Book Review: Raymond Batvinis, Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies: FBI Counterespionage During World War II (University Press of Kansas, 2014)

In 2010, US counterintelligence and counterespionage efforts resulted in the take down of 10 Russian “sleeper agents” from the “S” Department of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). As Raymond Batvinis discusses in Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies, the foundation of present US counterintelligence capabilities was laid 70 years before.

Outstanding spy novels tell exciting tales of spy rings, secret and double agents, surveillance, codes and ciphers, wiretaps, microdots, deception, disinformation, and even use of invisible ink!  That is what a reader would expect from the works of John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, or Tom Clancy.  In Hoover’s Secret War Against the Axis: FBI Counterespionage During World War II (University Press of Kansas, 2014), Raymond Batvinis recounts equally thrilling stories of international intrigue as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), working alongside other US government elements and allies, sought to overcome Germany’s efforts to disrupt and defeat its war effort in the US before and during the war.  They will transfix the reader to the book’s pages much as the writings of the great spy novelists.  However, unlike the novelists’ works, Batvinis’ accounts are not amusements, but discussions of real cases of a struggle between adversaries filled with lessons on counter-intelligence (spycatching) as well as counterespionage (turning enemy agents against their spymasters).  The stories present the thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying realities of spycatching and turning spies into double-agents. The history is not presented as nostalgia, but as a text on a unique aspect of the intelligence war against Germany, and to a lesser extent, Japan, from which valuable lessons can be drawn.  It is not by chance Batvinis’ book would be presented in this fashion.  The work is a product of painstaking, detail oriented research, and the benefit of his experience as a former FBI special agent.

Indeed, during his 25 years as an FBI special agent, Batvinis focused on counterintelligence and counterespionage cases.  His assignments included work out of the Washington Field Office and the FBI Intelligence Division’s Training Unit at FBI Headquaters.  As a Supervisory Special Agent, in the Baltimore Division, Batvinis managed the espionage investigations of Ronald Pelton (a spy for the Soviet Union), John Walker and Michael Walker (spies for the Soviet Union), Thomas Dolce (a spy for South Africa), and Daniel Richardson (caught attempting to spy for the Soviet Union).  After the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, Batvinis came out of retirement and returned to the FBI for three years in order to manage a team of former FBI special agents and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officers who taught the Basic Counterintelligence Course at the FBI Academy.  With a continued desire to contribute to US national security efforts, Batvinis went on to teach a “Lessons Learned” course for counterintelligence personnel at FBI field offices throughout the US for two years.  Exploiting his doctoral studies in American History, Batvinis has lectured at George Washington University and has written several articles on counterintelligence.  Prior to writing Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies, he published The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence (University Press of Kansas, 2007).

Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies was designed to pick up where The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence finished.  Origins was an in-depth look at the FBI’s development in the 1930s from a small law enforcement organization to a counterespionage service.  The need for change was made stark in 1938 with the bungled handling of the long-running investigation of the Guenther Rumrich espionage ring.  A series of missteps allowed dozens of German agents from Abwehr (German military intelligence) to step out of the US and reach Europe safely.  The Interdepartmental Information Conference in 1939 brought all elements of the burgeoning US intelligence community together for the first time, to discuss creating a structure to handle the espionage threat to the US.  Rather than fight like a sack of wildcats, new linkages were created between the FBI and the US military, and partnerships were established with foreign services such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as Mexican and British intelligence officials.  The FBI’s General Intelligence Division was established to manage foreign counterintelligence and other intelligence investigations.  In 1940, US President Franklin Roosevelt signed a Presidential order allowing FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to begin wiretapping embassies and consulates.  The Rumrich failure, the new initiatives, and FBI’s education in managing the intricate details of counterespionage matters resulted in the surprise arrest of 33 German agents in 1941, effectively breaking the back of German military intelligence in the US.

Although the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) of the FBI (whose evolution and expansion into Europe, Latin America and Africa Batvinis discusses), was already engaged in foreign intelligence in the prewar years, in 1941 Roosevelt created a new foreign intelligence office under a Coordinator of Information (COI).  By the end of the year, COI’s director, William Donovan, managed 600 personnel.  Hoover and Donovan had a mutual dislike of each other that was over nearly 20 years old.  Hoover sensed the COI as an effort by Donovan to supplant SIS, and as both viewed the Oval Office as their turf.  Their poor relationship hampered coordination between their services. In 1942, the COI transformed from a civilian agency to a military intelligence service known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency

In extending his discussion beyond The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence , Batvinis relates the story of how William Stephenson of British Security Coordination (BSC), the center of MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service) operations in the US, ran afoul of Hoover. Hoover railed on Stephenson for what he viewed as BSC’s rumor mongering and mischief.  Without spoiling this amazing segment of the book, it is enough to say MI6 personnel and MI5 (British Security Service) personnel also had a shaky relationship. Hoover skillfully managed to bypass MI6 and its BSC in the US to reach MI5 in London.  As result, the FBI gained access to Ultra, the British code name for its capability to intercept and decipher encoded German communications from the Enigma system.

Batvinis is at his best in Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies in his discussion of the Double Cross System.  Although known historically as a British success during the war, Batvinis explains that achievements through Double Cross were the result of joint Allied efforts.  That includes the handling of the double-agent, Spanish pacifist Juan Pujol—codenamed “Garbo”—who deceived the Germans into believing the Normandy invasion would not occur, and then convinced them that the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings were a mere diversion for a larger invasion soon to come.  Double Cross began to make use of US based turned German agents after the British, with some difficulty, convinced the US there was great value in counterespionage work.  The very persuasive Ewen Montagu, from Bletchley Park, home of the Ultra secret, was brought into the fray to bring Hoover. Hoover and the FBI hoped through counterespionage, further control could be gained over German intelligence activities.

