Iran’s nuclear deception: taqiyya and kitman

by Andrew Campbell

A look at Tehran’s artful use of taqiyya (religiously-sanctioned deception, or “holy lying”) and kitman (secrecy) in its negotiations with the West over nuclear weaponry.

“Chemical bombs and biological weapons are poor man’s atomic bombs and can easily be produced. … Although the use of such weapons is inhuman, the war taught us that international laws are only drops of ink on paper.” — Iran’s parliamentary Speaker (and future President), Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, speaking two months after the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

The Western world, Israel, and the United States in particular, face a unique threat: the prospect of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran, the foremost state sponsor of terror and the most fervently anti-U.S. country in the world. In January 2005, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), in its first review of Iran since 2001, assessed that Iran would be a nuclear power close to 2015.2 The German foreign intelligence agency (BND) reportedly estimated that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in three to four years.3

According to the U.S. Institute for Science and International Security, predicting the date Iran will have a nuclear bomb is dependent on the number of working enrichment centrifuges in Iran. If Iran had 1,300-1,600 centrifuges by late 2006, it would be enough to produce bomb fuel. Iran would need another year to install, test and convert the uranium into weapon components. Iran could therefore have its first nuclear weapon by 2009.4 The Israelis estimate Iran “will probably have a nuclear bomb by 2012, but could have the capability as early as 2008”.5

A particularly disturbing development, given Tehran’s almost three-decades-long links with the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, was the remark by Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Turkey’s prime minister, on 15 September 2005, at a United Nations gathering, where he informed him that Iran was “ready to transfer nuclear know-how” to other Islamic countries, according to their needs.6

Israel was recently specifically threatened with annihilation by the Tehran leadership. President Ahmadinejad, in a keynote speech he delivered to the “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran, on 26 October 2005, declared that “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map”. He called on Palestinians to unite and resist Israel to the point where “the annihilation of the Zionist régime will come”.7 He also envisaged “a world without America”, threatening that such a goal was “attainable, and surely can be achieved”. He concluded his address with the words: “[L]ook at this global arena. … We have to understand the depth of the disgrace of the enemy, until our holy hatred expands continuously and strikes like a wave.” Other speeches at the Tehran conference were delivered by Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, and the head of Hamas’s political wing, Khalid Mashal.8 Earlier, in July 2005, President Ahmadinejad stated: “The message of the [Islamic] revolution is global. … Have no doubt, Allah willing, Islam will conquer all the mountain tops of the world”.9

Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has been waging a de facto, if not de jure, war with the United States. On 9 November 1986, Iran’s President, Ayatollah Ali Hassani Khamenei, openly declared in a sermon in Tehran: “We are at war with the United States.”10 Khamenei’s own personal newspaper, in July 2005, warned: “The White House’s 80 years of exclusive rule are likely to become 80 seconds of hell that will burn to ashes. Those who resist Iran will be struck from directions they never expected.”11

On 23 August 2005, the commander of Iran’s “Lovers of Martyrdom Garrison” — who is also a general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — Brigadier-General Mohammad-Reza Jaafari, addressed a gathering in Tehran of thousands of volunteers for martyrdom operations from Arak, Natanz, Isfahan and Bushehr, four cities closest to the sites of nuclear activity in Iran. He said:12 

“If America were to make a mistake and carry out an attack against the sacred state of the Islamic Republic of Iran, we will set fire to its interests all over the world and will not leave it with any escape route. … Let the U.S. know that if it starts a war on our soil, a war of attrition against Washington will start immediately and we will destroy all its sensitive spots.”

In previous comments, the general stated that the strategy would be based on “asymmetric warfare” and referred to suicide operations as a key element.13

Iran conducts its terrorist operations using “cut-outs”. The Tehran leadership can therefore distance itself from its sponsorship, funding, and training of terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Islamic Jihad, which are orchestrated by the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the external intelligence service. Iran is estimated to provide approximately $U.S.200 million per year to Hezbollah, and $U.S.13-18 million to Hamas.14 Iran has targeted and killed more CIA officers and American citizens — without suffering massive and justified retribution — than has any other country. A former Middle East CIA operations officer specialising in Iran, Reuel Marc Gerecht (who writes under the pseudonym, Edward Shirley), observes: “No other country [apart from Iran] has been so contemptuous of U.S. power, principles, and personnel and got away with it.”15

Iran’s Role in the 1983 Beirut Bombing

On 18 April 1983, two Iranian-inspired and trained shahid terrorists — reportedly smiling bassamat al-farah (“smiles of joy”)16 — drove a stolen truck, containing over six tons of explosives, into the massive two-storey U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 Americans, including six to eight CIA officers, the CIA’s Middle East expert, and the Station Chief who was chairing a conference on terrorism. Another former CIA officer specialising in Iranian terrorism, Robert Baer, assessed, “Iran ordered it”, and concluded: “The Islamic Republic of Iran had declared a secret war against the United States, and the United States had chosen to ignore it.”17

