The Pentagon and White House continue to argue that they are not planning a war against Iran in spite of the continuing buildup of naval forces in the Persian Gulf, which will peak with the arrival of a third carrier group at the end of May. The naval aviation and missile resources available, which are not being used to support combat operations in neighboring Iraq, far exceed any reasonable level required to send Iran a warning or to reassure Gulf Arab allies. The carrier concentration has even weakened U.S. ability to respond militarily elsewhere, most particularly in the Western Pacific, where an unpredictable North Korea continues to pose a genuine threat. Multiple carrier groups in the Persian Gulf can only mean that another preemptive war, this time against Iran, is either about to take place or is being viewed as a serious option.
Critics of an air and naval assault on Iran have provided many good reasons why war between Washington and Tehran would be a disaster for U.S. global interests, ranging from a spike in oil prices to the unleashing of worldwide terrorism. What is not being appreciated clearly either by the media or policy-makers is the central dilemma in war planning with Iran, which is the apparent lack of reliable intelligence on Iranian intentions and capabilities. Planning for war without good information has a surreal quality, like a blind man trying to describe something he cannot see, with guesses and "what-ifs" replacing certainties.
There has been a notable silence on Iran coming from the intelligence community. Late in 2006, shortly before he was forced to resign over his unwillingness to cook the intelligence on Iran, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte responded to congressional criticism by conceding that there were major deficiencies in what information was being obtained about the Islamic Republic. Since that time, a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has been stalled because of White House demands that the product be more useful, i.e., demonstrative of Iranian bad behavior and intentions. CIA analysis suggests that it cannot be demonstrated that Tehran currently has a nuclear weapons program, though the case either for or against Iran rests on a paucity of information, not on a solid understanding of what is going on inside the country and among its leadership. On a purely practical level, leaving moral and ethical considerations aside, until the United States can answer key questions about Iran, including its ability to retaliate, its terrorism resources, and the nature and location of its nuclear program, no military action should be contemplated.
The impending intelligence failure on Iran is very similar to that which took place regarding Iraq, and for many of the same reasons. From a practical point of view, it is very difficult to spy on a country if you do not have an embassy in its capital and also have an embargo or sanctions in place that prohibit business relations. It is even more difficult when that country has a very small group of decision-makers that control all information carefully. Spy fiction notwithstanding, most effective agents are volunteers who offer to provide their services, whether for money or for idealism. Oleg Penkovsky, the Russian who was the most important Western spy of the 20th century, was an idealistic volunteer who had to make several attempts to contact the British and American embassies in Moscow before he finally succeeded. Put simply, when the volunteer cannot reach you, you don’t have any spies. It is reasonable to assume that America has very few real spies inside Iran.
Politicians who are ignorant of the Middle East frequently confuse advocacy with intelligence and allow the former to become the basis for policy formulation, sometimes by default. Lacking good intelligence resources, much so-called information that is reaching policy-makers in Washington comes from émigré groups and lobbyists with an agenda again very much like what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq war. These groups are all interested in emphasizing the threat from Iran, not in objective analysis that might exonerate the mullahs.
The leading Iranian émigré group is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which pretends to have a network of independent sources within Iran but actually is largely dependent on information from Israeli intelligence. The "critical analysis" of events in Iran that reaches policy-makers in Washington frequently comes from it and other lobbying and advocacy groups such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), all of which share an "Iran agenda" that calls for regime change. AIPAC is known to be the source of a position paper on Iran that most congressmen rely on to shape their own views. Israel’s advocates, including peripatetic politicians such as ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, make frequent visits to the United States, where they have good access to the media and potential supporters, to reinforce the case that Iran must be dealt with forcefully.
There is also a tactical problem caused by poor intelligence. Without good information, Iran’s nuclear program becomes hard to target in a military sense, and a massive air and sea attack might not even solve the alleged problem. There are hundreds of known nuclear-related targets in Iran, with many others still undiscovered and hidden. Many of the sites are located in cities, meaning that an attempt to take them out would result in numerous civilian casualties. Iran has been preparing for an American attack for some years, and there are reports that many of the sites are deep underground and hardened with layers of concrete, meaning that a genuine attempt to completely destroy them could require tactical nuclear weapons. The unilateral use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. would change the world, and not for the better, as it would let the genie out of the bottle and create the worst possible precedent for other nuclear powers like India, Pakistan, and Israel.
Poor intelligence also means that Iran’s capacity for retaliation is unclear. If one of the purposes of war is to inflict more damage on the enemy than the enemy inflicts on you, it is essential to know your foe’s capabilities. One possible retaliatory scenario considered to be likely and currently being war-gamed by the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies involves Iran’s stirring-up of its Shi’ite co-religionists in neighboring Iraq against American forces, cutting supply lines and making every Iraqi neighborhood a safe haven for insurgents. Today’s chaos in Baghdad would look positively benign in comparison to the national uprising that would ensue.
Iran could also use its missiles and biological and chemical weapons to strike against other U.S. forces in the region, in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. It could effectively attack regional U.S. friends and allies such as the Emirates, Kuwait, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. It might, for example, call on the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain to rebel and overthrow the Sunni emir, leading to an immediate loss of the base for the U.S. Sixth Fleet. It almost certainly would use Silkworm missiles and suicide boats to close the narrow Straits of Hormuz, cutting off petroleum from the entire Gulf region and driving oil up to $400 per barrel. If it were really lucky, it could sink an American aircraft carrier.
Worldwide, Iran could have Hezbollah terrorist cells believed to be underground in the United States and Europe stage terrorist attacks. It could destabilize all of Asia by assassinating Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, possibly resulting in an Islamic Republic in Pakistan that would be armed both with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Attacking Iran for the wrong reasons and with the same poor intelligence that produced the Iraq catastrophe would cause American influence and power to collapse throughout the Middle East and central Asia, an extremely high price to pay for ignorance.