Among the several Double Cross counterespionage cases Batvinis discusses are that of: a flamboyant playboy who was also a central figure in the dispute between Hoover and Stephenson; a world renown French flyer, who had orders to infiltrate the US aircraft industry; and a lecherous Dutchman, who was deemed useless as an agent and whose activities in the US were fabricated for his spymasters while he remained bottled up in London.  Batvinis takes the reader to school, brilliantly teaching about the fundamental nature and “nuts and bolts” of counterintelligence and counterespionage in a manner understandable for both the intelligence and law enforcement professional and the laity right in the midst of his exhilarating storytelling.  To help readers understand the type of enemy the FBI faced, Batvinis explains how Germany acquired the often involuntary service from German expatriates as agents and their very capable and somewhat ingenious handling of them.  In Chapter 11 entitled “The Count from New York,” Batvinis discusses the case of Wilhelm Rautter, a scion of German aristocracy, who was recruited into the German military intelligence without choice, and tacit threat to his well-being and that of his family and property.  As Batvinis magnificently recounts, Rautter, searching for employment, was invited to interview at Remy and Company, by its owner Hans Blum. After a month at the company, during which he established a very cordial relationship with the owner, Rautter was abruptly interrupted in the midst of perfunctory business chatter when Blum said, “German military intelligence had investigated him, found him acceptable, and wished to use him for collecting information in the United States.”  Blum downplayed the request in a friendly, soft-spoken and reassuring, but subtly betraying a sinister, threatening tone indicating that he would not accept “no” for an answer.

Almost immediately, Rautter began training at Blum’s company’s in secret writing, radio construction, transmitting, receiving, coding, and decoding cabled messages using a standard work of fiction.  He was directed to recruit an experienced operator to handle transmissions once he reached New York City.  Rautter was given the address of a mail drop on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, and rented an apartment in Brooklyn near the famous Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was provided a contact, Heinrich Stuhl, whose home, also in Brooklyn, offered easy observation of Brooklyn and Manhattan piers where merchant ships routinely lined up to load cargo bound for Great Britain.  Rautter was given a catalogue of requirements to monitor shipping bound for Europe by riding the Brooklyn-Staten Island ferry.  He would use Blum’s business contacts to travel throughout the East coast of the US, to observe factory facilities of US Steel, Remington Arms Corporation, and twelve leading aircraft companies such as the Douglas and Boeing companies.  He also was directed to pick up intelligence in local bars and restaurants about troop strength, unit designations, military equipment, and specifics on armament production.  To evade capture, Rautter would vary the means of communication with Germany.  The unexpected collapse of the FBI’s capability to intercept radio transmissions also managed to temporarily thwart its counterintelligence effort.  Nevertheless, in 1944, Rautter was identified and waylaid by the US government as the outcome of some incredible investigative work by the FBI, along with the US Customs Service, comparing German handwriting samples with tens of thousands of baggage declarations of travelers going to Europe and British censors on Bermuda, sifting through mail to Europe.

To understand how the FBI handlers engaged in counterespionage operations against Germany, Batvinis illustrated how they concerned themselves with things that the average person might very well assume was minutiae or too esoteric, to matter.  Among the tactics, techniques, and procedures used, the FBI would first closely watch a German agent to determine his susceptibility for neutralization and recruitment before intercepting him.  Particular attention would be placed on his movements and behavior patterns.  The target’s mail and cable traffic would be copied and read, his contacts were identified, and his accommodations would be searched.  Once the turned agent was activated by the FBI, his reports to Germany were designed to match his trained capabilities and the degree of the agent’s access to information.  For example, if stationed in New York City, an agent from the marine branch of German intelligence would be expected to easily identify all types of Allied ships from specific combat vessels to cargo ships and tankers entering and departing the port.  Allowing a turned agent to remain positioned near a port or shipyard might require the FBI to sacrifice too much vital information about US activities, to legitimize his efforts, in exchange for a tentative counterintelligence reward. Moreover, the US Navy would never clear information on the departure of such convoys, and it would be difficult for a double-agent to explain the failure to collect such information to his intelligence principals in Germany.  The counterespionage agent would need to be placed in a plausible new post, such as Washington, which would allow for a mixture of valuable information, rumors, and other pieces of information picked up from soldiers and sailors in local bars and from senior military and military officials on the Washington cocktail party circuit.  A persona had to be established for counterespionage agents that would typically present them as being fiercely loyal and well-placed, making the most of access to important military secrets, but greatly concerned about being discovered by the FBI.  In one case, a counterespionage agent’s persona was spiced up with emphasis on his struggle with communications equipment and transmission problems, coupled with encoding and decoding errors.  When transmitting messages for a turned German agent, a painstaking effort would be put into mimicking his distinctive transmission style through the study of recordings.

In Chapter 13, entitled, “Peasant,” Batvinis explains that one case, to copy the style of a very inexperienced radio operator, his FBI substitute filled his messages with errors common to amateurs.  Further, by using his left hand, with the radio key placed on the edge of a table so that the hand and arm had no support, the technician found that he could easily produce scores of unintentional and intentional errors.  The FBI categorized messages from counterespionage agents to Germany as “A” or “B.” “A” messages held a blend of accurate and fabricated information, created by Joint Security Control (JSC) of the Military Intelligence Division, established in 1941.  JSC had a central deception staff to its portfolio of both the Army and the Navy to plan measures for disguising or concealing an operation against the enemy that would encourage enemy action on a belief that something true was actually false. “B” messages, developed by FBI special agents of the Washington Field Office from open sources were sent in the form of suggested messages with the actual source of information actually identified.  All “A” and “B” messages were first discussed with translators of the FBI’s Cryptanalytic Section, which helped assure that German intelligence service radio operators made no mistake in deciphering the information.  The reader will find many more comparable lessons in Batvinis’ book.

There is some discussion of FBI efforts against Japan.  One segment concerns German efforts to gather and transmit important information on B-29 bomber manufacturing, other war production relevant to the Pacific Theater of Operations, the increase in conscription in the US in 1945, and war plans.  The extent to which the FBI tried put Double Cross measures in play against the Japanese is discussed in Chapter 12 entitled “Japs, Aspirin, and Pep.”  Although Batvinis relays how the FBI had little success in positioning double agents among Japanese targets, he also uses this aspect of the history of US counterintelligence and counterespionage in World War II to explain how best to manage an effort when “That dog don’t hunt.”

Organizing the US counterintelligence effort was not based on a vain desire by the FBI to take on a new capability on top of its well-known criminal investigation work.  There was no other service fully engaged in counterintelligence work, and as the war drew close to the US, it became an absolute necessity.  There was no guarantee of success. The German intelligence service, and the various departments of German military intelligence were up and running full speed with well-trained and very capable agents spreading out worldwide.  Nevertheless, it was anticipated that through the right organization, appropriate preparation, and diligent work, as well as engagement with allies, the effort would be effective and possibilities for success would increase.  The FBI learned quickly that the fight against Germany was not taking place in some “war over yonder” but already underway in US.  Despite the difficulties the FBI had with the OSS, and its counterparts in Britain, those obstacles were overcome, and it was able to protect the US public and US interests from harm.