On 4 November 1986, in a celebratory speech marking the seventh anniversary of the seizure of American hostages in Tehran, the powerful Speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, described how the Americans blamed Iran for the October 1983 Beirut bombings that forced the U.S. Marines to evacuate Lebanon. He stated proudly: “[I]n, fact they should blame us for it … all this was part of the influence of the Islamic Revolution.”18

A government-backed body in Iran, called the Commemoration of Martyrs of Global Islamic Movement, held a memorial at the Behesht-e Zahra Centenary in Tehran, on 1 December 2004, to honour the perpetrator of the Beirut bombings. An influential hard-line Iranian daily praised him as “the man who carried out the biggest martyrdom-seeking operation against Global Arrogance [the U.S.]”. It noted that his name “has been kept secret and he has remained anonymous since the operation”.19

The subsequent U.S. withdrawal from Beirut was interpreted by Osama bin Laden as demonstrating U.S. weakness. In his August 1996 fatwa, or declaration of war against America, bin Laden rhetorically asked of the U.S: “Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place on 1983 AD? … You were turned into scattered pits [sic.] and pieces at that time…”. The U.S.’s retreat inspired him to begin his global jihad, “using fast-moving light forces that work under complete secrecy”.20

Iran’s Nuclear Fatwa

A particularly ominous development was the issuing by Iran’s powerful religious leaders, on 16 February 2006, of a fatwa (holy edict) sanctioning the acquisition and possible use of nuclear weapons. The fatwa declared the acquisition of such weapons as a justified “counter-measure” against other nuclear powers and as being in accordance with sharia (Islamic holy law). The fatwa was issued by Mohsen Gharavian, a hardline cleric and a disciple of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who is widely believed to be Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor.21 This unprecedented fatwa is particularly disturbing in the context of Shi’ite traditions of martyrdom and apocalyptical teachings. It provides theological sanction for Iran’s future use of nuclear weapons. The timing of its release indicates that it implicitly endorses President Ahmadinejad’s threatened annihilation of Israel, as well as Iran’s ongoing clandestine nuclear weapons programme.

A nuclear device can be fitted into a suitcase or backpack. The CIA and FBI have long feared the prospect of an Iranian terrorist and “martyrdom-seeker” entering the U.S. illegally and detonating a nuclear “suitcase bomb” — a nightmare scenario often described as “terrorism without a return address”.

Deception versus Diplomacy

To assess the threat dimensions of a nuclear-armed Iran, the culture and history of Iran must be understood. The Islamic practices of taqiyya (religiously-sanctioned deception, or “holy dissimulation”)22 and kitman (secrecy) dominate the history of Iranian statecraft.

The unique Iranian fusion of statecraft and tradecraft has resulted in the so-called EU-3 countries (France, Germany and Britain) basing their policies on the delusional belief that Iran is a “normal” state, which will adhere to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) provisions and, if tactfully handled through diplomacy, will subject their nuclear programmes to international verification processes. This delusional policy is at stark variance with the realities of Iranian history. Europe specialises in diplomacy; Iran in deception.

European diplomacy is a synonym for appeasement. The Iranians have skillfully played the diplomacy-and-dialogue game with the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain) to gain time, so as to demonstrate the impotence of the IAEA. This has enabled them to continue their nuclear programme, restrict inspections and perpetrate a variety of deceptions designed to prohibit a genuine inspection régime.23 Ahmadinejad personally regards Europeans with contempt and has described them as “nothing but corrupt midgets”.24

Tehran has made it clear it will not even contemplate open inspections of alleged nuclear weapons production facilities. The Iranian claim that their nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes is a prime example of taqiyya and kitman. However, even European foreign ministers, including British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, at meeting in January this year, expressed their distrust of Iran’s official line and their concern at what they describe as “Iran’s documented record of concealment and deception”25 — a diplomatic interpretation of kitman and taqiyya.

Nevertheless, many Western diplomats, analysts and media commentators dismiss Iranian threats as typical “regional” rhetoric resulting from a quaint indigenous tradition of hyperbole. But it is dangerous to be complacent. Iran’s leaders calculatedly use exaggeration to mobilise and inflame their followers for martyrdom-terrorist operations; and their followers use real bombs against live targets.

If Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of regional and global terrorism, becomes a nuclear power, the world will enter a new phase of international terrorism — potentially nuclear terrorism — waged by a theocratic Shi’ite Islamic state. This is a régime, moreover, which not only routinely calls for the “annihilation” of its real or imaginary enemies, but actually conducts strategic assassinations of its alleged critics and opponents abroad. In doing so, it draws on its Shi’ite history of apocalyptic and messianic suicide-martyrdom, inspired by its founder Iman Hussein’s martyrdom against the Sunni Caliphate in 680 AD.

