Times of Israel picked up today on the fact that the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, has effectively de-listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. It has eliminated references to Hezbollah as a terrorist group as well.
But it’s worse than that. The 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment soft-soaps the Iranian threat quite astoundingly, not just in terms of whether Iran is formally presented as a terrorism threat, but in terms of characterizing Iran’s activities overall. A convincing case can be made that this is not “intelligence” being provided here. It’s political, even propagandistic, narrative-writing.
Elder of Ziyon has laid out some of this, comparing the verbiage from the assessments in 2012-14 with the ZERO that is said about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism or Hezbollah as a terrorist actor in the 2015 assessment. His juxtaposition of the 2014 and 2015 passages is telling (emphasis in original):
Iran and Hizballah [sic]
Outside of the Syrian theater, Iran and Lebanese Hizballah continue to directly threaten the interests of US allies. Hizballah has increased its global terrorist activity in recent years to a level that we have not seen since the 1990s.
Elder points out further the Iranian-sponsored attacks abroad that aren’t mentioned in these assessments, which is an important point in and of itself.
There’s more to say, however. To get at the sheer scope of what’s being done in this cornerstone U.S. intelligence assessment, we need to enlarge our view just a little bit in the 2014-vs.-2015 comparison.
The first point to make is that even in 2014, there was a subtle downgrading of the terrorism emphasis with regard to Iran. That even extended to Hezbollah, although Hezbollah was still mentioned (briefly) as a perpetrator of terrorism. Iran actually was not listed as a sponsor, in the 2014 assessment.
The passage Elder quoted from the 2014 assessment did come under the “Terrorism” heading. But the wording acknowledged only that “Iran…continue[s] to directly threaten the interests of U.S. allies.” In the passage in question, only Hezbollah is cited explicitly as being connected to terrorism.
That may seem like a minor point, but it functions as a stepping stone to the 2015 assessment, in which mention of Iran under the Terrorism heading is eliminated entirely.
(And, as Elder points out, there is simply a weird disjunction between 2014 and 2015 regarding Hezbollah. In 2014, Hezbollah’s global terrorist activity is up significantly, “to a level we have not seen since the 1990s.” In 2015: crickets.)
The introduction of a narrative
What’s worse is the characterization of Iran’s regional activities in 2013 and 2014 versus 2015. For this comparison, we need longer citations. These passages fall under the “Iran” sections of the assessments, rather than the Terrorism sections.
Here is the relevant portion of 2013:
In its efforts to spread influence abroad and undermine the United States and our allies, Iran is trying to exploit the fighting and unrest in the Arab world. It supports surrogates, including Palestinian militants engaged in the recent conflict with Israel. To take advantage of the US withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it will continue efforts to strengthen political and economic ties with central and local governments, while providing select militants with lethal assistance. Iran’s efforts to secure regional hegemony, however, have achieved limited results, and the fall of the Asad regime in Syria would be a major strategic loss for Tehran.
Notice that the 2013 assessment corresponded with the understanding of the great majority of analysts in the public sphere, basically anywhere in the world. This is a non-controversial assessment.
Iran will continue to act assertively abroad in ways that run counter to US interests and worsen regional conflicts. Iranian officials almost certainly believe that their support has been instrumental in sustaining Asad’s regime in Syria and will probably continue support during 2014 to bolster the regime. In the broader Middle East, Iran will continue to provide arms and other aid to Palestinian groups, Huthi rebels in Yemen, and Shia militants in Bahrain to expand Iranian influence and to counter perceived foreign threats. Tehran, which strives for a stable Shia-led, pro-Iran government in Baghdad, is concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Tehran is probably struggling to find the balance between protecting Shia equities in Iraq and avoiding overt actions that would precipitate greater anti-Shia violence. In Afghanistan, Tehran will probably seek its own additional security agreements with Kabul, promote pro-Iranian candidates in the 2014 presidential election to increase its influence at the expense of the United States, and maintain its clandestine aid to Afghan insurgent groups. Iran sees rising sectarianism as a dangerous regional development, but we assess that Iran’s perceived responsibility to protect and empower Shia communities will increasingly trump its desire to avoid sectarian violence. Hence, Iran’s actions will likely do more to fuel rather than dampen increasing sectarianism.
Notice that the 2014 verbiage continues to acknowledge Iran’s support for militant groups in the region, specifically including “Palestinian” groups (Hamas, PFLP) and the Houthis in Yemen.
But notice also that the peculiarly timed passage on Iran’s interest in Iraq serves as an apologetic for Tehran. This 2014 assessment was delivered on 29 January 2014, 5-6 months before the Islamic State conquest of Mosul put the internal collapse of Iraq, and the question of Iranian intervention on the ground in Iraq, on the public’s mental map.
It’s hard to find developments in the months prior to January 2014 that warranted this oddly preemptive – even gratuitous – disquisition on Iran’s interest in Iraq. Moreover, the assessment builds no case for its inclusion, something that could have been done very briefly, by citing one or two events that triggered the topic, in an otherwise broadly general assessment.
The main impression one comes away with is that someone was at great pains to push the theme of “Iran protecting Shia communities in Iraq.”
Now look at the 2015 assessment:
In Iraq and Syria, Iran seeks to preserve friendly governments, protect Shia interests, defeat Sunni extremists, and marginalize US influence. The rise of ISIL has prompted Iran to devote more resources to blunting Sunni extremist advances that threaten Iran’s regional allies and interests. Iran’s security services have provided robust military support to Baghdad and Damascus, including arms, advisers, funding, and direct combat support. Both conflicts have allowed Iran to gain valuable on-the-ground experience in counterinsurgency operations. Iranian assistance has been instrumental in expanding the capabilities of Shia militants in Iraq. The ISIL threat has also reduced Iraqi resistance to integrating those militants, with Iranian help, into the Iraqi Security Forces, but Iran has uneven control over these groups.
