The following is a special guest post by former NIAC associate Dan Robinson:
January 16, 2009
The New York Times’ recent leak of President Bush’s denial of Israel’s request for aid in a covert air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is another example of how national security information is just like water in a cracked seal–it’s going to get out.
The rest of the story, if accurate, has the potential to wreck the Obama team’s initiative to engage Iran directly on the nuclear issue: the Bush administration’s acknowledgment to Israeli PM Olmert that the US has been conducting covert intelligence missions inside Iran to deter, possibly sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program.
However, it should come as no surprise that the United States has been conducting covert intelligence operations in Iran. Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker broke the story about the administration asking for additional money to expand the program of intelligence gathering and to destabilize the country’s religious establishment.
This new wrinkle could complicate the delicate policy of engagement Obama wishes to press with Iran. Last week, in a This Week exclusive with George Stephanopoulos, Obama reiterated that he wanted to work directly with Iran to improve relations and halt the nuclear program that Iran describes as peaceful, but about which the West has its suspicions.
This situation is pretty similar to the one John F. Kennedy faced when he took office in 1961. An existing covert plan to overthrow Castro’s regime in Cuba with Cuban American paramilitaries and CIA officials was in place and given the go-ahead by Kennedy, to disastrous results.
The danger for Obama, like the one Kennedy faced, is the risk of blowback from a decision made by his predecessor that leaves little room to get out.
Obama faces nearly the same challenge. An ongoing covert program while the two sides are negotiating can’t give the Iranians much confidence that the US is negotiating in good faith. At the same time, Obama has to leave his options open in case negotiations fail, and due to the lack of diplomatic relations, ancillary intelligence and on-the-ground information is a valuable commodity.
With Obama’s experienced team and the young president’s eagerness to get things done, there are two options to salvage things if diplomacy breaks down before talks start:
First, Obama, since he has proposed low-level preparations for negotiations, could also authorize back channel communication between government officials (say, the respective national security advisers of both countries) to keep the lines open and clarify intentions before crises escalate (this happens a lot more than even analysts can predict like the Iran patrol boat incident last January).
Second, although full disclosure of the intelligence program is impossible and operationally not viable, an intrusive inspections regime of suspected sites (unannounced and includes civilian and military) by impartial third party actors like Sweden or the IAEA could lower suspicion, conditioned on an agreement for ‘no suspension’ or a freeze of activities for a temporary period.
Although this leak could limit the options Obama has before he even has a chance to use them, the lesson provided by Kennedy’s example, pragmatism, and principled resolve can save the first comprehensive effort by an American president to change the stultifying status quo that hasn’t safeguarded the interests of our friends and allies, has emboldened our enemies, and leaves another generation disenchanted with America’s promise.