Historical Background

The Arab dynasties, notably those of the Umayyads, and particularly the Abbasids (750 -1258), studied the statecraft-based achievement of Persia which had ruled for a thousand years until the Arab invasions. The invading Arabs became students, and the Persians became teachers.26

The Persians had stressed the centrality of the State and the necessity for “cultivating statecraft through the medium of refined intelligence and communication, and creating specialized bureaucratic services” for both the domestic and external functions of statecraft.27 Persia, during the rule of the Sassanians (third to seventh centuries AD), was chiefly admired for its bureaucratic organisation, “a highly efficient military system, and an intricate network of diplomacy and espionage”, which ensured the security of the régime. The tenth-century Book of Kings and the Mirrors for Princes instructed rulers and were written by scholars who emphasised the centrality of intelligence-collection and surveillance networks. The purpose of intelligence-collection was to ensure that the ruler knew the national mood in order to survive and prosper.28

Since the fitna (civil disorder) which followed the Prophet’s death, the Shi’a developed the traditions of clandestine operations, conspiracies, religiously-sanctioned deception, the use of covert operations and intelligence-collection, martyrdom and terrorism as forms of statecraft. As comparative historian Adda B. Bozeman points out:29 

“Persia has occupied a pivotal position in world affairs from the sixth century B.C. onward, and its impact on other societies, specifically the later Islamic empires, has been pervasive and indelible, in no field more so than in political intelligence. The case study of Iran … illustrates a uniquely creative system of political intelligence.”

Persia is the home of taqiyya, developed by the Nizari branch of the Ismailis (1090-1256), and later by the Shi’ites in the 10th century, to protect them from the Sunni majority. Taqiyya was the first innovation in terrorist tradecraft, as it was used to provide operational cover for assassinations of that period.30 Today, it is employed by modern terrorist organisations, notably Al Qaeda.

The Persian “Power State”

Nizam al-Mulk (c.1018-1092) was author of the classic text The Book of Government (Siyasat-nama), also known as Rules for Kings (Siyar al-muluk). It is a unique text of statecraft and intelligence. It has been described as “the most incisive and widely used manual of statecraft ever produced in the Islamic world”31 and as “a remarkable text of timeless significance”. Persia (re-named Iran in 1935) pioneered the use of surveillance and the development of the “power state”.32

Professor Antony Black, a specialist in Islamic political thought, notes that Nizam al-Mulk, a pious Muslim with Sufi leanings, “played a formative part in the establishment of judicial, fiscal and administrative structures which remained operative in Persia down to the nineteenth century”.33 Al-Mulk insisted on the centrality of surveillance and intelligence networks (barid) in the eleventh century. Nizam al-Mulk insisted: “Spies must constantly go out to the limits of the kingdom in the guise of merchants, travellers, sufis, peddlers (of medicines), and mendicants, and bring back reports of everything they hear, so that no matters of any kind remain concealed …”34

Persian communications services, notably the famed postal services, were used for rapid communication of intelligence. The Diwan al-Barid — the Ministry of Posts and Communications — was the most important administrative entity.35 The bureaucratic, military and espionage apparatus were integrated, and espionage was described in many manuals of the time as a means of ensuring social control through the fusion of statecraft and tradecraft. By the end of his life, however, Nizam al-Mulk’s advice was being ignored, as the sultan abolished the barid and the espionage system, fearing it would incite divisiveness.36

In a classic example of taqiyya, inspired by Hasan-i Sabbah, the founder of the Assassins, al-Mulk himself was assassinated — the first recorded instance of political assassination using suicide-martyrdom. A contemporary account describes how, using “the jugglery of deceit and the trickery of untruth, with guileful preparations and specious obfuscations”, a fida’i (assassin), disguised as a Sufi, pretended to present al-Mulk with a gift, then stabbed him to death. The Master of the Assassins declared afterwards: “The killing of this devil is the beginning of bliss.”37

The Assassins

Persia was the home of the legendary Assassins (1090-1275), led by Hasan-i Sabbah (1040-1124), who was born in Qom, 140 kilometres from Tehran. Raised as a Shi’ite, he was opposed to the Sunni domination of Persia and the Turkish Seljuk dynasty. Hasan pioneered terrorism — the use of the “terrorist base”, surprise attacks, deception and assassinations by secret agents using taqiyya and seeking martyrdom — in accordance with Hasan’s citation from the Prophet: “No soldier of Allah should give out unnecessary information even to his closest friends; the Prophet said: ‘He who keeps secrets shall soon attain his objectives’.”38

Amir Taheri, an Iranian contemporary historian of the rise of Islamic “Holy Terror”, notes: “The lessons [Sabbah] taught were never forgotten in the Islamic world, and today attract more disciples than ever.”39 Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda derive inspiration from, and identify with, the Assassins, and use their technique of anqudscompartmentalisation into cells, based on the analogy of the cluster of grapes. If a single grape is plucked from the stem, the others remain secure.40