There is a breath-taking amount of amazing information on counterintelligence and counterespionage to learn from Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies.  There is also much to that can be learned from the history it provides on US relations with Great Britain and other nations on national security issues. Batvinis’ book is also a real page turner, and one that will be difficult to pull away from.  Without reservations, greatcharlie.com provides its highest recommendation to Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies to its readers. They are guaranteed to read at it over and over again.  Given the timeless value of its information, for some practicioners, it may even serve as a reference.  It is a book everyone will appreciate.

By Mark Edmond Clark

US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War, But If Talks Fail, Iran Will Be Attacked, Eventually!

Pictured above are two of Iran’s most senior leaders, President Hassan Rouhani (right) and IRGC Commander (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (left), in an impromptu discussion of security issues.

According to a February 26, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Kerry: US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War,” by Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed, US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.  Kerry further explained, “We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if before we go to war there actually might be a peaceful solution.”  On November 12, 2013, Iran reached a landmark preliminary agreement with the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) to halt what were alleged to be its most sensitive nuclear operations in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.  The interim deal was completed on January 12th, and the parties set forth to continue negotiations for six months after which, it is hoped, a final accord will be signed.  However, a positive outcome is not guaranteed.  The Reuters article’s authors explained that when he states all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, US President Barack Obama is using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.  His predecessors and a long line of US officials have held out that same threat.  Yet, when Kerry spoke to the reporters, he apparently left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks breakdown.

Kerry’s public comments concerning the Geneva talks were uncharacteristic of him. Kerry is an extremely capable Secretary of State, and he has a genuine interest in improving relations with Iran.  He is a discreet person who would hardly want to do anything to derail the Geneva process.  The Reuters article’s authors asserted that Kerry’s statements were in reaction to pressure placed on the Obama administration by Congressional Republicans who threatened to revive a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran.  The Obama administration has cautioned Congress that such action could interfere with delicate nuclear talks to find a lasting agreement.  The article’s authors also assert that pressure from Republican lawmakers will likely increase with signs that the easing of sanctions is allowing for the boost in Iran’s oil exports.  However, Kerry’s comments on going to war with Iran were doubtlessly also heard in Tehran.  As Iranian Foreign Minister and lead Iranian negotiator for the Geneva talks, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated in December 2013, “When Secretary Kerry talks to the US Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him and interpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.”  Kerry’s comments were very threatening in nature.  Yet, at this point, it is that the leadership in Tehran probably did not become too concerned about US military action.  Indeed, they feel that such action is unlikely.

Among the key power centers in Iran, to include the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, there was an understanding that Iran would be negotiating in Geneva from a position of strength as a military power.  Such power was in part the basis of their belief that the US needed to negotiate with Iran as an equal.  Iranian leaders likely reached this conclusion as a result of an assessment of the “capabilities and possibilities” for likely US military action.  Certainly, Iranian leaders regularly receive a wealth of detailed reports from official and unofficial sources, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, on information such as US approaches to the nuclear negotiations, policy and decision making and statements made by senior US political, diplomatic, and military officials on Iran.  Yet, the consideration of capabilities and possibilities is a standard procedure and favored methodology for foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations in Iran to assess, in the abstract, capability to effectively perform a proposed action and the real possibility for success.  It also allows for an assessment of an opponent’s capability to respond to that action and possible decision making and reaction to it.  By wrongly giving higher meaning to certain facts and assumptions and incorrectly weighing relative strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s military power versus the US, it becomes clear how Iranian policy analysts and decision makers would reach the conclusion that they would not face a military response if talks failed or if they took the step to develop a nuclear weapon.  Based on one member’s experience working with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue, a truncated assessment of capabilities and possibilities, comparable to those done in Tehran, is presented here by greatcharlie.com in order to demonstrate how the Iranian leaders most likely acquired certain views, and why they have taken certain approaches toward the US.  If Iranian leaders decide to drop the Geneva talks and actually develop a nuclear weapon, its decision will be based on a flawed understanding of US capabilities.  There is a real possibility the US will attack Iran.  However, there is also the possibility that as the Geneva talks advance, and greater contacts occur among US and Iranian officials and diplomats, some prevailing views in Tehran on US military capabilities may be modified.  Those contacts may also create interest among Iranian leaders to seek a sustainable final agreement on economic sanctions and their nuclear program, if a final decision on how to proceed on the nuclear issue has not already been made.

“Capabilities”

The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces have declared their willingness to defend Iranian territory with military power, and are convinced that they have such capabilities.  IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has explained: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.”  Regular displays of military strength through exercises and parades, along with hubristic declarations regarding Iran’s power, serve to assure the Iranian people that their government has the capability to defend them, and are also intended to serve as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Although the impact of US directed international sanctions on Iran’s economy has been considerable, Iranian leaders have vowed not to allow US sanctions prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear program.  Concerning sanctions, Jafari explained: “Today, Americans and Westerners have understood that pressure on Iran not only does not lead to the advancement of their desires but also has the opposite effect.  Iran has progressed day by day.”  Jafari’s statement is indeed accurate.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, advances would continue to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iranian leaders have also appreciated the deterrent effect created by Western intelligence assessments that Iran is close to breakout capacity with its nuclear program; some estimates are that Iran is only six months away from having the technology to develop a bomb.

Iranian leaders feel Rouhani can capture the imagination of the US and its European partners making them more pliant to compromise.  Regarding negotiations, there is a sense among Iranian leaders that Zarif has capabilities as a diplomat and advocate that are superior to his Western counterparts and is capable of driving them toward compromise on sanctions without surrendering nuclear rights.  While rifts between hard-line elements in Iran with Rouhani and Zarif over the Geneva talks have been highlighted in the West, there is actually an understanding among Iranian leaders of the need to support the negotiations team.  Indeed, concerning Zarif and the negotiations team, Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.”

On regime change, a threat posed by the administration of US President George W. Bush against Iran, Iranian leaders are certain their security apparatus is too strong for the US to ever defeat and the US has backed away from that effort.  Addressing the issue of regime change, IRGC Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani stated: “the important side of your [US] attempts today have been to confront the Islamic Republic.  Your [Obama] statement [at the UN] that ‘We are not seeking the Islamic system’s overthrow’ is not a statement of kindness, but rather an announcement of incapability.  You have been and will remain unable to be successful in overthrowing the Republic’s system.”

