Iraq, Iran, and Israeli intelligence misconceptions

Sunday, 20 February, 2011 - 18:20
London, UK

No one, not even intelligence agencies, can know everything about the enemy. It would have been understandable if the Israeli intelligence had got a few things wrong about Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam Hussein actually possessed. But to tell us that WMD existed “in very high probability” when in fact they had no evidence, suggests anything from negligence to deliberate collusion. So how should we respond to what we’re told about Iran’s WMDs? And shouldn’t we be concerned when intelligence agencies say estimates are exaggerated?

I. Baghdad - Tel-Aviv
As I watched UK’s ex-PM Blair testifying in January to a national committee investigating the war in Iraq, I was reminded of my childhood traumas in greater Tel-Aviv during Gulf-War-I. To this day I miss a heartbeat every time the sound of a passing motorcycle reminds me of the wailing war sirens that urged us from our beds in the middle of the night to take refuge, like all Israeli families at the time, in our anti-chemical shelter. Ours was in my parents’ bedroom where we waited anxiously for hours for the unknown.

When Bush-II dragged the US and the UK into another war in Iraq, I – by then an officer in the Israeli Army – shared most Israelis’ fear of Saddam and was also deeply affected by the horror of 9/11. When Bush and Blair confidently stated that Saddam’s WMDs threatened us, and Israeli intelligence said the same, I didn’t care too much that the UN did not support military action, or that some intelligence officers and agencies (mostly in the Air Force) had different views. I just feared the return of the horror. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, I was angry when we learned - together with the rest of the world - that Iraq had no WMDs. It did not even have any long-range ballistic missiles that could have reached us.

II. Israel’s involvement in Gulf-War-II
At the time, Israel was not merely an onlooker. I don’t know to what extent our intelligence services influenced the pro-war agenda, but I remember clearly that friends who were intelligence officers were instructed to devoutly seek proof of the existence of WMDs and feed it to our international partners. Our military officials argued argued passionately to the Knesset and the public that Iraq surely had such weapons. “With near certainty” the Israeli media quoted them repeatedly as saying, encouraging Western forces to attack.

As late as April 8, 2003, three weeks into the four-week-long war, when the Coalition forces were in almost complete control of Iraq, the Israeli Chief of Intelligence was still asserting to the members of the Knesset’s Committee of Foreign Affairs and Defense that, “In a very-high probability, there are WMDs [in Iraq]”.

The ‘experts’ told us things would be much better for us after the war, with “the dictator at the heart of the system forcibly replaced” (the same model they had in mind when they led us to the fiasco of Lebanon-War-I). And our media did nothing to challenge them.

Today we know that these confident assertions were based on no evidence.[1] They were wishful thinking used to justify the Coalition investing an immense amount of money and people in an unjust war, resulting in a bloodbath of hundreds of thousands of dead and millions wounded, and it’s not over yet.

III. Israeli Intelligence legacy of wrong estimations
Once the truth became known, the Knesset appointed a Committee of Inquiry (click to read the nonconfidential section of its final report, in Hebrew, in PDF format) to investigate the origin of the WMD assumptions. Why had our intelligence services advocated mass defensive operations in Israel and supported US misconceptions and military actions?

The committee found that long-standing excessively confident assessments based on almost zero evidence were simply taken for granted. It made recommendations which have been ignored, according to Reserve Colonel Dr. Shmuel Even, an ex-intelligence-officer who is currently a researcher in the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel-Aviv University (Hebrew, PDF) .

Dr. Even describes many previous confident but false strategic assessments made by Israeli intelligence, which resulted in huge expense, thousands of Israeli deaths, mass hysteria, and ended with several investigations, such as those following the war in 1973, the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, Libya’s nuclear program, and Hezbollah’s capabilities in Lebanon-War-II (2006). Time and again investigations pointed to serious misconceptions and organizational flaws, but their recommendations were never implemented.

Other errors included failing to understand that neighboring countries were ready for war with Israel in 1966-7 and in 1973, or to predict the outbreak of the first Intifada (in the latter, preconceptions were so strong that when the uprising did eventually occur, it was mistakenly believed to be merely a “transient wave of protests”). They did not anticipate the Hamas victory in the PA elections, nor its takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Most recently Israeli intelligence totally misread Egyptians’ (and others’) gathering political anger and democratic aspirations. The stereotypes that shaped these estimations were dramatically undermined and exposed by the crucial role of women and moderates in these uprisings. The possibility of such developments never crossed their minds despite several defiant voices that pointed to them as a possible scenario. (I too mentioned this possibility ten months ago in my Hebrew blog, not aware then of a study that had predicted it two years earlier). Even during the sixth day of demonstrations in Egypt, three days after the Egyptian army had already chosen not to stop the protesters, Israeli ‘experts’ still believed that “the Mubarak regime is not lost”.