Islamic and Iranian Deception Modalities

The Islamic doctrine of war is clear: deception informs war. According to the Prophet Mohammed, in al-Bukhari, chapter 73, hadith no. 1298: “Verily, war is deception”,41 sometimes translated succinctly as “war is deceit”.42 The historical legacy of conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies degrades and pervades contemporary Iranian public and political life, as illustrated in the following terminology:43

“Political polemics in Iran are replete with such terms as tuteah (plot), jasouz (spy), khianat (treason), vabasteh (dependent), khatar-e kharejeh (foreign danger), ummal-e kharejeh (foreign hands), nafouz-e biganeh (alien influence), asrar (secrets), naqsheh (designs), arosak (marionette), sotun-e panjom (fifth column), nokaran-e este‘mar (servants of imperialism), posht-e pardeh (behind the curtain), and posht-e sahneh (behind the scene).”

A former CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, Graham E. Fuller, argues that conspiracy-mindedness is endemic in the Middle East, but that “the art would seem to be raised to a higher level in Iranian culture than in most other countries”. The assumption of conspiracy, he says, is so widespread that, for an Iranian to ignore it, would be “(a) to indicate ignorance of the superior forces around oneself or one’s nation and (b) to demonstrate the stupidity, naïveté, or insensitivity not to perceive the hidden motives of others”. The penchant for such a conspiratorial mindset, says Fuller, is “a central feature of Iran’s political outlook, particularly in international politics”, and adds that “paranoia threatens to insinuate itself into the qualities of a national trait”.44

Former CIA operations officer, Reuel Marc Gerecht (pseudonym Edward Shirley), cited previously, recalls in his memoirs this characteristic of the Iranian people:45

“Among the Middle East’s most devout conspirators, they know that American intelligence is everywhere, all-knowing, and of course Persian-speaking. Anyone who has crossed paths with the CIA knows the truth is nearly the opposite. … Most Iranians believe in conspiracy almost as much as they believe in God and poetry. Conspiracies, the more convoluted and illogical, the better …”

A biographical essay on the celebrated Iranian author, Khalil Maleki (1901-1969), vividly demonstrates the “deep roots” of conspiracy theory in Iran. Maleki’s biographer describes the fate of the author, who was the foremost public critic of Iranian conspiracy theories and the tradition of arbitrary rule. In an article written in 1949, “Kabus-e badbini” (“The nightmare of pessimism”), Maleki described conspiracy theories as the main cause of pessimism amongst the Iranian intelligentsia concerning the country’s future. In a subsequent article, “Maraz-e este‘mar-zadegi” (“The disease of being struck by imperialism”), he used the suffix zadegi which indicated that conspiracy theories were a pathological affliction for Iranians. In 1965, he was arrested and later sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. In 1969, he died in Tehran “in isolation and depression”.46

The Koran, the hadiths (the recorded sayings of the Prophet), and the writings of Islamic scholars are replete with concepts and operational terms relating to deception and disinformation: kidb (lie), khida (deception or strategem), hila (ruse), baram (subterfuge), hiyal (wiles), kaid (cunning), kadi’a (betrayal or treachery), makr (double-dealing and slyness), khab (dissimulation), khodah (tricking one’s enemies to gain advantage or profit from them or over them), hifz al-sirr (protection of the secret), talbis (deception or making a proposition ambiguous), and ikhfa al-hal (hiding the real state of one’s convictions).47

Kitman — the Art of Keeping Secrets

According to most English translations of the Koran, sura 3:54, “Allah is the best of planners”, the word “planner” coming from the Arabic word makara, which has the much stronger meaning of “to deceive” or “to scheme”.48 A key Islamic deception concept is kitman, which comes from the Arabic verb katama, meaning “to hide” or “to conceal”.49 Kitman involves the justified concealment of the full truth by telling only a part or fraction of the truth. Kitman also includes the practice of taqiyya (dissimulation) and the principle that “a promise made to a non-Muslim can be broken whenever necessary”.50

Kitman, like taqiyya, is inspired by the example of the Prophet who resorted to the tactic in the early period of Islam when the Muslim community was a weak minority and, therefore, a need existed for concealment (kitman) or for secret cells (anquds) to save Islam from its enemies. The Prophet’s migration to Medina was known only to two individuals, his companion and their guide.

