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.