There is a sense among Iranian leaders that Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan’s efforts to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities at the present and in the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.   Iran has successfully used a base in Venezuela as a test bed for new technologies.  Regarding application of those new technologies, in the Gulf, Iran believes it can establish dominance with the advent of new anti-ship system and naval technologies.  Ali Shamkani, the new Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council directed the IRGC attempts to realize Iranian dominance in the Gulf while serving as IRGC Commander.  He retains a strong interest in that effort.

On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western policy analysts suggest that the US use as a means to weaken the government in Tehran.  In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime.  Iran has trained and equipped Syria’s shabiha (militiamen), and organized them into the National Defense Front.  It is known that Iran has sent at least 330 truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups back in the 1990s.  Calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement, some have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini rebels are operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders, but typically trained in Iran.  Iranian leaders feel they could utilize these diverse forces against the interests of the US and its friends and allies in retaliation for US military action.

As events and issues in the Middle East do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest, some Iranian leaders feel the US has become disinterested in the region.  Most also recite the global mantra that the US has been traumatized by its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan both in which Iran supported opponents of the US.  Obama, himself, appears to Iranian leaders as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than actions where participation by US personnel is very limited in scope as in Libya.  Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving them somewhat less able to project robust power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies.  They have also observed Obama administration effort to make steep reductions in its nuclear forces, the crown jewels of its military power, only to be thwarted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Putin refused to negotiate on the matter concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.  Additionally, they were amused over the way in which the Obama administration buckled under pressure from academics, policy scholars, and activists over drone use.

Iranian leaders have noted the Obama administration’s insistence on deploying a European based missile defense system to defeat an imagined Iranian nuclear-tipped missile attack.  To Iranian leaders, the deployment of the missile defense system indicates that there is a willingness within the US to rely on defense and deterrence rather than offensive military action to cope with Iran’s nuclear program.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s behavior has been perceived by Iranian leaders as being very awkward.  Regarding those military operations, Suleimani stated: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace.  The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.”  In the view of some Iranian leaders, the Obama administration withdrew from Iraq as a result of a promise made during Obama’s first presidential campaign rather than strategic considerations.  Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq.  However, the door was also opened for a growth of al-Qaeda’s presence there.  The initial increase in force in Afghanistan after a long, agonizing decision by Obama in 2009 was made with the goal to create the opportunity for the US and NATO to succeed there.  Iranian leaders have observed how that approach transformed into a decision to withdraw.  Indeed, the US has now declared its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan by December 2014 without a security agreement with the Afghan government.  Iranian leaders have been presented with an opportunity to further Iran’s dominance in the region, but recognize the US withdrawal may open the door to a growth in al-Qaeda’s presence there.

Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the popular view espoused was that the Obama administration was forced into an aggressive stance against Iran with manipulation from Israel.  Senior Military Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Former IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi stated, “It is sad that the US President is under the influence of [Netanyahu’s] pressure and lies about Iran to such an extent, that he changed his tune and stance towards the Iranian issue. This leads to the US President’s weakness of independent thought and policy and has shown the power and influence of the Zionist lobby . . . .”  Jafari stated in September 2013, “We hope that the Americans let go of their intransigence with Iran and become less affected by the Zionist lobby.”  However, Iranian leaders now believe the US has retreated from its aggressive stance toward Iran fearing further military engagement in the Middle East.  Iranian leaders want to believe that the Obama administration has very negative relations with Israel, and has pursued the Geneva negotiation process, despite Israel’s objections.  They are convinced that uncongenial relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has served to stymie Israeli plans to take any action against Iran.

In Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s efforts to establish itself as the state with predominant military force on the ground and the complete capability to shape events, with the financial support from Russia and China.  Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Obama administration hesitated and backed away from military action after very publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons.  Iranian leaders’ views of Obama’s unwillingness to take military action anywhere were confirmed when the Obama administration expressed “fears” over placing troops on the ground and was indecisive in choosing targets in Syria for military strikes before eventually declining to act altogether.  That actually compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands.  Suleimani made the following statement about the US: “There was day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

Iranian leaders watched as Democratic and Republican Members of the US Congress failed to support Obama’ s plan to take military action in Syria.  They recognized that as being indicative of a greater problem between Obama and Congress.  Iranian leaders feel the Congress would likely deny Obama support for military action elsewhere.  The willingness of opponents in Congress to inflict harm on the US military, the security apparatus, and the US public, through sequestration and a government shutdown, convinced to Iranian leaders that there is outright hostility from Congress toward the Obama administration akin to an animus toward an enemy.  The Iranian view of the Obama administration were supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his now infamous September 12, 2013, New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “A Plea for Caution from Russia.”  Putin’s negative perceptions of Obama’s motives and the US have very likely found their way into Russia’s dialogue with Iran and have had an impact. Russia’s most recent military action in Ukraine demonstrates to Iranian leaders that there is little reason to be concerned or intimidated by a possible response from the Obama administration.  Iranian leaders’ views on the role of the US in the world as a predominant power were also supported by China.  Chinese views were represented in an editorial by the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, calling for a “de-Americanized” world.

“Possibilities”

On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich were the main requirements that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when releasing him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  Jafari has stated: “The people expect their officials to demand the complete nuclear rights of the nation of Iran, including the nuclear fuel cycle, complete and official recognition of the right to enrich, and the elimination of all unjust sanctions.”

Given the nature of relations between Obama and Netanyahu, Iranian leaders felt it was unlikely the US would agree to Israeli demands for Iran to cease all uranium enrichment and to remove all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its Fordow nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak.  They know that the US has engaged in an effort to quell very audible concerns expressed by Israel and other Middle East allies over concessions made to Iran, particularly on sanctions.  Iranian leaders truly believe Zarif is the best diplomat possible to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions.  The popular notion, that the Obama administration’s foreign policy was initially driven in great part by the White House’s desire to establish Obama’s legacy, signaled to Iranian leaders that the US may be willing to make concessions in talks to reach an agreement.  Zarif could deliver success at Geneva on Iran’s terms, exploiting the US desire to make a deal.