Kitman is therefore a type of trust. If a Muslim is asked to keep a secret from others, it is his duty to keep that secret. The Prophet counselled: “Seek fulfillment for things you want to finish in kitman”, a reference to kitman as concealing or hiding things in process or in preparation until completed.51 A contemporary example of this could be preparation for a terrorist attack — or, in the case of today’s Iran, preparation to build a nuclear bomb or a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Amir Taheri has described kitman as a tactic that the Iranian mullahs have practised to perfection and one that is the political version of taqiyya, which Taheri defines as “hiding one’s true beliefs to confuse adversaries”.52

Deception and the Threat of a “Nuclear” Iran

The cloak of secrecy and deception covering Iran, its rulers and their nuclear plans has been brilliantly summarised by one of Australia’s leading international affairs reporters, Nicholas Rothwell.53 He reports: “The precise nature of [Iran’s] nuclear project — which is dispersed, multiple and highly secret — would be known only to ‘a handful’ of top regime officials.” Elsewhere, Rothwell has noted:54

“Figures in this world [Iran] never make themselves available for interview. They practise a secret politics. Cryptic conduct and undetected action are their trademarks. Hence … the critical significance today of Iran in the Middle Eastern region, and as a player on the world stage …”

Rothwell describes the secrecy cloaking Iran’s nuclear programmes:55

“The reality … is hard even for quasi-insiders to fathom. One Tehran observer with former ties to the power structure said in an interview that not even [the then] President Khatami and his ministers would know the truth about Iran’s nuclear program. Outside the closed scientific facilities, said this source: ‘You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who know the real goal of Iran’s nuclear project.’”

Iran views the U.S. and the West as “enemies of God” and “friends of Satan”, or “the Great Satan”. From the Iranian perspective, the inspection régimes and provisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the diplomatic efforts of the European Union are “operational games”, which Tehran can skillfully exploit to buy time to develop clandestine nuclear programmes. The Iranians also demonstrate their diplomatic prowess in using their cultural deception modalities: zerangi, (a Persian term for “wiliness” and “guile”), which can be raised to a widely-admired art form, and khodah (the art of tricking adversaries to gain advantage). In Iran, the truth is always posht-e pardeh (hidden behind the curtain).56

CIA and the Iran Target

The CIA has been engaged in an intelligence war against Iran since 1979.57 According to former CIA officers, analysts, and numerous congressional inquiries, the CIA has lost this intelligence war, and some critics claim it can never win it. The CIA acknowledges Iran as a “denied area” in which it has no official representation. Former CIA operations officers in the Middle East claim that the CIA has never had agent networks or successful HUMINT (human intelligence) collection programmes in Iran.

The CIA has an especially poor predictive record. In August 1977, its 60-page study, Iran in the 1980s, assessed that the Shah would be “an active participant in Iranian life well into the 1980s”. In August 1978, the CIA’s benign 23-page assessment of the Pahlavi dynasty/Shah’s régime, Iran After the Shah, declared in its preface: “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘prerevolutionary’ situation.”58 In November 1978, an assessment was satisfied that the Shah was “not paralysed with indecision” and was generally “in touch with reality”,59 even though he was suffering from cancer and adversely effected by his medication. Only two months later, the Shah and his régime collapsed. According to a former CIA officer: “Even when Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile outside of Paris, the CIA avoided him and his entourage. So when the Iranian revolution went down in 1979, the CIA was blind and deaf in Iran.”60

In 2004, a presidential commission found U.S. intelligence on Iran was so “patchy” that it was impossible to reach definite conclusions about Iran’s nuclear programmes, owing to a shortage of WMD HUMINT and an over-reliance on satellite surveillance.61

The record of the CIA in relation to Iran indicates the CIA is incapable of understanding the Iranian target. CIA ethnocentrism is evident in the chronic shortage of speakers of target languages, especially Arabic dialects and Farsi (Persian), in both the CIA’s Near East Division’s clandestine service (known as the Directorate of Operations, or “the DO”)62 and the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), for over two decades. At the time of the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis, not a single CIA officer spoke Farsi. In the 1980s, only a few case officers read Persian, and not a single analyst read Persian.63 The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), which was established in 1986, had a similar language deficit. Six months after its establishment, the CTC’s section head had at his disposal “only two Arabic speakers” and “no Persian, Pashtun, or Turkish speakers at all”.64

The CIA’s failures have been so critical that they point to an inescapable conclusion that the agency is incapable of conducting successful research, HUMINT-collection or operations against the Iranian target. This is amply demonstrated by the following cases, which represent only a few of the many failed operations of the 1980s.

In the late 1980s, a CIA network of “high-level unilateral intelligence gatherers” was subject to “takedown” by the Iranian intelligence service, which had succeeded in monitoring the CIA’s radio communications. This resulted in the torture and death of 30 Iranians. Senior officers of the CIA’s Near East Division’s secret intelligence service, despite warnings from other CIA officers that radio communications with Iranian agents were insecure, did not believe that the Iranians were capable of intercepting their communications. They were mistaken.65

CIA expert and former head of the Iraqi Study Group, David Kay, has pointed out:66

“We had twenty commissions over the last twenty years look at the intelligence community after various failures. They’ve all come to the conclusion it’s got a broken culture, the analytical trade craft is in decline, the clandestine human service is no longer effective and functioning. We need to repair the identifiable mistakes immediately and have a culture of holding people responsible for failure.”

