Ex-CIA official: Iran is the primary engine of regional destabilization

In his first interview with an Israeli journalist, a senior CIA official predicts that the Iranian regime will ultimately fall

Norman Roule (photo credit: Courtesy)
Norman Roule
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s difficult to categorize Norman Roule. Sometimes he sounds like a liberal and sometimes a conservative. Yet there is no contradiction between these two seemingly contrasting impressions. They simply reflect his honesty. And a true intelligence man has no more precious assets than his professionalism and honesty. Perhaps the best way to describe his professional outlook is to borrow the Hebrew term, which incorporates both a dove and a hawk. Maybe something like “dovak.”
Roule served for 34 years in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (formerly known as the Defense Clandestine Service) in a variety of tasks in the field and at headquarters level, covering the Middle East, including managing numerous programs relating to Iran. During these years, he served as the “National Intelligence Manager for Iran” at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Summarizing his detailed explanations about the nuclear deal with Iran – which the US recently abandoned – the best definition would be to say that the perception of the deal is in the eyes of the beholder.
From his vast Middle East experience, he has good knowledge about the Israeli intelligence community and has met many of its past and current senior officials, including Mossad heads Meir Dagan, Tamir Pardo and Yossi Cohen, and military intelligence chiefs such as Amos Yadlin.
This is his first interview with an Israeli journalist. We met last month in a New York hotel. He came to town to moderate a panel at a conference organized by United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a bipartisan NGO of former US senators, diplomats and intelligence officials as well as European and Middle Eastern personalities – among them, the late Meir Dagan and former German BND (Federal Intelligence Service) chief August Hanning.
UANI was marking its 10th anniversary and in honor of the occasion, a number of prominent guests addressed the conference. Among them were current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Yemen’s deputy foreign minister Khaled Alyemany, the ambassadors of Bahrain and UAE to the US, former US Senator Joseph Lieberman and Brian Hook, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran.
“There is no one perspective to look at the Iran deal,” Roule says. “In the eyes of the supporters of the deal, the deal achieved its goals: the Iranians dismantled the plutonium producing nuclear reactor in Arak, dismantled and stored the vast majority of their centrifuges and exported most of their enriched uranium. Iran’s nuclear program is under the most intrusive international inspection program ever devised and there is no evidence Iran has any covert sites or a weaponization program [the last stage of assembling a nuclear bomb – Y.M.]. By this definition, the deal has been a success. Those who oppose the deal sometimes seem unwilling to acknowledge these real achievements.”
And what is the other perspective?
“Those who argued that the deal would open Iran to the world and encourage it to be a more responsible international player were wrong. They argue that Iran needed more time for this transformation. Perhaps, but how many years do we need to wait for Iran to stop supporting terrorism? If you live in the region and are victims of routine terrorism or missile attacks, it simply isn’t reasonable to endure these threats to your citizens in the hope Iran will change.”
What is the desirable course that has to be taken?
“If Iran wants to help the Houthis, they should send humanitarian aid via the United Nations and not missiles. Iran’s actions have extended the conflicts and exacerbated the tragic suffering of the Yemeni people. Iran supports more than a dozen Shi’ite and Sunni militias and terrorist groups in the region. It has proliferated advanced missile technology. There is no question Iran is the primary engine of destabilization in the region and the international community. This must be stopped and Iran must be compelled to cease its behavior.”
ROULE IS reluctant to talk about himself and feels uneasy about my interest in his family background. In brief, he was a born in a small coal mining town in southeast Pennsylvania to a family, which has always expressed a sense of duty to serve community and country. His family members fought in major American wars during the last century: the two World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars. His family upbringing engraved in his mind that he should always fight evil and the bad guys.
He went to a small college to pursue his interests in music but discovered history and the world opened to him. While at college, he was spotted by the CIA and recruited.
He refused to talk about his career in the intelligence community, but from other sources I learned that in his long years of service he worked as an undercover agent, station chief and rose to the senior position of division head in charge of the Middle East (Near East in US jargon). In 2008, he was asked to serve at DNI, which was established in 2005 by President George W. Bush to improve cooperation among the many organs of the US intelligence community. The reorganization was a result of the tragic events of 9/11, which US intelligence agencies failed to detect and stop. In practical terms, he was the senior official responsible for managing US intelligence plans and operations against Iran.
