Into the Fray: Iran – Intelligence failures and failures of intelligence

The most charitable explanation for support expressed for the Iran deal by former senior Israeli security officials is a total eclipse of their faculties of rational thought.

A SATELLITE view of Iran's Fordow nuclear plant. (photo credit: GOOGLE)
A SATELLITE view of Iran's Fordow nuclear plant.
(photo credit: GOOGLE)
[After Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death] the ability of the Arabs to coordinate their political and military activities has diminished. Even in the past this ability was not great – now it is even less.
There is no need to call up our forces, even when threats are made and enemy forces are deployed along the [post-1967] cease-fire lines. Before the Six Day War, every Egyptian troop movement into Sinai compelled Israel to call up reserves on a significant scale. Now, there is no need for such a callup as long as Israel’s lines of defense are emplaced along the Suez Canal.
Israel’s military strength is sufficient to prevent the opposing side from attaining any military objective and the political realities prevailing between the superpowers is not conducive to a renewal of fighting as it was in 1969-1970.
Accordingly, Israel has freedom of action to deal effectively in preventing another round of fighting, should Egypt wish to open fire again. –
Yitzhak Rabin, “The slow road to peace,” Ma’ariv, July 13, 1973
These lines appeared in a prominent article, covering almost an entire page in one of Israel’s major dailies, written barely two months before the Egyptians and Syrians launched a coordinated surprise attack against Israel – in the wake of which Egypt regained the entire Sinai Peninsula and Syria, a section of the Golan Heights, which both had lost to Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
Their relevance for the Iran deal will soon become apparent.
Erroneous estimates by experts
Rabin published the article shortly after returning to Israel, after a five-year stint as ambassador to Washington, a post he was appointed to chiefly because he served as Chief of Staff during the Six Day War, in which the IDF, greatly outnumbered and outgunned, won stunning victories against several Arab armies – including those of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Yet, despite his impressive military and diplomatic experience, Rabin was spectacularly wrong in every aspect of his analysis of the strategic realities of the time.
He was wrong about parameters of US-USSR relations inhibiting the outbreak of war.
He was wrong about the Arabs inability to coordinate their military and political initiatives.
He was wrong about their inability to achieve any significant military objectives.
And, he was disastrously wrong about the need to call up reserves to deal with Arab military build-ups.
But Rabin was not the only expert to err disastrously in anticipating impending events.
On October 5, 1973, a day before the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel, the then-head of Military Intelligence, Maj-Gen. Eli Zeira, informed a meeting of the General Staff: “There is a low probability of a coordinated Syrian-Egyptian attack. I would say the probability... even lower than low...”
Erroneous experts (cont.)
Zeira’s appraisal of the situation, proven catastrophically inaccurate within hours, was backed by the professional top-secret assessment from the Military Intelligence research branch, which on the same day provided the following intelligence estimate: “In the area of the [Suez] Canal, there are sightings of an emergency deployment, on a scale previously unknown... Despite the fact these sightings...ostensibly entail indications of an offensive initiative, to the best of our assessment, there has not been any change in the Egyptians’ appraisal of the balance of forces between themselves and the IDF. Accordingly, the probability that the Egyptians intend to renew the fighting is low.”
Of course, major misperceptions of enemy intentions by senior security experts were not confined to the 1973 Yom Kippur debacle.
Take for example another former IDF chief of staff (1998–2002), Shaul Mofaz, later defense minister (2002–2006).
In the Knesset debate (October 24, 2005) on the 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza, Mofaz in his capacity as defense minister declared: “I am convinced the [disengagement] process... will provide more security for the citizens of Israel, and will reduce the burden on the security forces. It will extricate the situation from its [current] stagnation and open the door to a different reality, which will allow talks toward achieving coexistence.”
Mistaken, misguided and misperceived
During the same debate, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, with all his immense experience in security and politics, told parliament: “I am firmly convinced and truly believe that this disengagement... will be appreciated by those near and far, reduce animosity, break through boycotts and sieges and advance us along the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbors.”
Since then, Israel has faced increasing international censure and an intensifying boycott, and engaged in four bloody military campaigns (three in Gaza) to quell attacks from “the Palestinians and our other neighbors [Hezbollah],” who seemed “ungratefully” unappreciative of Sharon’s unilateral initiative.
Of course, no survey of mistaken evaluations of Israel’s adversaries’ intentions would be complete without reference to what, to date, is perhaps the most disastrous policy misperception of all, the Oslo Accords, made by the man awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for it, Yitzhak Rabin.
In a July 24, 1995, radio interview barely six months after the award, Rabin attempted to dismiss criticism of the accords with disdain.
Scornfully he declared: “The nightmare stories of the Likud are well known. After all, they promised rockets from Gaza... For a year, Gaza has been largely under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. There has not been a single rocket. Nor will there be any rockets.”
The subsequent barrages of thousands of rockets from Gaza, the millions of Israelis forced to seek shelter from them for weeks on end, are enough to make one cringe in embarrassment on encountering such a ludicrous prognosis from one of Israel’s best-known leaders.
Attributing nonbelligerent intent
Every time Israeli leaders have adopted a policy based on an assumption attributing benign, or even nonbelligerent, intent to an adversary, they have been proven dramatically and disastrously wrong.
It would seem that much the same detriment has afflicted US policy toward Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Thus the then-secretary of state Cyrus Vance and his associates believed in the “moderate and progressive” intentions of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his circle. Likewise, influential Princeton professor Richard Falk contended that Khomeini’s entourage was “uniformly composed of moderate progressive individuals [who shared] a notable record of concern for human rights and economic development.