Despite Iran’s intentions to dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners, and deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia, Iranian leaders—particularly within the security services—are pursuing policies with negative secondary consequences for regional stability and potentially for Iran. Iran’s actions to protect and empower Shia communities are fueling growing fears and sectarian responses.
The new narrative: False and tendentious
First, of course, there is now no mention at all of Iranian support to militant groups in the region, other than in Iraq. The word “Palestinian” doesn’t occur anywhere in the 2015 document, in spite of the onslaught of Hamas rocket attacks against Israel in 2014, the Israeli counter-operation (Protective Edge) in the summer, and the rise in terrorist attacks from groups based in the West Bank in the latter half of 2014.
One of the most significant Iranian arms shipments to date for terrorist clients Hezbollah and Hamas, the shipment of advanced battlefield weaponry on M/V Klos-C, was intercepted by the IDF in March 2014. A noteworthy aspect of that event was that the arms appear to have been manufactured in Syria, but shipped through Iran. In January 2015, well before the 2015 assessment was delivered, additional evidence emerged about Iran managing the development and manufacture of arms in Syria – possibly including elements of Syria’s old nuclear program. Especially noteworthy was the close connection of Iran’s Qods Force and Hezbollah with this effort.
On 2 February 2015, weeks before the 2015 assessment was published, an Iranian general admitted in public that Iran is supplying weapons to Hezbollah and “Palestine” (i.e., Hamas and PFLP).
The 2015 report reflects none of these realities. It doesn’t mention Iran’s support to terrorism, including arms to terrorist groups, at all.
Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, with Iran’s help – as explicitly emphasized in the 2014 assessment – dissolved the Yemeni government in a coup. This also happened before the 2015 assessment came out.
That there was plenty of time to include the coup as a “threat” development is demonstrated by the fact that the 2015 assessment mentions the coup, and the continuation of armed strife in Yemen. According to the 2014 assessment, and all other assessments out there except Iran’s official statements on the subject, the Houthi faction in the Yemeni conflict is being armed by Iran. But here is what the 2015 assessment has to say about Iran and Yemen, on p. 15:
Huthi ascendency [sic] in Yemen has increased Iran’s influence as well.
That’s it. This weasel-worded statement comports with the second major point to make about the 2015 assessment, which is that it has gone from being a sort of trial-balloon, slightly weird apologetic for Tehran to being a full-blown, throbbing-neon apologetic for Tehran.
According to the 2015 document, Iran wants to, among other things, “dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners, and deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia.” The Iranian Qods Force’s activities around the region, once characterized by the U.S. as part of the sponsorship of terrorism, have metamorphosed in the 2015 assessment into “Iran’s security services…provid[ing] robust military support to Baghdad and Damascus.”
Note how the longstanding patron-client relationship with the Assad regime, which has been a basis for calling Iran a sponsor of terrorism, is equated here with Iran’s emerging military footprint in Iraq – which latter is justified in the assessment as being a defensive measure against “ISIL,” or Islamic State. In case you miss the implied equation of the two lines of effort, the assessment observes that they have both included “arms, advisers, funding, and direct combat support. Both conflicts have allowed Iran to gain valuable on-the-ground experience in counterinsurgency operations.”
Gee, counterinsurgency. Add to that Iran’s desires to “preserve friendly governments, protect Shia interests, defeat Sunni extremists, and marginalize US influence,” and the picture emerges of an Iranian regime that has just had a consultation with Henry Kissinger, and is doing its best to take its place among the responsible, Westphalian, status quo powers of our diverse and colorful world.
The subversion of the intelligence function
This document is not an intelligence assessment. An intelligence assessment would, for one thing, acknowledge up front the differences in how the same facts have been interpreted, from one annual assessment to the next. It would, for another thing, take into account all the significant facts from a reporting period, rather than leaving big ones out.
But it would also refrain from being in the tank for a radical regime that’s running around the Middle East distributing arms, deploying paramilitary troops, and alarming our own allies: Arab, Israeli, and Turkish.
From any objective standpoint, Iran’s activities are legitimately seen as disruptive, or at least as potentially so. There are legitimate and significant reasons to interpret Iran’s motives from a less approving perspective (e.g., the regime’s persistent radicalism, which includes brutal repression of its own people, as well as the incessant lying, obfuscation, and vituperative threats in its relations with the world). The job of intelligence is to consider those factors, and to be as objective as possible.
ToI notes that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), in its latest assessment, continues to reflect both Iran and Hezbollah as terrorism threats. And I note that the State Department still has Iran formally designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, a distinction Iran has held since 1984. State could not change that designation without arousing Congress; we can expect the formal designation to be the very last thing that changes.
But the different assessments of the DNI and DIA are noteworthy. DIA’s assessment is inherently less likely to involve a political agenda, and it’s also, in the two 2015 documents, the traditional assessment, and the assessment that fits all the facts. The picture that emerges here is of partisans weighing in who are able to influence the DNI’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, but not DIA’s military-oriented assessment. The partisans’ opportunity to publish an alternative assessment through the DNI gives them a way to eventually take over the narrative, however, especially since the DNI is supposed to be at the pinnacle of national intelligence, higher in the food chain than DIA. Masquerading as “intelligence,” tendentious briefings from the DNI on Iran’s behalf are a very dangerous prospect.
State Department officials write a lot of things as apologies for the nations and perspectives they favor. They have their own function in America’s foreign policy apparatus. But intelligence isn’t intelligence any longer, when it starts being written in such a mode. It becomes little more than propaganda for a point of view. Know the distinction, readers. This is a very bad development.