In nearly nine years of service in this capacity, he was witness to how the ties and cooperation between the intelligence communities of Israel and the US were enhanced and upgraded to unprecedented levels. It can be assumed that he was privy at that time to all the most guarded secrets shared by the two countries.
It was reported by international media that the CIA and Mossad carried out joint operations, including the assassination of  Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s master terrorist, and the intelligence agencies of the two nations developed and unleashed malware that damaged Iran’s computers that were linked to its uranium enrichment program and performed other daring operations around the globe.
When I tried to ask him about such operations, his answer was polite but firm. “I will not discuss my past work in the intelligence community,” he said.
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who knows Roule well, told me that “Norman is a brilliant guy. He knows the Middle East very well. He is a superb analyst and I considered him a true friend of Israel. Every meeting with him was extremely interesting.” After his retirement in September 2017, Roule went into private business and joined UANI.
What do you think of the capture of Iran’s nuclear archive by the Mossad?
“I only know what I read in the media. But the material certainly seems like evidence that Iran was at least keeping open the option for a nuclear weaponization program in the future.”
From your vast experience, what are Iran’s patterns and modes of operation?
“Iran employs what is known as hybrid warfare or gray zone tactics. In Iran, it may be that the Supreme leader will say to his subordinates don’t risk a major conflict, but you can operate aggressively below that level. This allows Iran to move rapidly, unlike in the West where each step involves careful review by policy makers or Congress.”
How is such a model put into practice in the field?
“Iran is deeply involved in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran’s aggressive actions in the region seem as if it has taken a conventional war and split it into pieces: ground operations and UAV air operations in some countries, naval operations in the Red Sea, and periodic cyber-attacks. Because these actions are divided among so many locations, the West and the United Nations ignore the conflict. But people are dying, nonetheless.”
But hasn’t the international community imposed sanctions on Iran?
“The US and the West have imposed multiple sanctions on Iran for its involvement in terrorism, the bombing of our embassy (in Beirut – Y.M.), and the missile attacks against Saudi Arabia. But these sanctions are not yet at the level that impacts on Iranian decision-making. We may have slowed the operations of Iran and Hezbollah, but we have yet to stop them.”
Maybe it is better to use diplomacy rather than sanctions?
“During the debate on the future of the deal, I believed we should have stayed and worked with our allies to pressure Iran. The US should not be perceived as standing alone against Iran.”
So is Trump wrong in his policy?
“I will not comment on policy. We should remember that President Trump’s objections to the deal are not unique. Many, many congressmen – including Democrats – made these comments during the debate over the nuclear deal. I do believe we need to work with Europe and our other allies, but it isn’t reasonable to allow Europe to continue to delay pressure against Iran. The new sanctions increase pressure against Iran. Iran isn’t a very profitable place for any major business and large corporations cannot justify choosing the difficult, unprofitable and heavily sanctioned Iranian market over the US.”
What is the impact of sanctions on Iran?
“Iran is facing unprecedented simultaneous challenges. These challenges are demographic, economic, ecological, social, and political. Its water shortages are significant, and its infrastructure is very poor. But Iran invited this problem. It chose to send oil to Syria instead of using the funds for its own infrastructure and to assist its civilians. Iran’s generally young population has understandably lost faith in its government and many are leaving. This brain drain is another challenge.”
Is this the reason Iran came to the negotiating table, because it was on the verge of collapse?
“There is no evidence Iran was on the verge of collapse when they came to the table. They were under great pressure and they came to the table to see what deal might be possible.”
It was claimed by Israeli intelligence that Iran was 3-6 months from a bomb?
“According to many press reports, it would be more correct to say that Iran was only a few months from sufficiently highly enriched uranium for a weapon. More work would have been required to build an actual weapon.”
Can you define the purpose of the sanctions?
“Sanctions must aim at provoking a conversation among Iran’s leaders. What do they prefer: intervention in the region or economic and political stability at home. For this reason, I support a stronger sanctions policy.
“Iran is also facing a succession crisis. Who will replace the Supreme Leader and what sort of revolution will he inherit? This question must trouble the current Supreme Leader very much. The Iranians also face municipal elections in 2020 and a presidential election in 2021. The Iranian people can use these opportunities to try to change their government.
“I believe the regime will eventually fall but its ability to use coercion makes it difficult to predict when that will happen. I do know that when it does occur, no one will be surprised.”