Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The March towards War?

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

I’m having that “déjà vu” sense. It hit me last week twice, first while attending the AIPAC Annual Policy Conference and then when listening to former National Intelligence Officer (NIO) Paul Pillar talk about Iraq at the Middle East Institute. I hear the drum beats of war and a sense another intel/policymaker collision. The topic this time is Iran.

In the last month, the US has changed its posture towards Iran. The policy of subcontracting out to the Europeans is over—principally because they have failed to reach a negotiated agreement with Iran to roll back its nuclear program. The US will now lead the assault, first through the UN Security Council and then through a coalition of allies—assuming Russia and China will not cooperate on a UN-backed sanctions regime. If Europe goes wobbly, the US will go at it alone.

What’s making me uncomfortable? Similarities to how the Iraq war unfolded.

Sudden Urgency

After a decade of containment, the US decided the Iraqi WMD required urgent attention and as a consequence regime change had to be the policy. Overnight, the intelligence community changed its assessment that Iraq was years away from a nuclear weapons capability to being on the threshold.

The US has been trying to contain Iran since 1979 and has more recently been worried about a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The intelligence community (IC) until last year assessed the Iranians were between 5 to 10 years away. Suddenly, we are talking about Iran approaching the tipping point, the point of no return. The Israelis are strongly pushing for increased urgency. AIPAC is firmly behind, illustrated by the lobbying group’s decision to put stopping Iran at the top of its lobbying agenda. The message is to stop Iran now before it crosses the threshold.

Intelligence Basis

The cause for war in Iraq was based on intelligence—bad intelligence on WMD as it turned out. The intelligence basis on Iraq was very poor since the US did not have a presence in Iraq for a number of years. Once the IAEA inspectors were thrown out, even this limited window closed. It was considered a hard target, meaning the IC was having a hard time getting good intel. It turned out that the opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), was feeding a bunch of bad intel to the Pentagon through defectors in order to influence the US to go to war. The Iraqi WMD report did a good job highlighting the IC’s difficulty in dealing with Iraq. There was disagreement with the IC on the Iraqi program, but these disagreements were glossed over in order to make a more compelling case for war.

Iran is also a hard target. The US government as not had diplomatic feet on the ground since 1979. The IC has been trying to put together a complete picture of the Iranian nuclear program. In the press, the breaks appear to be associated with information provided by the MEK (an anti-Iranian group that is on the US terrorism list) who have identified secret Iranian nuclear sites. Relying on information from another interest group of questionable credibility to make the case on WMD is disturbing, to say the least.

Democracy Agenda

Removing Saddam Hussein and creating a democracy that would be more closely aligned to US interests was a goal of the Bush Administration. The Administration believed democracy in Iraq would have a domino effect on the entire region, transforming it from a place that breeds terrorism to one that is integrated into the Community of Democracies and the global economy. According to Pillar, the Administration dismissed the IC’s warnings that setting up a functioning democracy in Iraq would be very challenging given the absence of a tradition of sharing power, the ethnic and religious divides and Kurdish separatist aspirations.

The Administration instead listened to the INC who said the Iraqi people would welcome the US military with open arms. The ongoing insurgency and the difficulty in getting all three Iraqi groups to agree to new rules of the political game demonstrate that the IC called this one correctly. Increasingly, we are talking about Iraq slipping into civil war—with the current inability to form a government being seen as the trip wire. According to Pillar, the IC rejected the idea that Iraq could be a domino, assessing instead that liberalization and democracy reform would be driven by domestic factors in each state in the region. Iran was the exception, according to Pillar, where it was thought that Iranians might view a democratic Iraq under Shiite control as something they could have instead of the Mullahs.

The regime change policy towards Iran has gained the ascendancy in Washington lately. President Bush said in a recent speech that “freedom in the Middle East requires freedom for the Iranian people”. This statement shows how far the Administration has come; when the Broader Middle East Reform Agenda was first put together, Iran was excluded. The US is now reaching out more aggressively to the Iranian people through increased funding ($75 million) to media operations and cultural exchange programs.

What is the IC telling the Administration on Iranian ripeness for regime change? Iranians want to make their own decisions and don’t want foreign interference. While the upwardly mobile and the urban youth don’t like their government, the power centers in Iran remain loyal to the system. Iran is not ripe for a revolution and attempts to “help create the conditions” will be rejected by strong nationalism. The Administration should also be mindful that Iran is not monolithic; there are strong ethnic divisions and if the central authority should weaken, these historical divisions will re-emerge.

Terrorism

The Administration engaged in the war in Iraq as part of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), despite the fact that the Iraqi regime played no role in the 9/11 attacks, nor did it provide support to al-Qa’ida. The Atta-Iraqi intel connection was fiction. Certainly, Iraq under Saddam did support groups using terror tactics against Israeli occupation. Saddam also gave sanctuary to anti-Iranian terror groups such as the MEK and Ansar al-Islam. The Iraq war has evolved into a magnet for al-Qa’ida terrorists, drawing in the international set of Sunni jihadis and converting Iraqi nationalists to the jihadi cause. It is Afghanistan of the 2000s—providing a training ground, networking environment and inspiration for a new generation of jihadis.

Iran also played no role in the 9/11 attacks and has not been cooperative in the GWOT post 9/11. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism—but of the Shia variety. Iran has been implicated in a number of terrorist attacks—the 1996 Khobar bombing just to name one. Rice, in testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, called Iran the central banker of terrorists. Will a military attack against Iran strike a lethal blow against al-Qa’ida? No. Will it end or reduce Shia terrorism? Perhaps, or it could increase it by motivating retaliatory attacks in Iraq or elsewhere.

War versus Strike

None of the above comments is meant to argue for or against using the military option against Iran. The purpose is to emphasize that we are talking about a war, not merely a strike. When considering this war, we should think more about how it will unfold and not put on the rose-colored glasses that we wore in the run up to the Iraq war.

This is where the intelligence issue comes in. As Pillar aptly described in his Foreign Affairs article, the intel/policymaker relationship is broken. In an atmosphere of distrust, will the Administration accept the IC assessments at face value? Or will the White House pick and choose the factoids it likes? Will the IC fail to speak truth to power in order to protect their jobs? Will Congress play partisan politics or do its job as a co-equal branch of the US government by asking the hard questions? Will we have a repeat of Iraq or will we demonstrate that we have learned some lessons?

If we opt for war, we must do it knowledgably: it will be long; there will be heavy costs in terms of blood and treasure; it could completely destabilize the Middle East and open a new chapter of the jihadi war. It could also in the long term completely change the balance of power in the region, unseating state sponsors of terrorism and their proxy groups, including Syria and Hizballah, and deny a regional power nuclear weapons. It should be up to the American people to do the cost-benefit analysis.

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