Iran nuclear pact has implications for intelligence communities in United States, Israel and beyond


On Sept. 16, The Washington Institute held a one-day conference on the ramifications of the Iran nuclear agreement. The following is a summary of remarks by former U.S. national intelligence officer Ellen Laipson and former Israeli defense intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin (Ret.).


Iran has been heavily monitored for a long time. It was a priority target before the P5+1 talks, and monitoring increased during the negotiation process. Many techniques are available to continue this monitoring, and they have been improving. Technology for remote sensing is more advanced, open-source techniques are more useful, and financial intelligence networks are vastly better than they were. The Treasury Department in particular has acquired great expertise in tracking illicit transactions. It has deployed personnel to areas with high levels of Iranian commerce, and its Office of Foreign Assets Control has become a major source of intelligence on Iran’s behavior.

That said, Treasury will face a considerable challenge going forward. In the past, essentially all transactions with Iran were prohibited, but only some will be banned under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — a much more difficult situation to monitor.

As for tracking the regime’s nuclear activity, improved access to Iran is both a challenge and an opportunity. The United States will not be the only actor involved in this effort; other parties can add expertise and value, so pooling knowledge and cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency will be crucial. The IAEA’s role will change, with more personnel, more activity and new responsibilities. The U.N. Special Commission on Iraq is a relevant precedent. Over time, UNSCOM and the IAEA became more sophisticated in Iraq and achieved their own intelligence capabilities independent of the United States, while also cooperating with Washington. Yet friction arose from the U.S. intelligence community wanting unilateral protocols for their intelligence products while multilateral institutions collected their own information.

Iran is not a passive actor in this process. It has been very aggressive in using intelligence to harass non-intelligence personnel, so U.S. agencies and their partners need to be careful. Tehran will be assertive in developing its own capabilities, including in the realm of human intelligence.

One of the most difficult aspects to monitor will be shifts in Iran’s political behavior and decision-making, especially since U.S. policymakers are very interested in the nuclear agreement’s effects on Iranian elites. Intelligence work requires very self-conscious awareness of biases and influences. Intelligence professionals are close to policymakers by necessity and design, so it can be difficult to maintain distance and independence from what those policymakers want to hear. Personnel can also get drawn into their own feedback loops, auto-validating their own beliefs. Additionally, different policymakers receive information in different ways, so maintaining clear channels of communication about the conclusions that are being drawn from intelligence will be crucial.


Intelligence is always a matter of priorities. Iran may remain a high priority for the United States, but Washington faces a number of other global challenges. In contrast, Israel will continue to view Iran as its primary threat. In 15 years, Iran will be a threshold nuclear state. For the United States, this is the agreed outcome of the deal it has signed, but for Israel, this scenario is unacceptable.

Israel’s has four main strategic concerns going forward. First and foremost is any Iranian effort to covertly develop a nuclear weapon. Second is how the nuclear agreement will affect Iran’s other regional activities, including support for Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Third is what Iran may be preparing to do after certain JCPOA provisions expire. Fourth, is the possibility that other regional states will pursue nuclear infrastructure similar to Iran’s.

Initially, Tehran can be expected to behave well in order to reap the JCPOA’s benefits. Even then, problems are likely to emerge — issues related to past military development and Iran’s role in collecting samples at nuclear sites are worrisome. Of greater concern, though, is the fact that the JCPOA’s construction gives the Iranians many possible exit ramps, particularly after they gain sanctions relief. Iran’s leadership approved the JCPOA but never stood behind it.

The greatest worry of all is not Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, which are comparatively easy to monitor, but rather its undeclared facilities, some of which are small. If Tehran decides to break out, it will use a hidden site, and there is no straightforward intelligence collection process for countering this. Iran has shown that it is good at cheating and lying.

Any strategy based on countering a breakout scenario requires full-spectrum knowledge of Iran. Such analyses are necessary to inform the decision-making process, provide early warning about potential conflicts and give decision makers the situational awareness and targeting information they need to pursue, mitigate and conclude those conflicts. Cyber capabilities will play an even greater role in not only collecting intelligence, but also identifying and attacking targets. On this note, it is important to remember that not every conflict is a war — there are many other offensive measures of varying and limited duration. Diplomatic options in these scenarios (e.g., resorting to the U.N. Security Council) could be very useful for ending hostilities; war is a low probability. Accordingly, intelligence professionals should give policymakers a wide perspective for guiding confrontation with Iran in the event of a breakout.

While keeping in mind that intelligence work is imperfect, Israel and the United States have ample collection efforts in Iran. These efforts are a little more difficult in some respects due to JCPOA restrictions, but also easier in others because there is now more transparency. The challenge lies in the analytical component.

Even the best intelligence cannot tell the future. Plus, the art of intelligence is to distinguish between true and false signals. Differing views need to be heard, and open dialogue and role playing will help this effort.

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