If President Rouhani isn't re-elected....

Photographer: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Intel Assesses Iran Deal, Without Really Assessing Iran

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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The intelligence assessment provided to Congress to support the Iran nuclear deal has a hole: It fails to examine the intentions of Iran's regime to actually comply with the agreement over time.

U.S. intelligence officials and members of Congress who have reviewed the document  -- known as a classified annex -- tell me it says that compliance can be verified and that U.S. intelligence can reasonably detect a secret attempt to build a bomb.

But according to the officials and lawmakers, its judgments are based on the assumption that Iran adheres to strict monitoring and transparency measures over the life of the agreement, in some cases up to 20 years. The annex does not examine how Iran's leadership will change over the course of the agreement and the chances that Iran's leaders will allow the same strict monitoring of its declared nuclear program in 10 or 15 years.

This could be a problem considering Iran's history with arms control agreements. Tehran never adhered to the terms of an inspections agreement it made in 2003 with the International Atomic Energy Agency known as the additional protocol. To this day the agency has outstanding questions Iran is supposed to answer in the coming months about activities and sites where it denied access to inspectors.

The classified annex was sent to Congress on July 19 as part of the documents the White House is required by law to submit. It was prepared in 30 days by the U.S. intelligence community and did not meet the more rigorous and time-consuming standards required for a national intelligence estimate, which is considered a more formal judgment from the intelligence community.

On the question of leadership intentions to comply with the terms of the agreement, the closest the annex comes to touching on these issues, according to these officials, is an examination of how Iran will try to exploit ambiguities in the agreement.

The annex does support President Obama's argument that the transparency measures, such as 24-hour video monitoring of Iran's declared facilities and access to the country's uranium mines and centrifuge production plants, make it a strong deal even if it does not push Iran's regime toward reform. Congress has until Sept. 20 to review the terms. Opponents are struggling to rally a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate to make a stand against the deal and override a veto. But this remains a long shot.

Assessing the intentions of Iran's regime now is crucial because once in effect, this deal's incentives make it harder for the international community to sanction Iran if Iran strays from compliance after a few years. As Michael Hayden, a former CIA director and NSA director under George W. Bush, told me: "The leadership is very opaque. There are competing power centers. I think a valuable assessment would be how we expect that to play out throughout the life of the agreement."

Much of the sanctions relief Iran will receive under the deal is implemented in the first phase of the agreement, after the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies Iran has taken all the steps to open up its declared nuclear program. In future years, punishing Iranian violations of the agreements would be tougher to do.

If Iran decides not to allow inspections or monitoring in declared facilities down the line, the violation will be taken up by an eight-member committee with representatives from the U.S., the European Union, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and Iran. If a majority agrees there is a violation, the issue will go to the U.N. Security Council, where sanctions will likely be snapped back into place.

"If" and "likely" are not reassuring words when the stakes are this high. Iran could probably count on Russia and China to oppose the re-imposition of sanctions. Those three alone could not deadlock the committee, but if they persuade one more nation they could.

Already some concerns are being expressed about the deal's long-term viability. In his testimony Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "Ultimately time and Iranian behavior will determine whether the Iranian nuclear agreement is sustainable."

Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has already asked the intelligence community to conduct an alternative assessment of the deal. In a July 28 letter to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, Nunes asks the intelligence community to "conduct an analysis of competing hypotheses of Iran's nuclear intent and capabilities."   

Some analysts have argued that Iran has an incentive to adhere to the deal because over time it will be allowed to modernize its nuclear program and, in the final years of the agreement, to stockpile enough uranium to quickly make enough fuel for a bomb.

But another scenario is that powerful factions in Iran opposed to the deal would attempt to sabotage its implementation. One saboteur could be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).The intelligence community in separate assessments that are not part of the classified annex provided to Congress has concluded that the corps opposes the nuclear agreement, according to U.S. officials. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed this Tuesday in a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The Revolutionary Guard wields considerable power in Iran over the country's economy.

Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, told me the Revolutionary Guard could make mischief, but there was a limit to what they could do. "The IRGC could do its best to interrupt or even sabotage full implementation by their behavior," she said. "But I don't think it could block the agreed inspections protocol and say you can't go into this building because we own it." 

One of the central problems with predicting Iran's compliance with the agreement over time is that the U.S. is not particularly good at this kind of thing. Iran's leadership is already a hard target, and experts often disagree and don't have the advantage of government oversight or a free press to gauge the Iranian regime's intentions. 

"Iran is a hybrid beast," Laipson told me. "There is still pseudo democratic politics there. If (Iranian President) Rouhani doesn't get re-elected, if he is not allowed to run in an election, there may be a shift in how the leadership views the deal. This will also depend on whether Iran thinks it is being treated fairly during implementation." 

The question for Congress and the intelligence community now is whether this hybrid beast would keep its promises.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net