According to numerous U.S. Government inquiries, the U.S. does not have reliable intelligence on Iran’s overt or covert nuclear programme. Just as the CIA failed, before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, to provide accurate intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the agency has recently revealed itself to be, in the words of one commentator, “once again clueless in the Middle East”.67

In January last year, a WMD proliferation specialist and former Assistant Secretary for Policy and Plans in the first Clinton Administration, Graham Allison emphasised:68

“To prevent a nuclear attack, we are completely dependent on intelligence. We have to know if someone is planning an attack, and where and when it will happen. Groups such as Al Qaeda have the will and the capital to achieve it. If we continue on our present course, in the decade ahead we will see a nuclear attack on one or more Western cities.”

A belated attempt at penetrating the Iranian target was announced by the newly-appointed CIA director Porter Goss who, in February last year, testified to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee: “It may be only a matter of time before Al Qaeda or other groups attempt to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. We must focus on that.” Even FBI director Robert Mueller has admitted: “I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing.”69 According to Risen, Porter Goss, a short time afterwards, privately admitted to President Bush that “the CIA really didn’t know how close Iran was to becoming a nuclear power”.70

CIA’s Dismal Record of Nuclear Weapons Estimates

The CIA’s dismal record of predicting nuclear weapons-testing capability dates back as far as 1946. On 15 December 1947, the CIA’s Office of Reports and Estimates (ORE) reported: “… it is doubtful that the Russians can produce a bomb before 1953 and almost certain they cannot produce one before 1951”. It added: “A probable date cannot be estimated.” By 1 July 1948, “the earliest possible date” was predicted to be mid-1950, with mid-1953 given as “the most probable date”. In a report to the U.S. government, dated 24 August 1949, the same projection was advanced. On 29 August 1949, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb.71

Almost fifty years later, in May 1998, India conducted a nuclear test. The analyst who researched Indian nuclear issues later claimed that the CIA was the victim of Indian “denial and deception”.72 The failure to factor in deception and disinformation is a critical methodological vulnerability of many Western intelligence analysts, and is rife in the CIA. The failure to predict India’s nuclear test was the first of the then CIA Director George Tenet’s many failures. He thereupon appointed an independent review, undertaken by Admiral David Jeremiah, which concluded that the CIA had poor analytical coverage, was mirror-imaging, and had poor HUMINT resources.73

In 2005, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction found that the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, was “dead wrong” in its assessment of Iraq’s WMD programmes prior to the U.S.-led invasion. The commission, in a letter to President Bush, described the result as “a major intelligence failure”.74

On 5 February 2004, the then CIA Director George Tenet referred to the CIA’s Iraq failure in an address at Georgetown University. He confessed: “We did not have enough of our own human intelligence. We did not ourselves penetrate the inner sanctum.”75

The CIA and Western intelligence services failed to predict the election of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. U.S. intelligence also failed to predict Hamas’s victory in the recent Palestinian legislative elections. The U.S. State Department assured President Bush that U.S. support would assist Fatah to win the election. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was reported to be the person most embarrassed by the Hamas victory. A Washington official said: “There are a lot of questions going to be asked when the dust settles. The biggest question is: do we really know what’s going on out there?”76

The significant clandestine nuclear network of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan — the Pakistani nuclear engineer who had begun supplying Iran with nuclear designs, prototypes and advanced technology in the late 1980s77 — was not targetted by U.S./UK intelligence until the late 1990s. In June 2004, a speaker at a significant Stanford University conference on international affairs described this omission as “a serious intelligence failure” and revealed that “it was not until the past few years that American intelligence analysts understood the nature of the links between Dr Khan and the Iranian nuclear program”.78 According to IAEA investigators, Tehran confirmed that, during 1994-99, it had at least 13 meetings with Khan network representatives.79

Former CIA operations officer and Iran specialist, Reuel Marc Gerecht (Edward Shirley), has warned: “Unless Langley gets lucky with an Iranian ‘walk-in’ who volunteers detailed, critical information about Tehran’s weapons program, the CIA will probably only know the mullahs have the Bomb after they detonate it.”80


1. Islamic Republic News Agency, 19 October 1988, quoted in J.R. Hiltermann, “Iran’s Nuclear Posture and the Scars of War”, Middle East Report Online, 18 January 2005.

2. “Iran is judged 10 years from nuclear bomb”, Washington Post, 2 August 2005.

3. “German spies see Iran 3-4 yrs from A-bomb”, New York Times, 19 January 2006.

4. Ibid.

5. Orly Halpern, “New Israeli pushes back estimates on Iranian nukes”, Jerusalem Post, 1 August 2005.

6. “Iran ‘may share nuclear know-how’”,, 15 September 2005.

7. “Ahmadinejad: Wipe Israel off the map”, (English), 26 October 2005.

8. “Iranian President at Tehran Conference”, Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), special dispatch series no. 1013, 28 October 2005.

