anyone really believe that Obama, who made repeated concessions in these negotiations for fear the supreme leader would walk away, would compromise his legacy over suspicions raised by intercepts? 

The entire nuclear deal is likely to become surreal if Washington demands that the IAEA inspect a sensitive Revolutionary Guard base for nuclear activity. It is possible that the clerical regime would grant access to the Parchin compound, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. The IAEA and American intelligence have long suspected that Iran experimented with nuclear trigger devices at Parchin before 2003, suspicions that were not allayed by two cursory, controlled IAEA visits in 2005, which Tehran, then fearful of American military power, allowed. As the former nuclear inspectors David Albright and Olli Heinonen have observed, it’s doubtful that any atomic activity is currently under way at Parchin. 

The Iranians could throw us a Parchin visit, and it’s likely President Obama would grab it boastfully. But there are other sites that ought to be checked routinely. Our curiosity ought to precede any specific suspicion produced by Western intelligence. The president should want to test the verification system to see whether the Iranians are serious. A good place to start would be the Revolutionary Guards’ long-range ballistic missile bases. The mullahs know that we have declared the missile program outside the JCPOA’s purview, which, translated into Persian, means that such facilities are ideal locations to put nuclear-related research. According to the president, the IAEA can check any military facility inside the country. According to the supreme leader, we can’t. Somebody is lying.

Hassan Rouhani has told us repeatedly in his writings that the clerical regime cares much less about nuclear technologies it has mastered than those it has not. The JCPOA concentrates on what the Iranians have already accomplished. It talks in detail about the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. It presupposes that our primary concern is an Iranian “breakout” from facilities that were frequently monitored by the IAEA even before the nuclear negotiations started. It’s doubtful, however, that the mullahs ever wanted to try a breakout under the watchful eye of the U.S. Air Force and Navy, even in the age of Obama. It’s a “sneak-out” that should concern the West. Rouhani, an intellectually insecure cleric who probably wants to have a nuclear legacy somewhat different from the one President Obama envisions, can’t help but tell us the truth. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action doesn’t have an annex devoted to Rouhani’s nuclear ruminations. It should. With him, with the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic, one must always do what the great Persian poet Hafez advised with mullahs: Look posht-e pardeh, or behind the curtain, and discover that they do not do what they preach. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.