It may very well be that Iranian leaders want to use the Geneva talks to gain time to make greater advances in the nuclear program.  Continued progress in the program has been a feature of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the US and its Western partners since such talks`began with the Bush administration despite the ferocity of threats of military intervention and the imposition of sanctions.  From a darker perspective, true conservatives among Iranian leaders may wish to use the diplomatic efforts of Rouhani and Zarif simply to misdirect the US and its European partners, enabling other elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Iran has the possibility to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the US while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements take a path toward accomplishing the military goals of the nuclear program.

Whether through the current course of research or a covert program, Iranian leaders are aware that once a significant level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle and a new situation will immediately exist. Iranian leaders believe that threats of further sanctions or military action against Iran would unlikely be viewed as constructive internationally, other than by Israel.  Iranian leaders believe particularly that it would less likely face any consequences if it achieves nuclear weapons technology when US mid-term Congressional elections occur in 2014.  Democrats in the US Senate and House of Representatives, especially those seeking re-election, would not want to have to explain a new war in the Middle East declared by a president from their party.

What Has Occurred So Far

Under the agreed pause of its nuclear activities, Iran has suspended its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran already produced more than 20,000 pounds of enriched uranium gas that is three quarters of the way to weapons grade material.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, or start up any that were not already operating. Between 2009 and 2013, Iran’s inventory of installed centrifuges increased from 5,500 to 19,000.  Iran agreed not to build any new enrichment facilities.  An undeclared enrichment facility at Fordow, buried inside of a mountain and outfitted with centrifuges over the last several years, was exposed by US and allied intelligence efforts prior to the negotiations.  Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Arachi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.  The entire feed stock for producing nuclear weapons fuel and infrastructure remains intact.  Additionally, the Iranians were able to retain achievements made through their development of a heavy water reactor in Arak which provides a plutonium pathway to producing nuclear weapons fuel.

However, the agreement, more importantly, has reversed the momentum of sanctions and provided some relief from the threat created by the notion of impenetrable sanctions.  Some US policy analysts may believe that Iran may be buying time in order to advance its nuclear program while giving key concessions on the sanctions front.   Yet, what may really be happening is that Iranian leaders are giving new consideration to the Geneva process.  Considering how to proceed against the US and its European partners in the abstract, is quite different from engaging with US officials in actual negotiations.  Information gleaned from US officials and diplomats should provide fresh information about US actions and intentions.  It is difficult to say whether such information from the talks might have an impact on thinking among Iranian leaders.  Nonetheless, while enduring Kerry threats of war, Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24th agreement by reducing its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry, himself, told reporters that “Generally speaking, they have done I think everything that they were required to do with respect to the reductions.”  Kerry further explained that “There’s no centrifuge challenge. They haven’t put any in. They … have reduced their 5 percent. They have reduced the 20 (percent),” he added. “They are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

The Way Forward

Khamenei and other Iranian leaders believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests, particularly on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear rights, would be rapidly constructed.  As the negotiation process dragged on, they were recognized as a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which is uncertain.  Khamenei began expressing doubts that an agreement acceptable to Iran could be constructed.  Nevertheless, once an interim deal was reached, and Khamenei and Iran so far have adhered to it.  There is real hope among negotiators that a final agreement can be reached.  However, the talks could also fail, and that would not be a simple matter at all.  Iranian leaders may conclude the US will not attack, given the predilection of the Obama administration to shy away from military action, and speculation on the US included in some analysis of “capabilities and possibilities” developed in the abstract by policy experts in Tehran.  Yet, the US military, in reality, possesses the capability to successfully execute a decisive blow against the Iranian nuclear program and effectively deal with Iran in the aftermath of any strikes.

US military planners develop concepts for operations using their expertise based on a long career in their respective branches of the armed forces that includes continuous military education and training and considerable experience warfighting.  They would be the ones responsible for developing plans for military action against Iran for the Obama administration.  They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be.  All tools, both conventional and nuclear, would be available to them.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior US military planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee.  A plan to put the full panoply of security measures in place not just in the region but in the US and territories of friends and allies to thwart retaliation would also be produced and implemented.  The worst way for Iranian leaders to discover the US military’s capabilities would be through an attack.

Iranian leaders must realize that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  To the extent that the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Another realization that must be reached is that rather than focus on comments that are meant for domestic political consumption in the US, Iranian leaders must stay focused on what is best for Iran and what can truly be achieved through the nuclear negotiations.  Relations between the US and Iran are at a new stage as are the nuclear negotiations. The P5+1 Talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council.  Those talks also allowed very senior officials to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns and relations between the two countries.  The new dialogue has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Jafari has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  However, Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with such slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement.  Adhering to the interim deal, as Kerry himself has confirmed, is a good first step and serves as recognition by Iranian leaders that a peace agreement has promise.  Although it has been dogma among US policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program, it may very well be that a final decision on how to proceed has not been made in Tehran.  Recall that Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.  If Iran were trying to develop a nuclear weapon, the effort could only be justified by Iranian leaders as a matter of absolute necessity for Iran’s security.  Evidence does not exist that the nuclear program has been militarized.  Whether Iranian leaders truly believe a nuclear weapon would make them more secure is not certain.  With great expenditure, Iranian leaders may be both creating a nuclear energy program, and simply creating the option to weaponize if it became necessary.

If a final decision truly has not been made on developing a nuclear weapon, it may still be possible, in Geneva and through back channel discussions, to convince Iranian leaders that pursuing a weapon would not be necessary.  Zarif, Kerry, and all parties to the negotiations may very well be able to deliver a deal that satisfies Tehran and all parties to the negotiations.  It is certainly worth the try.  If they fail, then a war will likely be declared, if not immediately, in the near future.

Book Review: Kenneth Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Pictured above are centrifuges used to enrich uranium at an Iranian nuclear facility.

In Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, Kenneth Pollack explains that Iran is most likely attempting to develop a nuclear weapon and may very well have it in the near future.  Having proffered that, Pollack then considers what will allow US policy makers to best respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in order to protect the interests of the US and its allies.  Pollack asserts that from the options available, the US will inevitably be forced to choose between declaring war to stop Iran from moving any further forward with its nuclear program or implement a policy of containment.  Pollack engages in a strenuous effort to support his belief that containment would be the best choice for the US.  However, Pollack does not limit his analysis to weighing the military option and containment.  He lays out other possible solutions to the Iranian nuclear dilemma that he poses.  Those other approaches include redoubling US efforts at a carrot-and-stick approach that combines negotiations and sanctions; aiding Iranian opposition to bring about a popular form of regime change; and, backing an Israeli military strike.