Iran may yet provide us with a desperately needed model of humane government for a third world country.”
Today, much of the support for the Iranian deal draws on the same school of thought that believed the 1979 revolution would usher in the onset of liberal democracy in Iran; that the Oslo Accords were the harbingers of a peaceful, prosperous “New Middle East,” that Bashar Assad was a forward looking “reformer” and that the Arab Spring would herald an era of individual liberty across the Arab world.
The stakes involved in the Iranian deal are much higher and the cost of error would be commensurately greater – both for the US and Israel.
‘You have to pass it to find out what’s in it...’
In an April 2, 2015, MSNBC interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser at the time of the revolution, attributed super-power status to the floundering, economically emaciated, drought-ravaged Iran, warning that the alternative to the then-emerging deal was “self-destruction.”
Brzezinski was asked the following by his host: “How confident can we really be that inspectors are going to be able verify Iranian compliance...? In a response strongly reminiscent of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s “We have to pass [it] so that you can find out what is in it...” on Obamacare, Brzezinski replied: “We’ll only know by trying. If the Iranians choose to be cooperative, I think that would be viewed very positively and would be reassuring. If they are not, I think that will open up questions at our end...”
Just how “reassuring” that is can be gauged from the remark earlier this month by US’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, that Iranian compliance is a “big assumption” – which brings us to the disturbing expression of support for the deal by former senior Israeli security experts.
Defeatist drivel
In his interview Brzezinski alluded to “former highly placed Israeli officials in the security field” who dispute the harsh criticism of the Iranian deal expressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
This was a theme taken up by prominent J Street affiliated rabbi, John Rosove, in an opinion piece in the widely read Los Angeles Jewish Journal titled, “Many Israeli Experts Believe the Iran Deal is a Supportable Deal Despite its Flaws.”
In it, he declares his support for the noxious concoction brewed in Vienna “even with its flaws.” Invoking the false axioms and scaremongering the deal’s proponents invariably raise, in the hope of stifling any opposition/ criticism, Rosove declares: “Should this deal fail now as a result of a veto-proof congressional vote, not only would sanctions immediately fall apart, but Iran will have nothing to stop its forward march to nuclear capability....
Many political and diplomatic experts agree that realistically, no other deal is possible.”
As I have pointed out in my last two columns – and probably will do so in several future ones – this is patent poppycock. But rather than re-refute this defeatist drivel, I should like to focus on another no less troubling matter.
Unfortunate, inappropriate and unsubstantiated
To bolster his position Rosove cites an array of former senior Israeli security experts, who support the Iran deal, and appear to parrot the White House talking points – “good deal,” “no better alternative,” “sanctions unsustainable” – without offering an argued reasoning for their claims.
The list includes short citations from: V.-Adm. (res.) Ami Ayalon, formerly director of the Shin Bet and commander of the Israel Navy; Efraim Halevy, formerly director of the Mossad and head of the National Security Council; Chuck Freilich, former Israeli deputy national security adviser; Prof. Maj-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Ben-Israel, chairman of Israel’s Space Agency; and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Israel Ziv, former head of the IDF Operations Directorate.
They all convey a similar message, aptly reflected by another cited expert, Eli Levite, former deputy director-general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission: “In the next 15 years, if Iran will respect its obligations, Iran won’t be a nuclear country...
The question is whether they will respect their obligation, and that is the hard question.”
That indeed is the hard question. And in light of the previously cited assessment by Clapper, that Iranian compliance is a “big assumption” – and the implications of likely Iranian noncompliance – endorsement by former Israeli security experts is both unfortunate and inappropriate.
An eclipse of rational thought?
After all, as Barack Obama once pointed out (June 9, 2010): “For years, the Iranian government has failed to live up to its obligations....
It has violated its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
It has ignored UN Security Council resolutions...
[W]hile Iran’s leaders hide behind outlandish rhetoric, their actions have been deeply troubling.”
Indeed, they have been – and continue to be. But this is something the Vienna deal is only liable to exacerbate. As Netanyahu asked during his March address to Congress: “Would Iran be less aggressive when sanctions are removed and its economy is stronger?... Would Iran fund less terrorism when it has mountains of cash to fund more terrorism?” Clearly it would not.
But even if the Iranians scrupulously comply with their obligations, the deal will ignite a frantic arms race across the most volatile region on earth, and enhance politically, enrich economically and empower militarily a homophobic, misogynistic tyranny, unswervingly devoted to the destruction of both Israel and Western civilization.
Why would any Israeli, especially one who has devoted his life to the security of Israel, endorse such an appalling agreement? The most charitable explanation for this lamentable phenomenon is a total eclipse of their faculties of rational thought – for any other alternative is far too unpleasant to contemplate.
However, a deeply disturbing alternative was raised last August during a Channel 1 broadcast when the highly respected anchor, Ayala Hasson, made a startling remark: “It is not pleasant to bring this up... but without mentioning names... the Americans also support all sorts of “former” senior IDF figures economically, so that they adapt themselves to [endorse] American positions.”
Turning to Channel 1’s military and defense correspondent, Amir Bar-Shalom, she remarked: “How’s that for a discreet formulation? To this Bar-Shalom replied: “These are opinion-makers who pop up here every time there is a need to defend the American position,” adding, enigmatically, “And by this I have said quite a lot, haven’t I?” Indeed, he had.
All Israelis should hope fervently these insinuations are unfounded.
Martin Sherman ( is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for for Strategic Studies. (www.strategic-israel.