How a US intelligence analyst thinks Biden should handle Iran

...And how a civilian intel researcher learned Jason Bourne-style driving tricks

Maj.-Gen. Hossein Salami visits underground missile site of Iran's Revolutionary Guards (photo credit: IRGC/WANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Maj.-Gen. Hossein Salami visits underground missile site of Iran's Revolutionary Guards
 “A few years ago there was concern about how Iranian activity was portrayed in a congressional statement by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). I was involved in the preparation of the statement and the unwinding of what followed,” Heather Williams told the Magazine in a series of Zoom and other communications.
Williams was describing some of her 12 years working in the US defense and intelligence community on Iran and other Middle East issues.
She continued that the concern about the DNI’s statement to Congress “didn’t relate to a change in Iranian behavior or a topic that was in any way controversial, it was about the emphasis put on Iranian threats.”
Summarizing, she said, “Essentially, some stock language about persistent threats had been left out by an author who was focused on dynamic changes to that topic outside of and unrelated to Iran.
Heather Williams (Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation)
“The reasons for this were completely human and unintended to shape the political narrative. What was fascinating to me was how many hours of effort were spent correcting and clarifying the record for Congress,” the US intelligence expert on Iran commented.
Moreover, she said, “There seemed to be an assumption of intent – that this information had been left out to signal a change or otherwise influence the political debate – that was simply not true. But it is hard to disprove a negative, and it was a reminder of how politically charged Iran topics are in the United States.” 
All of this brings us to Williams’s thoroughly non-partisan evaluation of the Iranian threat from a US intelligence perspective.
Some of this perspective Israelis may not want to hear, but Williams, who was involved in the apparatus for selecting targets and green-lighting “operations” against terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere and is no softy, also may give some deeper insight into the thinking of some in the Biden administration (though currently she is out of government and a senior policy researcher and professor with the RAND Corporation).
US, Israel face different threats from Iran – not existential
Williams was asked to address Iran’s advancement in multiple areas relating to its nuclear program, its efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East, many Israelis’ perception of it posing an existential threat and a different characterization of the threat by some in the US.
She said, “The threat is less pressing for the US than Israel. That is a fair concern. The US can to some extent walk away, Israel can’t. I want to acknowledge that.”
“At the same time, I have trouble seeing how those changes [lead Israel] to see Iran as an existential threat. That is a challengeable claim – that it is an existential threat. I don’t see why you start in 2017. Wasn’t that the position in 2006 when Iran directly supported Hezbollah on an ongoing [basis]?” she asked.
The idea that Williams takes Iran very seriously, but does not see it as an existential threat means that she views a number of issues differently than many in the Israeli defense establishments.
For example, despite Iran’s advancement with precision-guided missiles, she mostly categorizes the threat as not having changed much over the past 15-20 years.
Threat not worse now / precision missiles
She said, “I don’t see the Iranians’ intentions toward Israel changing in the last 20 years. I actually don’t see the Iranians’ capabilities changing… The biggest change is that Iran is more able today to use conventional military means with precision.”
But she added that Israel has “advanced in missile defense, so it can counter that threat. Israel and Iran have no shared border, so [any Iranian threat] has to come through the air or indirectly through a proxy… I also don’t see a strong link about how an industrial-scale enrichment capability changes those threats.”
Williams’s initial responses raised some interesting questions about her views regarding Iran’s precision missiles, the potential of a massive industrial scale nuclear enrichment program and of maintaining nuclear restrictions for decades until Iran acts like a “normal state.”
First, she was pressed that Israeli defense officials consider the precision missile threat a radical change of circumstances which could allow Iran, Hezbollah or other proxies to strike all over mainland Israel by overwhelming its missile shield.
The defense officials say that precision attacks on Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion Airport or the Dimona nuclear reactor only became a threat very recently.
Williams responded that on one hand, “I do think this threat is very real, and I do not want to underplay it. Iran has the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East.” But on the other hand “it has for some time. The potential for overwhelming strikes on Israel is not new.”
Further, “the possible benefit of Iran’s development of more precision-guided missiles is that, if it chooses to use missiles in a strategic fashion – to send a message to Israel or the United States – there is less risk now of collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
Burning pictures of US presidents during demonstration of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's killing, Tehran (MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA via Reuters)
“Ultimately, I believe Iran is a rational actor. Détente is achievable. But it requires careful management of the threat, time and realistic goals of what can be achieved at the negotiating table,” she stated.
Told that Israeli defense officials view an Iranian industrial-scale nuclear program as a worst-case scenario because concerns about a “breakout” time of three to 12 months to a nuclear weapon could drop to a “walkout” timeline of only weeks or days to getting a nuclear weapon, she demurred.