Pollack’s experience in examining Iranian security issues is extensive.  He began his career in international affairs as a Persian Gulf analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  He served twice on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC), at one time holding the position of Director for Persian Gulf Affairs.  Pollack also held positions as a senior research professor at the Department of Defense’s National Defense University, as a director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and as a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.  Throughout his career Pollack has interpreted facts and developed timely inferences on situations and entities in the Middle East, using large quantities of informatiuon with the goal of supporting US policy.  Pollack clearly possess what might be a granular understanding of the situation of Iran from detailed reports and assessments.  He likely retains what he learned from very enlightening classified sources during his tenure at CIA and perhaps afterward if he possesses a security clearance that would permit that.  However, Pollack’s understanding of Iran was still developed from the abstract.  Despite the eloquence of his argument, what stands out in Unthinkable is Pollack’s choice to make use of a limited range of primary sources to support his positions on the nuclear ambitions and decision making of Iranian authorities, which are central to his argument.

Pollack states in the Introduction to Unthinkable, “How we choose to fill the gaps in our knowledge is often more important than the knowledge we have.”   Claiming that there is not much known about the true intentions of the Iranian leadership, Pollack presumably felt it would be enough to write his book using research and writing techniques developed as an analyst for CIA.  Doing so certainly does not make for scandal.  However, Pollack’s apparent tact of presenting policy options as if he were still a CIA analyst at headquarters in Langley, Virginia, beset by travel restrictions, is questionable, since he is free and fully able as a private citizen and research fellow at an independent think tank to gather information and conduct interviews, including in Iran, to thoroughly investigate and assess the possibility of success for each option.  There is no evidence in Unthinkable that Pollack ventured to gain a greater understanding of issues himself by traveling to Iran or interview Iranian policy and decision makers.  To some degree, this represents a lack of commitment to the truth by Pollack.  In a world were interaction between people of the world is facilitated by electronic communication and air transport, it is difficult to understand why Pollack takes what is ostensibly an archaic tact to limit his study by denying himself access to first-hand information that is readily available.  Pollack very likely would have been welcomed in Iran.

Pollack’s self-imposed restriction on fully investigating Iran’s positions on nuclear issue seemingly caused him to reach a number of positions on the Iranian nuclear issue and US policy on Iran that were incorrect.  Most notable was Pollack’s argument against a “policy of pure engagement” or an “engagement only approach.”  While that position was not a main feature among his arguments, it has proven to be one of its greatest flaws.  Pollack based his assessment on the experience of the Europeans who attempted that tact with Iran without success in the 1990s.  Perhaps with a deeper look, Pollack would have discovered that the US and Iran had essentially decided to take a new direction on the nuclear issue.  While Pollack was arguing against initiatives to pull back on sanctions as a prelude to a grand bargain, the US and Iran were on the threshold of establishing a new dialogue.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed strong interest in establishing a dialogue with the West, and it was manifested with both his September 2013 telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama and the formal meeting in New York between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry the same week in 2013.  Months before contacts, there were back channel negotiations underway to set-up an official dialogue between the US and Iran.  Those efforts coalesced, resulted in the announcement of bilateral negotiations between the US and Iran and a Geneva negotiations process between representatives from Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany).  Those negotiations, which Pollack had taken a stand against, have resulted, to some degree, in an improvement in US-Iran relations, and an interim agreement signed by all parties on January 12, 2014.  That deal curtailed the Iranian nuclear program, focusing on two separate methods of developing a bomb: one involving uranium and, the other plutonium.   It allows time to negotiate a more ambitious deal that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.  In return, the Iranians would receive relief from sanctions and the ability to sell oil around the world again.

The P5+1 Talks in Geneva have also borne fruits beyond the agreement.  They provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking.  Much of what has been learned since contradicts Pollack’s assessments of thinking within Iran.  Indeed, for officials in all countries involved in the negotiation process, close contact through the Geneva process have given them a chance to look into each other’s eyes and sense one another’s feelings.  Everything the other says or how the other reacts to statements is important to know.  Every inflexion, tone, and change in the others voice provides some insight as to what might be on an official’s mind.  For the US and Iran, the understanding of positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the NSC.  Those talks also allowed very senior officials to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns and relations between the two countries.  The new dialogue has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives. 

Even if US officials at the Geneva Talks determined their Iranian counterparts were not being forthright or simply being deceptive, it could be best confirmed through talks, certainly not through the speculation that Pollack offers.  The understanding that US and Iranian leaders have of the others thinking as a result of Geneva would greatly inform the chief executive’s own assessment and eventual response to the crisis.  Frequent meetings between the US and Iranian officials allows for the development of a “fresh” understanding of each other, and enhances prospects for fence mending.

Part of Pollack’s rationale behind Unthinkable was to provide options for US policy makers in the event of a downturn in US-Iran relations.  As such, his discussion still merits consideration.  Regarding military action, to degrade Iran’s nuclear capability, Pollack, who again admits lacking information argues that a strategic bombing campaign might not inflict enough damage to prevent the Iranians from resurrecting their program.  If that occurs, Pollack believes US decision makers would turn to a ground invasion that would inevitably be more complex than the Iraq War.  However, in spite of his thorough examination of the issue, and his experience at CIA and the NSC, it is difficult to accept Pollack’s ideas on how senior US military planners would approach the Iranian nuclear program.  Pollack proffered similar analyses on Iraq, before Operation Iraqi Freedom. (See Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002).)  Pollack encouraged military action in Iraq despite not fully understanding: whether the premise for the attack being presented by the administration of US President George W. Bush—Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction—was  accurate; how the Iraqis would respond to the attack and subsequent occupation; what securing and reconstructing Iraq would require; and, how decision makers in the Bush administration understood the situation at the time and what their likely approach to the intervention would be.  Pollack now recognizes that the Bush administration was in willful denial of the enormity of the undertaking.  Preparing good military plan to meet the goals of political leadership that will result in a favorable, attainable outcome, requires dominant knowledge of the prospective battle space and excellent “situational awareness.”  In recommending a military plan to political leaders, senior military leaders must possess a necessary level of “political awareness,” bearing in mind to what degree their plans might be politicized as a result of expedience, making desired outcomes less likely. 

US military planners, using their expertise based on careers in their respective branches of the armed forces, that included continuous military education and training and considerable experience in war fighting, are responsible for developing plans for military action for political leaders.  They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be.  Policy makers and analysts, regardless of their level of understanding of military theory or strategy, are outmatched by the degree of understanding senior military commanders possess for the planning and execution of an attack on Iran.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior military planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee.

