The US intelligence community is having a very difficult time interpreting the signals from Iran’s nuclear program. This isn’t that unusual in historical context; US intelligence tends to be surprised by nuclear detonations. But it is of grave concern that our national leadership at all levels seems to be so shortsighted about what is at stake. Our biggest problem in dealing with Iran today is framing the issue – and at the moment, we’re doing it wrong.
If we frame the issue as a question of how close Iran is to getting the bomb, as if all other things are equal – as if Iran could get the bomb in a vacuum, with nothing else mattering or changing along the way – then it makes a sort of sense to focus exclusively on the potential ambiguity of our various data points; e.g., computer files from 2003; Iran’s connections with Pakistan, North Korea, and the A.Q. Khan network; persistent attempts to import suspect materials in defiance of sanctions.
In this extremely narrow, simplistic construct – one or zero, Iran is about to get the bomb or isn’t – analysts can justify incessantly splitting the distance from here to a bomb.
“Well, they’re closer than they were, but that’s a technicality – we still don’t know if they want one. “
“Well, they’re closer than they were, and they’re being less cooperative with the IAEA, but we still don’t have direct indications that they are designing and testing a warhead.”
“Well, they’ve offered their Middle Eastern neighbors a ‘missile umbrella’ as a defense against outside powers, which is something that would only work if the missile umbrella were nuclear, but we just don’t have the evidence that they are working on a warhead right now.”
I’ve compared this approach in the past to Zeno of Elea’s famous paradox. Zeno proposed, as a basis for a reasoning exercise, that because the distance between an arrow and its target can theoretically be divided in half an infinite number of times, the arrow can never actually reach the target. US intelligence seems determined to operate on this basis, biasing its estimates with an emphasis on the remaining distance to the target.
But this is a posture, not an intelligence conclusion, and it’s based on an assumption that we can afford to focus on whatever Iran doesn’t seem to have done yet. A different, less complacent posture – e.g., from the Oval Office – would require a different emphasis from intelligence.
The disconnect with reality is rather startling. Perhaps the strongest clue that America’s intelligence community misreads the historical moment is its officials’ use of the expression “strategic ambiguity.” According to the New York Times:
[Intelligence officials] say that Iran could be seeking to enhance its influence in the region by creating what some analysts call “strategic ambiguity.” Rather than building a bomb now, Iran may want to increase its power by sowing doubt among other nations about its nuclear ambitions.
Well, sure. And the point here? “Strategic ambiguity” is what Iran has now, which is why we’re in a scramble – arms build-ups, sanctions, economic insecurity, regional realignments, the spread of Iranian-backed terror incidents, threats of “World War III” from Russia and China – and the situation is getting steadily worse. This is what strategic ambiguity looks like, Iranian-nuclear-intentions-wise: destabilization of the Eastern hemisphere. It’s no way for any of us to live.
And it certainly isn’t going to get better with age. The Iranian mullahs are one of several entities jockeying for leadership of the Islamist vision for the Middle East. Conflict and uncertainty are on their side, and that’s what strategic ambiguity over Iran is ideal for promoting. The longer it goes on, the more likely it is that at least some of the power relationships affecting the region (and Iran’s prospects in it) will be realigned. Indeed, the entire region is already changing, even as the US strategic focus seems to narrow to an absurd concept of waiting to prevent Iran from getting the bomb at the precise, Unassailable Moment when no one could claim she wasn’t trying to.
An extended period of strategic ambiguity for Iran means strategic discontinuity for the rest of us. There is no steady state in which the only thing that changes is how many seconds closer to a bomb Iran is. “Strategic ambiguity” over Iran’s nuclear intentions isn’t some intermediate future condition that might be less of a problem than Iran having the bomb; it’s the condition of today, and it is the problem.