9. Iranian Channel 1, July 25, 2005, cited in “Iran’s new president promotes suicide squads”, WorldNetDaily, July 30, 2005.

10. Amir Taheri, Holy Terror: The Inside Story of Islamic Terrorism (London: Sphere Books, London, 1987), page xii.

11. “Iran’s promise: ‘80 seconds of hell’”, Persian Journal, 29 January 2006.

12. “Iran’s ‘suicide operations’ chief vows to hit U.S. interests”, Iran Focus, 23 August 2005.

13. Ibid.

14. Matthew A. Levitt, Iranian State Sponsorship of Terror: Joint hearing of the Committee on International Relations: Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, and the Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation (Washington, DC: U.S. House of Representatives, 16 February 2005), pages 3-6; Melissa Boyle Mahle, Denial and Deception: An Insider’s View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11 (New York: Nation Books, 2006), pages 194-197.

15. Edward Shirley, Know Thine Enemy: A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), page 21.

16. Bruce Hoffman, “The Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, Atlantic Monthly, June 2003.

17. Robert Baer, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002), pages 267, 264.

18. Speech broadcast by Tehran Radio on 4 November 1986, cited in Amir Taheri, Holy Terror, page xi. (Beirut bombing described on page 123).

19. Iran’s daily Kayhan, December 1, 2004, cited in “Iran honours suicide bomber who killed 241 Americans in Beirut”, Iran Focus, 23 July 2005.

20. Osama bin Laden, “Declaration of war against the Americans occupying the land of the two holy places”, from the Arabic-language daily Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), August 1996, reproduced in “Bin Laden’s fatwa”, Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Public Broadcasting Service (Alexandria, Virginia) at:

21. “Reformist Iranian Internet Daily: a new fatwa states that religious law does not forbid use of nuclear weapons”, MEMRI [Middle East Media Research Institute], Special Dispatch Series no. 1096, 17 February 2006. Special note: Gharavian is a lecturer at a religious school in the holy city of Qom.

22. See the author’s previous articles, “‘Taqiyya’: How Islamic extremists deceive the West”, National Observer, No. 65, Winter 2005, pages 11-23; and “‘Taqiyya’ and the global war against terrorism”, National Observer, No. 66, Spring 2005, pages 26-36.

23. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Europe should be careful what it wishes for in Iran”,
Financial Times
(London), 1 March 2005.

24. Amir Taheri, “A carnival of Iran absurdities”, The Korea Herald, 18 January 2006.

25. Statement by Germany, United Kingdom, France and the EU High Representative on the Iranian nuclear issue, Berlin, 12 January 2006. (S008/06).

26. Adda B. Bozeman, Strategic Intelligence & Statecraft: Selected Essays (Washington D.C: Brasseys, 1992), pages 99-100.

27. Ibid., page 99.

28. Ibid., page 100.

29. Ibid., page 92.

30. Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pages 129-35.

31. Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), pages 91, 95.

32. Bozeman, Strategic Intelligence & Statecraft, page 100.

S. Rizwan Ali Rizvi, Nizam al-Mulk Tusi: His contribution to statecraft, political theory, and the art of government (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf publisher, 1978).

33. Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, page 91.

34. Nizam al-Mulk, The Book of Government, cited in Bozeman, Strategic Intelligence & Statecraft, pages 101-102. The Islamic “power state” was outlined in the classic text The Book of Government (Seyasat-nameh) by Nizam al-Mulk, 11th century. See Bozeman, op. cit., page 100-3.

35. Paul Lunde, “The Appointed Rounds”, Saudi Aramco World (Houston Texas), July/August 1976, pages 12-15.

36. Bozeman, Strategic Intelligence & Statecraft, page 100-3.

37. Cited in Lewis, The Assassins, page 47; Iman Shams ad-Deen Muhammad az-Zahabi, “Biography of Nizam al-Mulk” (English trans.), Seasons, Spring-Summer 2003, pages 28-29.

38. Taheri, Holy Terror, pages 28-29. See esp. Adda B. Bozeman, Politics and Culture in International History: From the Ancient Near East to the Opening of the Modern Age (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2nd edition, 1994), passim.

39. Taheri, Holy Terror, page 35.

40. Mohamed Heikal, Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat (London: Corgi, 1984), page 253; Mary Anne Weaver, A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam (revised edn, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), page 112.

41. Youssef H. Aboul-Enein and Sherifa D. Zuhur, “Islamic Rulings on Warfare”, Strategic Studies Institute (U.S. Army War College), October 2004, page 25.

42. “Deception in war” (ref. no. 10138), Islam Questions & Answers (

43. Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), page 111, cited in Daniel Pipes, The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1998), page 76.

44. Pipes, The Hidden Hand, page 77.

45. Shirley, Know Thine Enemy, pages 3-4, 16.

46. Homa Katouzian, “Khalil Maleki: The Odd Intellectual Out”, in Negin Nabavi (ed.), Intellectual Trends in Twentieth-Century Iran: A Critical Survey (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), page 33-36.