While Pollack may believe that attacking Iran is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high, circumstances in the future may not permit a policy based on convenience.  Whether faced with war-weariness over Iraq and Afghanistan or isolationism following World War I, if military action is the most effective option, it must be taken.  Decision makers must operate within circumstances that exist, not the circumstance they like to have.  Perhaps Pollack, as a result of personal reflections on mistakes made concerning Iraq has become adverse to risk and now seeks to avoid military action.  However, that mindset typically will result in the search for alternate approaches that, in a less than perfect world, do not exist.

Interestingly, Pollack’s argument that military action in Iran would be too costly weakens the case for containment which is his preferred option.  A containment effort of any kind requires the existence of the credible threat of force.  Nevertheless, Pollack recommends establishing red lines to deter an Iran with nuclear weapons from threatening US interests and allies.  He suggested the further use of coercive diplomacy in the form of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and ideological warfare with the hope it will modify Iran’s behavior and allow structural flaws in its political system to bring an end to the regime itself.  To enhance the possibility that containment would succeed, Pollack suggested supporting anti-regime elements to foment revolution in Iran.  Despite the questionable nature of such groups, Pollack explains “Any imaginable change of regime in Tehran would benefit the United States, if only because it is hard to imagine a regime more anti-American than the one in place today.”   Surely, this belief would be modified after a discussion in Iran with ordinary citizens about groups such as the People’s Mujahedeen.

Despite questions raised in this review on Pollack’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue, Unthinkable should still pique the interest of policy scholars and academics interested in appraising some very, well-researched arguments on the future of US relations with Iran.  Pollack is a good researcher and great writer.  Business leaders and policy aficionados would find Unthinkable of interest because it provides insight into how similar arguments of US foreign policy issues are formulated by think tank scholars.  There is much for students of international affairs to learn from his work.  Undoubtedly, Unthinkable has been read and briefed in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.  It might be interesting enough for them, as well as readers from governments of other countries, to view the book as an opportunity to review the methodology for research and analysis used by a skilled former US intelligence analyst.  However, as mentioned, The Iranians would most likely feel they have much more to learn from their first-hand interactions with US officials in Geneva.

Unthinkable was highly recommended in many reviews when published in September 2013.  Many of the book’s arguments may soon be overcome by events in Geneva.  Yet, there are still some things to be learned from it.   As greatcharlie.com appreciates books that can enhance the understanding of its audience of foreign and defense policy makers, to business and political leaders, and policy aficionados on international affairs, we recommends Unthinkable to them.

Negotiators Put Final Touches on Interim Iran Accord, But Ayatollah Khamenei Is Expressing Concern over Perceptions Created by Talks

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is frustrated by the popular perception that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program as a result of Western economic sanctions.

According to a January 13, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Negotiators Put Final Touches On Iran Accord,” Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) completed a deal on January 12th that would temporarily suspend much of Iran’s nuclear program as of January 20th.  That would be done in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.  The interim agreement had already been announced in November 2013, however, its implementation was delayed until after negotiators and experts worked out technical details.  Reportedly, Iran will suspend its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that had were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities.

While Western officials touted the degree to which Iran’s nuclear program had be temporarily curtailed, as reported in the January 13thNew York Times article, Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.

For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the main requirement that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  However, as the process advanced, Khamenei began to publicly express concerns and some disappointment over its results.  Despite an initial sense inside Iran’s leadership that the negotiations would rapidly bring forth favorable results, it instead has been a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which remains uncertain.  Moreover, Iranian authorities became concerned by the fact that following their decision to engage in the negotiations with Western powers, a perception took hold that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program to stave off economic ruin.

In Iran, Khamenei is known as the leader of the Islamic Ummah and Oppressed People and the person in which the spiritual guidance and functional power Islamic republic resides.  For him, the notion that Iran was submitting to Western pressure is absolutely abhorrent.  Khamenei accused the US of engaging in strenuous efforts to promote this view of Iranian weakness.  He stated:  “The nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam, and Muslims.”  Nevertheless, the view that Iran was forced to negotiate in reaction to economic sanctions is not only accepted among most experts in the US.  It is the prevailing view worldwide.  Khamenei has held out hope that, through the Geneva process, Iran would reach an agreement that fits within the ideals of Islamic Revolution as well as achieve success over what he has referred to often as “the economic pressures and propaganda campaigns of the West.”  However, perceptions of Iran’s standing in the talks could very well impact Khamenei’s final decision regarding Geneva.  At this juncture, it is not necessary for Khamenei to decide whether to proceed to halt negotiations as a final agreement has not even been outlined.  In the interim, perhaps Khamenei and Iranian foreign and defense policymakers might consider how Iran’s own efforts to influence the global policy debate on the Geneva process in its favor, how in reality, it did more to propagate perceptions on why it entered into negotiations.  Interestingly, a few changes in Iran’s approach may ameliorate the situation and may very well make the situation tolerable enough to allow reaching an agreement to become the main focus of all parties.

Image of Iran’s Power to Khamenei

Khamenei’s frustration over worldwide perceptions that Iran was forced into the Geneva process is almost palpable.  Khamenei saw Iran’s decision to enter the Geneva process purely from a position of strength as a regional power.  Such power was the basis of equality.  Viewing its entry into the Geneva process from a perceived position of strength Khamenei has made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  When it began the talks, Khamenei and Iranian policymakers believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests would be rapidly constructed.  Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the accepted view was that US had become disinterested in the Middle East as events and issues in the region do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest.  The failure of the US to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite red-lines, is a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they viewed US President Barack Obama as analytical and frail, lacking the will to fight.  They asserted that Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed appears to have become dogma among political and religious hardliners and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  It has compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands at Geneva.

Khamenei and Iranian officials saw Iran moving in the opposite direction of the US, gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East.  Khamenei stated:  “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.”  He further stated that “this major power [Iran] has influenced regional nations.”  Iran’s recent record indeed includes a number of bold and decisive actions in the region.  According to the January 13th, New York Times article, Iran has been sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region.  In Syria, Iran has deployed significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces.  It has sent an estimated 330 truckloads of arms and equipment to Syrian through Iraq to support the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Iran has also facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shiite militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, the New York Times reports Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  Iran smuggles weapons into Yemen on small boats which are difficult for Yemeni authority to track.  It is estimated that only 1 out of 10 Iranian boats that illegally come into Yemen among the thousands of commercial and fishing boats in the Persian Gulf.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shiite groups back in the 1990s, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini operatives are typically trained in Iran and operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders there.

