The Myth of the Mad Mullahs

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

In the entryway of "Persia House," as the CIA's new Iran operations division is known internally, hangs a haunting life-size poster of Hussein, the martyr revered by Iran's Shiite Muslims. The division was created last year to push more aggressively for information about Iran's nuclear program and other secrets.

Creating Persia House and spinning off Iran from its old home in the agency's Near East division were part of a broader effort to "plus up" collection of secret information, in the words of one senior official. The CIA made it easy for disgruntled Iranians to send information directly to the agency in cases known as "virtual walk-ins." The National Security Agency and other intelligence organizations made similar drives to steal more of Iran's secrets.

Meanwhile, the intelligence analysts responsible for Iran were given new encouragement to think outside the box. To break the lock-step culture that allowed the disastrous mistake on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Deputy Director of National Intelligence Thomas Fingar ordered that analysts be given more information about sources and, rather than trying to fit information into preexisting boxes to prove a case, they should simply explain what it meant.

All these strands converged in the bombshell National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that was released Monday. That document was as close to a U-turn as one sees in the intelligence world. The community dropped its 2005 judgment that Iran was "determined to develop nuclear weapons" and instead said, "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" because of international pressure.

The secret intelligence that produced this reversal came from multiple channels -- human sources as well as intercepted communications -- that arrived in June and July. At that time, a quite different draft of the Iran NIE was nearly finished. But the "volume and character" of the new information was so striking, says a senior official, that "we decided we've got to go back." It was this combination of data from different sources that gave the analysts "high confidence" the covert weapons program had been stopped in 2003. This led them to reject an alternative scenario (one of six) pitched by a "red team" of counterintelligence specialists that the new information was a deliberate Iranian deception.

A senior official describes the summer's windfall as "a variety of reporting that unlocked stuff we had, which we didn't understand fully before." That earlier information included technical drawings from an Iranian laptop computer purloined in 2004 that showed Iranian scientists had been designing an efficient nuclear bomb that could be delivered by a missile. Though some U.S. analysts had doubted the validity of the laptop evidence, they now believe it was part of the covert "weaponization" program that was shelved in the fall of 2003.

The most important finding of the NIE isn't the details about the scope of nuclear research; there remains some disagreement about that. Rather, it's the insight into the greatest mystery of all about the Islamic republic, which is the degree of rationality and predictability of its decisions.

For the past several years, U.S. intelligence analysts have doubted hawkish U.S. and Israeli rhetoric that Iran is dominated by "mad mullahs" -- clerics whose fanatical religious views might lead to irrational decisions. In the new NIE, the analysts forcefully posit an alternative view of an Iran that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be "deterred."

"Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs," states the NIE. Asked if this meant the Iranian regime would be "deterrable" if it did obtain a weapon, a senior official responded, "That is the implication." He added: "Diplomacy works. That's the message."

While the intelligence community regards Iran as a rational actor, the workings of the regime remain opaque -- a "black box," in the words of one senior official. "You see the outcome [in the fall 2003 decision to halt the covert program] but not the decision-making process." This official said it was "logical, but we don't have the evidence" that Iran felt less need for nuclear weapons after the United States toppled its mortal enemy, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, in April 2003.

The debate about what the NIE should mean for U.S. policy toward Iran is just beginning. But for the intelligence community, this rebuttal of conventional wisdom will restore some integrity after the Iraq WMD debacle. In challenging the previous certitudes about Iran and the Bomb, the NIE recalls the admonition many decades ago by the godfather of CIA analysts, Sherman Kent: "When the evidence seems to force a single and immediate conclusion, then that is the time to worry about one's bigotry, and to do a little conscientious introspection."

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address

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