“The challenge is that there is no legal mechanism for barring Iran from having an industrial-scale uranium enrichment capability, which is not prohibited by the NPT. The George W. Bush administration tried to adopt the strategy of completely denying Iran a uranium enrichment capability – it didn’t work,” she said.
Williams continued, “Iran’s improving technical ability related to enrichment, which was reducing the breakout timeline to a period of months, was one of the imperatives for entering into a nuclear deal. And this was what made the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capability so impactful.”
Pivoting, she said that, “The US withdrawal from the JCPOA, which was encouraged by many Israeli figures, further undermined those restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capability, so that we find ourselves again confronted with the issues of breakout time, which may have been tabled until 2030 if the deal remained in place.”
Also, Williams stated that a shorter breakout time did not prevent military and diplomatic options from blocking an Iranian nuclear weapon, while acknowledging “they definitely make the task more difficult.”
Limits on advanced centrifuges and the sunset clause
The US intelligence Iran expert was pressed that Israel feels another critical change to any future US return to the nuclear deal should involve strong limits on Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges.
She said she did not find Israeli concerns surprising.
“We know Iran has been trying more advanced centrifuges. That is why the limits were put” on how many advanced centrifuges it could develop.
“At the same time, there has to be an acknowledgment that we cannot constrain the science indefinitely. At some point, the science must be given air to breathe. That is why there is a sunset” clause to the nuclear limits, she said.
Asked if US pressure could get Iran to agree to new limits on advance centrifuge developments, she said, “I don’t think there is any harm in trying. But I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think Iran will concede to more than before.”
With Williams raising the sunset clauses, the Magazine noted to her that Israeli defense officials want the sunset clauses regarding limiting Iran’s nuclear program extended by decades or until the Islamic Republic starts acting like more of a “normal state.”
She responded, “I hate the phrase ‘normal state.’ There is legal state behavior and illegal state behavior… There are core principles of international law – like national sovereignty. Iran does not fully respect other nations’ sovereignty, nor do other states respect its sovereignty.”
“The Middle East is a contested region. Multiple states do not have sovereign governments. Multiple states do not respect the universal declaration of human rights. Multiple states are fighting to expand their spheres of influence. Is Iran’s destabilizing behavior more egregious than many of the other states in the region? Yes. Than all? Possibly also yes, but we could certainly get into some debates,” she said.
“But the idea that there is some kind of binary, absolutist measure, and that one day we will wake up and Iran will have switched from being an ‘abnormal’ state and become a ‘normal’ state is farcical. Expecting any government in Iran to cease striving to be a regional power is like asking a fish to stop being a fish.”
Instead, “The question that should be asked is: How does the international community coerce Iran into increasing its legal state behavior and reducing its illegal state behavior? There, we have options. But it won’t happen overnight. One good step would have been preserving JCPOA… and maintaining Iranian compliance with its terms.”
Williams also does not think that all is lost once the nuclear limitations expire.
Paradoxically, the sunset clause, “acts as a check to Iranian actions, so that they do not cross redlines that invite military actions against its nuclear infrastructure. For these reasons, strategy toward Iran should focus on ensuring that there are still critical milestones on Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon that can be identified and held at risk,” even after the nuclear limitations formally expire.
Put differently, intelligence agencies and any continued inspections even after the JCPOA can follow uranium enrichment and weaponization benchmarks.
Interestingly, Williams disputes the idea that Biden has leftover leverage against Iran from the Trump era sanctions.
“How much leverage has the US gained? How could that be utilized? I’m not convinced that any leverage that is gained that this [trying to get more nuclear concessions] is where it’s best employed. If I see leverage, it would be the use of military power – like the assassination of Qasem Soleimani or other US pressure in the Gulf.
“The idea of adding ballistic missiles as an issue on the negotiating table with Iran is not credible,” dismissing another new concession that Israel seeks from Iran if the US is to return to any deal.
She described this as the theory that, “if you push them enough they’ll come to the table” and grant new concessions, volunteering her view that “this is not a provable hypothesis. It’s more effective to keep nuclear development as a discreet issue and keep [seeking new] concessions there. Sometimes there is a tendency to equate Iranian desperation with leverage” based on the idea that “the more things are in a poor state in Iran, we gain leverage. The picture is more complicated than that,” she said.
Due to her skepticism that the Trump-era sanctions provide leverage, she said, “The most prudent immediate option is how to restore the JCPOA…This doesn’t necessarily mean the Biden administration needs to accomplish that on day one. It doesn’t necessarily mean achieving it within 30 days or 60 days,” but there is “an important constraint: the Iranian election [in June] changes a lot of players… We could lose a potential Iranian administration that puts stock in diplomacy and lose the personal connections from the Obama and Rouhani administrations,” since many Obama-era officials are returning to the Biden administration.