Understanding US Power in Tehran

Despite Khamenei’s own perceptions of Iran’s power relative to that of the US and its Western partners, the US has proved not to be as relaxed on matters as his foreign and defense policy experts and advisers led him to believe.  Advice coming as a result of the “group-think” displayed in Tehran on the capabilities and possibilities of the US did not serve Khamenei well.  As a nation, the US is certainly not a push over.  It remains a nuclear armed superpower, regardless of any perceptions about its leadership.  It has become very apparent that for Iran, acquiring significant sanctions relief through the talks would be difficult, if not impossible to realize, without significant change regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Additionally, the focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process was not what Iran was doing away from its nuclear program regionally.  That has been put aside.  The focus of Geneva is specifically Iran’s nuclear program and potential for developing nuclear weapons.  The talks are aimed at preventing nuclear war.  For that reason, the talks to a great degree concern the very survival of Iran in the face of US military power.

Distress caused by coming to this understanding of the situation has increased Khamenei’s frustration over hearing economic causation theories on Iran’s decision to negotiation in the global media.  Clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Iran’s oil revenue has been reduced and its other trade has been disrupted.  Nevertheless, Khamenei still publicly rejects this perception of weakness.  He recently declared, “Our enemies do not know the great Iranian nation.  They think that their imposed sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations.  No, it is a wrong.”

Iran has made an effort promote its own positions and arguments on the Geneva negotiations as part of the worldwide policy debate on its nuclear program and the Geneva talks.  This activity has been especially noticeable online, in the social media.  (See greatcharlie.com September 3, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks: Is Twitter Part of Rouhani’s Approach to the West?”)  Indeed, just as many other nations, Iran has sought to adapt to emerging trends on the social media with the hope they can way global opinion and improve the nation’s public image as well.  However, perhaps its was not fully understood at the time the decision to engage in such activity was made that use of this type of eDiplomacy (via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the blogishere, and other means) can create difficulties.  The real threat to national governments with an online presence or even in print, radio, and television media is the foreign and defense policy pundit.  Iran fell prey to endless numbers of pundits worldwide.

Iran’s Lost Cause Against the Pundits

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pundit as an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give views about it to the public.  In the US, they are typically former government officials, political leaders and political operatives, think tank scholars, and academics allegedly with official access, particularly in Washington, DC.  Pundits respond to issues as they arise.  The serious foreign and defense policy observers among them will typically focusing on their areas of expertise.  Ideally, pundits will fill in information gaps to help an audience better understand an issue, policies, decisions, and actions taking place.  They may provide constructive criticism, “reality therapy,” and perhaps thinking that is outside of the box based on good judgment.  In this manner, pundits can make very valuable contributions to the foreign and defense policy debate.  (It is hoped visitors feel greatcharlie.com falls into that honorable category of punditry.)  However, there are also those pundits whose responses come in the form of trenchant criticisms of policies and decisions, pointing more to what is wrong than explaining how things could be improved.  Pundits are not journalists.  While they operate in the same sphere, they do so using different “standards.”  Some paraphrase and misquote to the extent that they occasionally create false impressions within the media of what was stated by an official.  This is made easier by use of sound bites and clips of official presentations.

Pundits respond to official statements on all issues that may arise.  Pundits, great and small, popular and unknown, are commenting on official statements and reports on such a rapid and immeasurable scale that even when corrections and misquotes are acknowledged such efforts to repair mistakes are obviated by new urgent and important issues.  Moreover, whenever official provide statements or attempts are made at leaking information through “trial balloons” and unofficial statements, in the end they are made in the pundits’ court: the media.  How those presentations eventually reach the public will be shaped by pundits responses, which some pundits often allege are gleaned from their own official sources.  The media is the pundits’ court, and within it, they cannot be defeated.  Whenever officials attempt to set the record straight by offering rebuttals or rebuffing such commentaries by pundits, their statements may drown among the thousands of commentaries on the blogisphere or may be met by an additional roundla of harsh remarks.  Interestingly, an effort by officials to engage a pundit in a debate in the media over a commentary, the pundit’s visibility and standing is elevated.

Grabbing the attention of an audience is most important in all media.  As a blog, greatcharlie.com, itself, is very interested in the number of visitors and views it receives on a given day, week, or month on its site.  While it would be better if blogs were sought out for their veracity and insights they present, attention is generally given to the ones that are more interesting or intriguing.  More often, those commentaries lack depth, and will more likely be unfriendly.  The more acceptable a negative view might be regarding a particular issue, the more likely this will be the case.  This has been one of Iran’s problems.  While Iran sought to promote its positions and arguments in the media, attempting to cope with popular pundits, who feel they should be hostile to its official statements, has proven to be a failed exercise.  Khamenei once expressed the hope that what he perceived to be an anti-Iran publicity campaign by the US would backfire and lead to its own global isolation.  However, that will unlikely be the case.  Among those people interested in foreign and defense policy worldwide, very few would ever take the position that Iran was equal or stronger than the US and its Western partners.  Far more people worldwide might accept more negative perspectives of Iran, due to security and economic concerns or ethno-religious and nationalist reasons.  The fact that the Geneva process is primarily referred to worldwide as the Geneva nuclear talks, which is how the US and its Western partners view the process, and not the Geneva talks on economic sanctions, as Khamenei and Iranian officials might view it, is an indicator of the perspective from which the global media has viewed the situation.

Assessment

As the supreme leader, it is understandable that worldwide perceptions of Iran would matter greatly to Khamenei.  Further, he was correct when he stated an enmity exists between Iran and the US.  Until the talks began, relations were uncongenial.  Yet, what is most important regarding the Geneva nuclear talks is what is said at the negotiation table and not what is stated in the media.  Boasts and declarations, the strong suit of the pundit, are of no value in the process.  Pragmatic thinking is required of all parties to the negotiation on this matter.

The quality of the agreement reached naturally should far outweigh concerns over what pundits far away from the negotiating table might argue.  An agreement, negotiated with the idea of equality among the parties at the table, that is respectful of the interests of all parties, that all feel is sustainable, and will preclude all from considering military solutions to the matters in discussion, will ensure peace.  This is the concept that should drive forward the Geneva process among all parties.