U.S. Intel in the Dark Over Israel’s Iran Plans
A few weeks ago, in discussing how Hezbollah might respond to an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, I mentioned that both the United States and Hezbollah are more or less held hostage to the drama unfolding between their respective allies. For the United States, part of that dynamic includes the uncertainty it faces concerning whether or not Israel will in fact strike Iran’s nuclear program and, if so, when.
The United States is Israel’s closest ally in the world. The United States has provided Israel an average of $3 billion in grants, almost all of it military aid (.pdf), each year for the past three decades, making Israel by far the largest recipient of U.S. aid since the end of World War II.
Despite all that largesse, the United States has no idea whether or not its close ally will attack Iran — an action that could have enormous consequences for U.S. interests in the region. Some might argue that this uncertainty represents a diplomatic failure on the part of the United States and that U.S. officials should use U.S. aid to Israel to effect closer policy coordination. For now, though, I want to focus on the intelligence failure that this uncertainty represents.
In his book “Why Intelligence Fails,” Robert Jervis examines two high-profile U.S. intelligence failures: the failure to anticipate the fall of the shah in Iran and the failure to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction prior to the war in Iraq in 2003. Jervis notes that intelligence organizations are normally asked to answer questions regarding both capability and intent. Questions regarding capability are usually easier to answer, which is partly why the failure on weapons of mass destruction was so galling.
Questions regarding intent, meanwhile, are much more difficult, and for several reasons. First, unlike answering a question about military hardware, determining a leader’s intent is akin to explaining what is going on inside someone’s mind — not the easiest thing to do, even with the most transparent of leaders.
Second, people change their minds and often do not communicate that they have done so. We all rely on past behavior to predict the future, but this can get us into trouble when trying to divine intent.
Third, people sometimes make poor decisions that intelligence analysts would not themselves have made. One of the reasons the United States failed to anticipate the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jervis notes, is that the United States failed to imagine that Nikita Khrushchev could have made such a terrible mistake.
Fourth, people often obscure their intentions on purpose. Deception is a fact of life for those collecting and analyzing intelligence, even if at times those acts of deception make little sense in the mind of the analysts themselves. One of the reasons the United States failed to predict whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Jervis argues, is that Saddam Hussein rather illogically kept up the appearances of having a weapons program. The illusion of such a program had little hope of deterring the Iranians and indeed helped precipitate the U.S. invasion of Iraq that deposed Saddam. Nonetheless, Saddam felt the deception was worth it until the end.
Israel has reason to deceive the United States regarding its own intentions. The Obama administration has consistently delivered two clear messages to Israel’s leaders regarding Iran’s nuclear program: First, Israel should not contemplate a strike on the program; second, the United States takes responsibility for deterring Iran or, in the event that fails, retarding the program itself. Many in the U.S. government, including both in the administration and the U.S. military, would be livid with Israel’s leaders if they unilaterally attack Iran. So Israel, if it indeed decides to act on its own, would have reason to keep that intent hidden from the United States.