Tag Archives: intelligence

Spying on Allies

According to a new report by the Wall Street Journal, the National Security Agency was listening in on the communications of Israeli leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the Iranian nuclear program talks. It had been known that the United States was monitoring Netanyahu’s telephone calls, but the report contends that the surveillance was much broader than initially suspected, and included communications between Netanyahu and members of the US Congress.

The US government believed Netanyahu was actively trying to undermine the conclusion of any agreement between the United States and Iran. According to Netanyahu, the agreement, which was concluded in July, would undermine Israeli national security by creating a pathway for Iran to expand its nuclear weapons program. The United States and its allies—the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union—contended that the agreement would slow Iran’s nuclear progress and included measures to re-impose sanctions if Iran was found to be in violation of the agreement.

In response to the Wall Street Journal report, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence, Yisrael Katz, issued a statement claiming that “Israel does not spy on the US., and we expect that our great friend the US will treat us in similar fashion.” Members of Congress have not yet response to the report., suggesting they may have been aware of the NSA’s activities.

What do you think? Was the United States justified in listening in on the communications of Israeli leaders during the Iranian nuclear negotiations? Under what conditions would such action be justified? When would it not be justified? Why?

Intelligence, Rationality, and the Iranian Terror Plot

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was the target of an assassination plot allegedly planned by Iran.

This week the Obama adminstration  accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.  A Washington Post article described the bizarre plot as follows:

“The Justice Department unsealed charges against two Iranians — one of them a U.S. citizen — accusing them of orchestrating an elaborate murder-for-hire plot that targeted Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi envoy to Washington and a key adviser to King Abdullah. The Iranians planned to employ Mexican drug traffickers to kill Jubeir with a bomb as he ate at a restaurant, U.S. officials said.”

The incident has raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran and it isn’t clear where all of this is headed.  But for students of world politics, these events have already illustrated several important policymaking challenges.

1) The importance (and difficulty) of obtaining good intelligence. A number of experts are questioning the administration’s allegations against Iran, saying the plot doesn’t fit what we know about the way Iran or its Quds Force operates. The skeptics include prominent realist Stephen Walt, Middle East specialist Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at Johns Hopkins, and other respected analysts.  As we learned from the Iraq WMD case, intelligence failures can have serious consequences, and a number of observers have already noted that the Obama administration’s accusations and increasingly heated rhetoric could strengthen hardliners in the U.S. and paint Obama into a corner.  If the plot ends up not to be Iranian in origin, these claims could damage the credibility of an administration that defined itself in opposition to the allegedly careless and rash Bush administration.

2) The limits of the “rational actor” model (and the powerful temptation to employ it nonetheless).  Political scientist Robert Jervis has highlighted the tendency for policymakers to assume that the behavior of other actors is more coordinated and centrally planned than it actually is.  Iran is not a unitary actor and one explanation for this uncharacteristically clumsy plot is that a rogue element of Iran’s Quds Force was “freelancing” rather than taking orders from Iran’s president or Supreme Leader.  Yet the Obama administration has assumed (as leaders frequently do) that any behavior linked to a certain state–Iran, in this instance–must have been planned and directed from the highest levels.

 3) The complexity of Middle East politics.  One expert notes that the most believable aspect of the entire plot is the Iran would target Saudi Arabia’s officials and regime in some way.  While many in the West view the Muslim world as monolithic, the Sunni-Shi’a divide has led to serious conflict not only within states, such as Iraq and Bahrain, but between countries dominated by different sects of Islam.  Saudi Arabia is a powerful Sunni leader in the region, while Iran’s population is largely Shi’a, and the “cold war” between these countries goes back decades.

What do you think?  Does the evidence linking Iran to this plot seem compelling?  Is the Obama administration succumbing to the unitary actor illusion?  What will be the ramifications if the allegations prove false?  If they prove true?