47. Paul Stenhouse, “‘Niceties of Deceit’: Illustrated by passages from the Futuh al-Habasa”, unpublished monograph, page 21. The list of phrases is compiled also from a number of other Arabic sources and I am indebted to Dr David Hardeman for

48. “Deception in Islam”, (Austin, Texas) at:

49. Ahmad Sa‘d, “The Islamic perspective of concealing”, Ask About Islam, 6 November 2003.

50. Taheri, Holy Terror, page xiv.

51. Ahmad Sa‘d, “The Islamic perspective of concealing”, Ask About Islam, 6 November 2003.

52. Amir Taheri, “Iran: a policy of deception”, New York Post, 13 January 2004.

53. Nicholas Rothwell, “West ponders name of Iran’s atomic game”, The Australian, 16 November 2004.

54. Nicholas Rothwell, “Divided Iran swings to the Right”, The Australian, 4 October 2004.

55. Ibid.

56. “How Iranian interpersonal interaction styles affect negotiations”, Department of Anthropology, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S. [author and date not given] (; Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, page 111, cited in Pipes, The Hidden Hand, page 76.

57. This article contains harsh, but empirical criticism of the CIA derived from the writings and Congressional testimony of former CIA officers and numerous U.S. commissions of inquiry. The CIA’s complacent senior management and corporate culture, its “social scientism” and “liberal skepticism” towards dissonant views, the dominance of lawyers and legal standards of evidence in intelligence matters, political correctness, risk aversion and hyper-defensiveness to criticism have contributed to its abysmal predictive record.

Unless the CIA recruits and retains the “best and brightest” recruits and promotes brilliant eccentrics, skilled linguists, and creative and imaginative officers and analysts, it will remain mired in “groupthink”, xenophobia and intellectual mediocrity and be unable to assess and counter the maze of myriad enemies who possess or seek weapons of mass destruction and have publicly declared their intention to destroy the continental United States and her friends and allies.

58. U.S. Congress: House: Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, A Staff Report: Iran: Evaluation of U.S. Intelligence Performance Prior to November 1978 (Washington, D.C: Committee Print, 1979).

59. Bob Woodward, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987 (New York: Pocket Books, 1988), page 108.

60. Baer, See No Evil, page 97.

61. Julian Borger, “U.S. in dark on Iran’s WMD, says inquiry”, The Guardian (UK), 10 March 2005.

62. John Walcott and Brian Duffy, “The CIA’s Darkest Secrets”, U.S. News and World Report, 4 July 1994.

63. Shirley, Know Thine Enemy, pages 19-20, 57-58.

64. Baer, See No Evil, page 86.

65. John Walcott and Brian Duffy, “The CIA’s Darkest Secrets”, U.S. News and World Report, 4 July 1994.

66. David Kay, interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Late Edition, 22 August 2004.

67. James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (New York: Free Press, 2006), page 194.

68. Graham Allison interviewed in: “Ultimate terror”, Herald Sun (Melbourne), 8 January 2005 (part of a special two-page pull-out feature on the 9/11 terrorist attack and chemical-biological warfare).

69. “Spy chiefs assess threat to U.S.”, CBS News, 16 February 2005.

70. Risen, State of War, page 194.

71. Donald P. Stuery, “How the CIA Missed Stalin’s Bomb”, Studies in Intelligence (CIA publication), Vol. 94, No. 1, 2005.

72. Melissa Boyle Mahle, Denial and Deception: An Insider’s View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11 (New York: Nation Books, 2006), pages 263-266.

73. The Jeremiah Report: Intelligence Community’s Performance on the Indian Nuclear Tests (June 1998); The Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (July 1998) criticised the poor record in detecting rogue governments’ ballistic-missile threats to the U.S.

74. “Report: Iraq intelligence ‘dead wrong’”,, 1 April 2005.

75. Mark Hosenball, “Intelligence: No U.S. sources inside Saddam’s inner circle”, Newsweek, 23 February 2004.

76. “Saudi intel, Abbas predicted Hamas win; C.I.A wrong again”, Insight on the News (News World Communications, Inc., Washington, DC), 6-12 February 2006.

77. David E. Sanger, “Behind the urgent nuclear diplomacy: a sense that Iranians will get the bomb”, New York Times, 6 February 2006.

78. David E. Sanger, “The Khan Network”, paper presented at the Conference on South Asia and the Nuclear Future (4-5 June 2004), at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.

79. “A.Q. Khan — the Merchant of Menace”, Time (Europe, Middle East and Africa edition), 14 February 2005.

80. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Bush’s great Middle East gamble”, The Weekly Standard, Vol. 11, Issue 9, 14 November 2005.


National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 67, Summer 2006,
pages 8-25.

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