Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq

Monitoring Iran? Don’t bet on it…

There are a series of massive problems with the Iran nuclear agreement. A key one is the assertion of tough inspections. The diminished US objective of “limiting” Iran’s enrichment capacity to a point where there would be a one-year “breakout” time. This is to say that from the moment Iran begins work to build weapons, the US and international community would detect this and have time to react. Such warning would depend on US intelligence and, more critically, the UN weapons inspections.

The weapons inspectors will have two massive problems. One is access. By the standards of the nuclear inspection standards globally, Secretary Kerry will argue that the inspectors will have strong rights of access. Watch that space. Currently, the IAEA can monitor what Iran lets them monitor. The new agreement, presumably, will allow them to go to additional sites in Iran under some circumstances. We will have to wait to see the details on this, but whatever they are, they will be a distant second to the authorities the UN inspectors had in Iraq during the 1990s (established in UN Security Council Resolutions 687 and 715).

Inspection teams in Iraq could go anywhere with no notice; they could interview anyone; they could seize documents, they could fly anywhere in Iraq with their own helicopter fleet, they could emplace all sorts of sensors anywhere, essentially the teams could do whatever they deemed necessary to account for Iraq’s WMD. And it wasn’t enough.

The UN inspectors (dubbed UNSCOM) operated from 1991 to 1998 before leaving Iraq. Even with all that access (with blockages, deceptions and obstructions by the Saddam), it was not possible to say, with confidence, what Saddam did or did not have.

What’s worse, the UN Security Council very quickly became massively divided between those who did not want Saddam to be seen as complying and those who did not. The inspectors were caught in a vise and their reports could never be categorical, because evidence is rarely categorical—certainly when the inspected state wishes to preserve as much deception or ambiguity as possible. The dynamics surrounding the UN inspection process will be brutal.

The result will be reports that may suggest non-compliance, but inevitably there will be long contentious debates over the meaning of inspection results. The consequence is that the notion of having a years’ unambiguous and internationally agreed evidence of a decision by Iran to “breakout” is dubious at best.

The agreement may make sense in some overall strategy hoping to buy time until the regime in Tehran (which has killed far more Americans than ISIS) goes away and some better regime replaces it. But call the reality we are accepting for what it is: a weak attempt to slow Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It may be “the best deal possible,” but this is a far cry from having a real warning time of a year during which, something may be done…that is a myth.

Remember, Iran has clearly NOT decided to give up its nuclear weapons ability in exchange for being re-accepted into the global economic system. International businesses are well on their way to get back into the Iran market. The competition is lining up. The leaders in Iran (as in Saddam’s Iraq) understand this dynamic. They are shrewd businessmen and will have learned from the Iraq experience. The sanctions on Saddam were crumbling in the 1990’s. Remember the oil-for-food program and the Russians and others were happily taking bribes and eluding the UN sanctions.

Whatever spin is put on the emerging agreement, watch particularly for the claims about monitoring. Especially watch for the assessment of the US intelligence.

CIA chief John Brennan should not be the spokesman on this. He has given interviews lately that clearly express political and policy views—something the CIA is not charged with.   DNI Director Jim Clapper has steered closer to the ideal of keeping intelligence judgments separate from policy assessments. DNI Director Clapper will inevitably say that the US could have warning of Iran breakout. Really? Listen for the caveats. Does he have high confidence? Moderate confidence?

We have been surprised many times before, in Iran and elsewhere.

In the end, the agreement will be a reflection of how much we care about a nuclear Iran and how little the United States can do about it. Like many other problems around the world, it seems there is little the the US believes it can do about it.





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Iran Nuclear Deal?

The volume of opinions on the potential deal concerning Iran’s nuclear capacity is deafening. I risk adding to the noise.

One thoughtful voice with long experience working on the Administration’s part is Robert Einhorn. He just offered the case for the presumed pending agreement in a New York Times Opinion piece. ( )

Mr. Einhorn frames the problem simply. He asserts that the reality is that there is limit on what is achievable. Iran simply is not going to give up all that they have achieved, and at the end of the day, a potential Iranian breakout can be deterred. In essence, the offered agreement will be better than nothing.

Well, maybe. But consider a few points.

I still cannot understand how the negotiations have completely dropped the matter of causing Iran to admit what they have accomplished with respect to designing and testing nuclear weapons components. The focus has been entirely on enrichment capacity. If John Kerry cannot get Iran to even admit that it has done such work, then, from the start, we are accepting a pretty blatant falsehood in the interest of getting a deal. The whole matter of Iranian weapons development work has been dismissed with an anodyne acronym, “PMD’s” for “possible military dimensions.”

Further, if we agree to this deal with Iran and depend upon deterrence to keep Iran in check (after we have lifted sanctions of course), how will that be seen elsewhere? Have we set a global standard, in effect, that all nations are welcome to develop a nuclear weapons capacity so long as they don’t test fully and limit there breakout time to one year?