IV. Iran’s WMDs
This is why I am now worried that my government may not be telling the (whole) truth about Iran. This time I want to hear and examine alternative views, particularly as these are being voiced not merely by conspiracy theorists, but by IAEA specialists, and most importantly, by some intelligence agencies themselves.

This is crucial at a time when Wikileaks has revealed details about some regional leaders (leaders note, not citizens) who push to attack Iran.

Also thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that American officials have joined the departing Head of Mossad in the belief that the Israeli sense of urgency is an exaggeration. After all, in 2003 they foresaw a nuclear Iran in 2007, in 2007 they said 2009, and later they said 2011. Now they’re saying it’s actually 2015. So, is it really always that urgent, or are they crying wolf because, like in any other country, in Israel too some have other intentions and interests?

Furthermore, Prof. Avner Cohen reminds us that, according to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli Intelligence too is not at all sure that Iran has a military nuclear program.

Maybe most conclusive, to date, according to the unanimous estimation of all separate American intelligence agencies, there is no evidence that Iran produces, or plans to produce, nuclear weapons - a view supported by UN experts in Iran.

President Bush-II described in his recent book how this assessment by US agencies enraged political partners. Another source reported that political pressure was applied behind the scenes to delay and even alter such professional assessments.[2]

Now, this reminds me far too vividly of the Iraq saga. Here too, we have no evidence to support the claims we hear about Iran. The same Israeli officials and “experts”, in the military, media, and the political system, who spoke so confidently about the situation in Iraq then, continue to comment in the news, to serve in the Intelligence and to lead our army. Never mind that they never apologized for promising us, without batting an eyelid, that we would find smoking barrels in the heart of Baghdad, or that our regional situation will significantly improve; and never mind that they showed no regret for the countless people who died or lost their health, love-ones, or homes, simply for the greed of some Americans; but to hear the same individuals who deceived us about Iraq then, saying today that Iran will have WMDs, suggests that we citizens must be suspicious about things that the government and media insist are self-evident.

Naturally, as an Israeli, the Iranian question bothers me greatly, but when only last month I learned that the Israeli PM rebuked the leaving head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad for daring to tell reporters that “Iran will not reach a bomb in the next few years”, and that “an Israeli attack would be disastrous”, I could not avoid wondering - how short can our memory be?

V. Iranophobia?
I know some will insist we must be ready for the worst. But Gulf-War-II teaches us that it is as bad to overestimate as it is to underestimate. Alarm and counter-threats create tension, conflict and danger. We never only respond to reality, we also create it. We spent a fortune on false premises, distributing millions of gas-masks, drafting reserve forces, interrupting civil routines, vaccinating, drilling, putting the air force on high alert. Even in the last stages of the war, when the Iraqi military was almost nonexistent, the military kept us in a state of fear, telling us that “the Iraqis have at least another 50-100 long-range ground-to-ground missiles” (although they didn’t have any to begin with).

Finally, we should honestly ask ourselves: Will we ever believe Iran, even if they agree to all our demands? Because if we are going to insist on action whatever Iran does, then this is not about them but about our own fears. Maybe they have already made that decision as many already assess, and our war-mongering – and possibly theirs too – is based on old, false intelligence.

Are we sure that this time it’s really different, or is it once again the west’s Orientalist imagination and our phobia of calamities?

[1] Some have tried to place the blame on the lies of one Iraqi defector, but we all know that a single source is never sufficient to support intelligence, and was certainly not enough to sustain “with almost certainty” the specific claims of various types of weapons allegedly possessed by Iraq.

[2] Last week a new estimation was finally reported, and it is indeed less conclusive this time. Haaretz was quick to publish the story in Hebrew with a misleading headline, reading “American National Intelligence Estimate: Iran returns to its military nuclear program; an opposite assessment of the one from three years ago, which then ruled that Iran halted its military nuclear project in 2003”. Sadly, this was the product either of amateur journalism or of an attempt to attract Israeli mainstream readers, since the text itself paints a completely different picture, almost the opposite. First, as The Washington Post writes, the 2007 report is not reversed: “The new assessment does not entirely refute the 2007 report’s most controversial finding, which held that Iran’s leaders had halted nuclear weaponization research in 2003”. Moreover, as the Washington Post and South Africa’s Times Live note, the new report is inconclusive (to say the least) regarding the very existence of a nuclear military program,: “The current assessment says that Tehran likely resumed some nuclear weapons research, but does not conclude that it has a full program to build an atomic bomb”; it even notes that “the slow and scattered nature of the effort reflects renewed debate within the government over whether to build a bomb”.

Eyal Clyne is an Israeli researcher of society in Israel-Palestine. He focuses on the conflict and other Israeli political issues. Some of the posts on his Hebrew blog appear also in English and elsewhere, and some of his pieces for JNews are also cross-posted with other sites.

This article may be reproduced on condition that JNews is cited as its source

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