The CIA vs. Iran's Mullahs

By Reuel Marc Gerecht
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How good is American intelligence on Iran? With the clerical regime intimately involved in Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, with the mullahs quite probably on the verge of enriching sufficient uranium to make a bomb, and President Obama promising to use more diplomacy and sanctions to stop them, it's a fairly pressing question.

Yet this query has rarely been raised seriously in Washington. I am not aware of one instance since 1978, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini started to preach revolution from France, that an American president requested a thorough assessment of the clandestine service's collection efforts against the mullahs. Congress has been only a little better. Even after the Iraq war made outsiders more attentive to the deficiencies in the Central Intelligence Agency's operations against "hard target" countries, congressional interest in knowing more about the efforts to collect intelligence against Tehran has been thin. Field officers who have seen gross incompetence in Iran operations over the years have wondered more often about Langley's abilities than have its civilian overseers.

CIA Director-designate Leon Panetta should consider a bipartisan review of intelligence collection concerning Tehran. Since the Obama administration is reviewing policy options toward the Islamic republic, it would seem sensible to know what Langley's actions have produced. Policy built on weak intelligence and analysis obviously isn't a good idea.

Iran operations have always consumed a lot of CIA manpower. Is there a correlation between the number of officers deployed and the quantity and quality of intelligence collected? Does the manner of their deployment -- the balance between headquarters-based and field officers, and the nature of the cover that these officers operationally use -- make much sense? How many operatives and analysts who work on the target could competently read, let alone digest, the sermons and books of dissident clerics or probe a laptop with nuclear plans buried in it? In the 1990s, I saw a case officer who barely spoke Farsi debrief a potentially high-value Iranian official who barely spoke English. The meeting produced "disseminable" intelligence. Sadly, this type of exchange was not uncommon. Agency analysts, who often have little real idea of agents and their case officers, can give weight to field intelligence that really should be dismissed.

Iran is perhaps the best and the most important barometer we have for judging how well the CIA can perform against a hostile Middle Eastern state with a terrorist track record that includes, according to the Sept. 11 commission report, abetting al-Qaeda. It is also probably the "easiest" hard target that Langley has. Unlike in Iraq under Saddam Hussein or North Korea today, the CIA can reach inside the Islamic republic if it really tries. Iran is an authoritarian theocratic state that believes in its civilizing mission to the Muslim world. Its borders are hardly porous, but a range of people -- Muslims, non-Muslims, business executives, academics, students, religious pilgrims and tourists -- travel there regularly.

More important, Iranian VIPs travel abroad. Members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps frequently receive scholarships for foreign study, usually in the West. Iranian scientists and engineers also go abroad. Iranian mullahs are not uncommon in foreign lands, where prolonged contact with them is possible. Although Iran's progressive intellectuals -- the people to whom Western journalists and scholars usually talk -- rarely have much influence and insight into the clerical regime, sometimes they matter, and sometimes they can be reached. The key is whether Langley has developed patient but aggressive measures that make it more likely that its operatives cross paths with interesting Iranians.

Accessibility is never a guarantee of operational success. But the clerical regime is now 30 years old. Disaffection and anger are not uncommon among once-proud revolutionaries. We have not yet seen the defections from the ruling religious elite -- the clergy and the lay hard core who see themselves as Allah's chosen soldiers -- that we began to see among Russian communists after three decades of Soviet rule. The faithful's devotion to God appears to be more tenacious than man's commitment to Marx. But this could change. As we have seen with some of al-Qaeda's most devoted supporters, religious inspiration can evolve or fade, turning comrades into enemies.

It is likely that Obama's diplomacy-and-sanctions effort to stop the clerical regime's quest for nuclear weapons will fail. If it does, the administration will inevitably default to some kind of containment strategy. Covert-action programs, which will oblige Langley to become more intimate with Iran's internal dynamics, will probably be a part of the administration's efforts to check the mullahs' designs in the Middle East. If we are serious about what we are doing (and Langley has a history of approaching covert action haphazardly), the White House and Congress ought to know whether the CIA has been able to perform its primary mission. Human-source intelligence and covert action use the same skill set.

Whatever Panetta does, he would be wise to trust, but verify, what the CIA's senior management tells him. Langley's "professionals" have a way of arrogating to themselves the details that allow outsiders to see whether the agency is actually doing its job.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and was a CIA case officer from 1985 to 1994.

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