It’s widely rumored that the Saudis are keen to match whatever the Iranians have. Some claim the Saudis already have a deal with Pakistan, basically a nuclear weapon on the lay-away plan. If this posture spreads, and everyone is on a one-year timeline…it starts to sound like August of 1914. Once one starts moving forward, everyone starts mobilizing. I am not sure how deterrence will play out in this eventuality. It would be much different than the classic game theory played out in decades past.

Finally, the Administration’s Iran nuclear negotiations have been part of an overall Iran policy. That policy has evolved, to say the least. President Obama’s optimism about Iran in 2009 has been reworked by reality.  Iran has killed a lot of Americans since 1979. Has it stopped?

We keep hoping that the government will change. We remain convinced that the Iranian people are fundamentally aligned with our goals and norm.  Some say it’s just the mistrust or misguidance of the government. Maybe.

But look at the full range of what Iran is doing in the region. Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani has been outwitting the US throughout the region. And he has killed many Americans in Iraq and elsewhere. Keep in mind Iran has probably killed more Americans than ISIS.  In this broader context, I am not sure that the something in the nuclear agreement will, in the long run, be better than nothing.


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Who’s Happy in Iraq?


Watching Iraq and the US actions there is disheartening, unless of course you are Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s notorious Quds force. Suleimani and the Iraqi Shia militia he largely directs, are doing quite well (see the happy chap in the picture above).

Iraqi and American officials admit there is a substantial role played by Suleimani specifically and Iran generally in the direction of Iraq’s government and its military—especially the Shia militias. While the Iraqi army has been pathetic, the Iraqi Shia militias have been effective in the areas they choose to be. They have retaken some areas from ISIS, but, but, according to local Iraqis, they also have been cleansing the Sunni populations from the areas once held by ISIS.

Washington seems to think this is something we can’t really do much about. Maybe. But in fact we are helping the process.   Our position in Iraq has become so lame that we ship arms to Iraq in full knowledge that many will be passed to Shia militia under Iranian leadership. Really? Do we need to give US weapons to Iran? I thought this was illegal, but I am not a lawyer. Still, the last time this seemed like a good idea, people faced jail time. Ask Ollie North.

Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have a detailed article in the Bloomberg View ( that lays this sorry story out. It’s great reporting, but depressing. They even came up with the picture (above) from a militia members (Thafer Hashm) Facebook page proudly showing him atop an M-1 tank helpfully provided by the US (roughly $5 million a piece according to press accounts). Aside from the loss of the weapons, it seems we might be concerned about the loss of technology.

What’s going on here? Are we really shifting our priorities to support Iran? Is this part of a grand strategy synchronized with the nuclear negotiations to align US and Iran interests? Can someone explain this?



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Iran: How bad a deal is worse than no deal?

The momentum to agree to something with Iran on their nuclear program is obvious even considering the public comments cautioning that a deal may not happen.

Discussion now centers on how long of a breakout lead-time a deal would create. This is to say, with agreed limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity,  Iran could not produce sufficient material for a bomb in less than a notional period of time from the moment they decided to break the agreement.  A year seems to be the popular figure among observers.

It is incredible that there seems to be no intention for Iran to come clean on work that they have done to design and test key parts of nuclear weapon design and mechanism. Even the IAEA in their most recent reports have pointed out the absence of any dialogue with Tehran to answer fundamental questions about where they stand regarding the ability to build a weapon. The public comments from the US negotiators seem silent on this. Iran has stonewalled any discussion of weaponization work. The delicate negotiators, apparently seeking to avoid confrontation, have given a name and acronym to such unmentionable concerns: Possible Military Dimensions, or PMD’s.  If Iran won’t engage in this subject, that tells you something.

The acceptance as a measure of merit for an agreement of a breakout lead-time ignores other aspects of how far Iran has advanced. Weaponization is one, but Iran’s ability to deliver nuclear weapons on increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles is another.

We should recognize that if there is an agreement along the lines that has been discussed, Iran will be in an internationally ratified position of being a “near nuclear weapon state.”  This is a big deal.

What is the incentive for the Saudis or others to match the Iranian position?

Consider what a one year of lead-time really means practically? Suppose the US or some other country (or the IAEA) gets an indication that Iran is exceeding its production limits. How long will it take for the US and others to become convinced that this is unambiguous? How long will it take for the US and others to decide whether to do something? A year is not long.  And what are they going to do?  Reimpose sanctions?  Bomb?  Iran is evolving in importance in the region.

Maybe given all that’s going on in the region and the world, Washington has concluded that we can’t push Iran any further. But let everyone recognize exactly what we are agreeing to: Iran will be and will have the associated influence of a “near nuclear power.”

The US is accepting a substantially increased regional role for Iran.   Indeed, to some states in the region, it seems the US is encouraging a greater role for Iran. Some believe we have a grand strategy linked to a more prominent role for Iran.  After all, the nuclear talks are not unrelated to Syria, Iraq (where Iran has a dominant role) and other problems.  Maybe there is a coherent strategy for Iran…maybe.

And maybe in the context of some greater strategy,  what appears to be a bad nuclear deal is actually good. I would like to hear it that strategy.

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Iraq – How do we answer the pleas of those about to die?

