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?
Published on JNews.
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. Since 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 passionately to the Knesset and the public that Iraq surely had such weapons. “With near certainty” the Israeli media quoted them repeatedly as saying, encouraged of the prospect of Western forces 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’ also told us things would be much better for Israel 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 also 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 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”). In addition, they did not anticipate the Hamas victory in the PA elections, nor its takeover of the Gaza Strip.
And if this is not enough for someone for raising skepticism about their unbased asseriveness, 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 astudy 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 particularly 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.
But maybe most conclusive so far is this:
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?
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?