Williams said losing that window is “more immediate than Iranian regional activity,” and was reason enough not to hold out on the Iranians in order to try to win new concessions about the Islamic Republic’s activity in the Middle East. Listing off Iran’s interference in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, she said, “I don’t see a dramatic difference in what Iran is doing from what it did in the past.”
Two crucial benefits she said of the nuclear deal that needed to be preserved were 1) “a significant increase in the ability to verify Iran was not doing covert nuclear work” by the large IAEA inspections regime and 2) “ensuring Iranian enrichment efforts could be threatened by military force,” by ending underground enrichment at Fordow.
As long as Iran’s enrichment was above ground at Natanz, like under the deal, it remained more vulnerable.
Fighting terror in Iraq and Afghanistan
But Iran was only part of Williams’s career in intelligence.
She also spent most of 2004-2009, especially 2007-2009, in Afghanistan and Iraq trying to help US military intelligence map out strategies for cutting off some of the “regional fuel” of foreign fighters coming into Iraq.
Her work there focused both on finding ways to prevent foreign fighters from coming into Afghanistan and Iraq from North Africa or the Gulf to fight allied forces as well as helping “US special forces in dismantling ISIS and al-Qaeda networks.”
She also helped “manage the spill-out of foreign fighters returning from Iraq” – often to Western countries – who would “bring their knowledge from the conflict having been radicalized further,” representing a danger that they would “foment insurrection at home by setting up an al-Qaeda cell.”
During that time, she also worked with Australian, British, Canadian and other allied forces.
Her efforts were often focused on trying to discern where foreign fighters were crossing into Iraq from Syria so as to cut off that “pipeline” of infiltration.
This could also include targeting terror-financing networks to inhibit the logistics of foreign fighter travel.
Closing foreign fighter pipelines frequently involved complex strategic choices.
She said that with a terror network, “the more you hit it, especially if you go after the central nodes, a person critical” to a network, the more you could harm the network’s activities in a broad way.
On the other hand, “every time we hit the network, it disperses… At some points, things were very consolidated to a single figure… but if that person is removed, it’s not like no one will go through Syria to Iraq. There will just now be multiple pipelines and it cannot be guaranteed that you will see them all.”
So removing a terror leader might harm terrorists in the short term, but it might also make future intelligence-gathering about terrorists much harder. She said that because of these trade-offs, deciding whether to remove a highly capable terror operations manager was one of the toughest choices to give advice about to special forces.
Serving as an intelligence analyst linked to US special forces, it was her job to put all of the many intelligence pieces together gathered by the different spy agencies so she could tell special forces, “Go to this address on Tuesday and look for this guy.”
In analyzing the intelligence, “You do move from the strategic level to the tactical level very quickly. In Afghanistan, you might be looking for a target utilizing UAVs and read an intelligence report that says this person tends to be in a particular region because that is when he is tending animals. A multi-million dollar platform is tasked to go after a goat herder.”
Part of her role was profiling foreign fighters for allied forces. She discovered that they had diverse motivations for joining “jihad” against the allied forces – profiteers, opportunists, disillusioned persons, people who wanted to “play soldier” – and that many of them were poorly educated with little understanding of the broader mess they were getting into. At times, she also worked on policy to decide what kinds of foreign fighters could be actively helped and rehabilitated to rejoin Western society.
She said her team would review whether “they had blood on their hands. Was their evidence that an individual was involved in a harmful military operation or did they just sit around at a safe house?” Some “individuals were coerced and used once they got to Iraq. We found suicide bombers who were handcuffed to vehicles with explosives and forced to drive, and others who didn’t even realize their vehicle was carrying explosives.”
In addition, she said that once foreign fighters entered a crisis area, terror groups often took their passports so that they had to stay and fight. 
“We know this because we recovered passports in batches when we took down a safe house.”
‘Jason Bourne’ for 48 hours
At times, she went far beyond just being an analyst. While overseas, she was issued a uniform. More importantly, she was “trained in high-speed driving, sudden car maneuvers called ‘J-turns,’ how to ram another car off the road, how to drive a car from the passenger seat if the driver was shot dead.”
There were some additional tricks she was taught that she said she is not authorized to disclose.
She confirmed to the Magazine that it was like being fictional super-soldier Jason Bourne for 48 hours.
Williams said in certain areas she had to make sure to carry a firearm.
Also, near the start of her overseas service she was suddenly expected to hit a target at a qualifying level on a target range within three minutes “having never seen a gun in real life and having never touched a loaded weapon.”
She said she passed on the second try, smirking, “I am not sure how!”
Pressed how she got herself into this unexpected situation, she responded that she was only 22 at the time, having served in intelligence for just one year. “I was too naïve to know any better.”