I expect every American official who has worked in Iraq with Iraqis gets calls like this.

Here is an example of one call I got:

A very prominent Iraqi–a former Minister and Ambassador, now out of Iraq called to relay the urgent dilemma of his cousins outside Haditha.

Haditha is the location of a critical dam across the Euphrates river which was prominent in US news a month ago when ISIS took it over and it became a priority for US airstrikes.  Well US attention is now elsewhere and ISIS is back threatening Haditha.

The dam itself is defended by Iraqi Army.  The immediate surrounding area is defended–to the extent it can be–by local tribal groups. But unreported is the underlying rot of Iraq without government.  Gangs, violent criminal gangs who seek to profit in the lawless interlude before ISIS returns run rampant. They maraud among the inhabitants.  Local tribes are conserving their limited force to defend the town’s limits against ISIS.  Unless they see some evidence or word of support from either the US or the Iraqi government, they will not intervene. And no word of support or encouragement is forthcoming from either. They are alone on the ground.
Hence the phone call.  Family members outside the limits of Haditha are threatened with death unless payment of unachievable sums are made.  They have five days. There is no reason to doubt the seriousness of anyone in this story.  Life is cheap and there are no consequences.  I saw the same pattern play out when chaos broke out in Iraq in April-May 2003. Gangs of thugs committed atrocities with no restraint. Their incentives were money or drugs or simply because they could. 

So the plea from the Iraqi is:  “Can’t some senior American simply contact the tribal leaders and say, “Yes the US would like them to broaden their control, if only to just to rein in the criminals.”  Or, won’t the US cause the Iraq government to convey such a message?   
Despite the substantial diplomatic steps in building an international consensus, largely around airstrikes, the people who matter are on the ground.  They are the ones who are dying and will continue to die.  Someone has to take and hold the ground. 

This man’s relatives will likely die shortly.  Somebody could do something. At this point, many Iraqis would rather have ISIS (and Saddam looked good by comparison).I would like to know how others who have been deeply involved in Iraqi affairs answer such calls.


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ISIS or ISIL or IS? Does it matter?

The President gave his speech on strategy towards ISIL…except everyone calls it ISIS in the West. ISIL is Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and ISIS is Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or al Shams, which is roughly the same territory as Syria. And the group calls itself the Islamic State or IS. What gives?

The dogged retention by the President of the term ISIL may be related to the legal powers he wishes to employ. Broadly, the force he wants to bring to bear derives from counter terrorism authorities that single out Al Qaeda as the objective. It seems ISIL is linked legally if not genetically to Al Qaeda or politically to Al Qaeda. We have a well-established legal and intelligence structure in place to kill Al Qaeda targets and the President has been making great use of it.

However, ISIS (I will use the popular term) is clearly not Al Qaeda. Because we are playing catch-up with this threat, our thinking and legal authorities have not been revised to accommodate something that is radically different than Al Qaeda. Is ISIS a terrorist organization? They want to be a state. Of course, this is the last thing we want (hence our aversion to accepting their name—Islamic State, IS). Maybe they think they can eventually be accepted as the PLO eventually transitioned from a terrorist group to a state with acknowledged legitimacy. Seems dubious now, but many never dreamed Yasser Arafat would be welcomed at the White House.

ISIS is exploiting some key voids. One is geographic. The territory of Syria is up for grabs. In a different way, the territory of Iraq is up for grabs.

A second void is that the US is not structured legally or bureaucratically to kill ISIS. We have a well-oiled machine for tracking and killing Al Qaeda, but ISIS…not even close. Moreover, no one wants to take the lead. President Obama reacted because it was no longer avoidable given the brutal videos that ricocheted around the planet. But so far, the local governments have priorities that are not congruent with ours. Iraqis all have different objectives. The new government is not going to be any better than the last. The Kurds, whom the President called out separately in his speech in tacit recognition of their long held goal of being an independent state, are fighting only for their own piece of territory. And Syria, well, we either go full bore in standing up a rebel group or accept that the Russians and Iranians were right and Bashar al Assad is more in our interests because he is only killing his own people, not threatening the US.

None of these things are yet addressed in the current strategy. This will be a mess for the rest of the current administration.

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Video Driven Policy vs. Strategy

The need for a strategy on ISIS was provoked by the videos of Americans being barbarically executed. A year ago, there was horrible video of Sarin use against civilians in Syria. That provoked action by the White House.   In both cases, the underlying dynamics were clear in advance. Nevertheless actions were taken only after videos provoked public fervor.

It makes you wonder what disastrous trends are lurking unattended simply because they don’t lend themselves to video.

The White House seems to be constantly in a reactive mode in foreign policy. Clearly their focus is on domestic issues—not surprising given the President’s background and the looming mid-term elections. Still, he’s got two years left and there are key foreign policy and national security issues that need forethought, not reactive strategies.

The Middle East is one obvious area. Consider ISIS.  Isis is a symptom, not the root issue.   ISIS grows because the chaos of Syria and Iraq offers fertile ground. Instability is an opportunity for ISIS and other radical groups.  The Arab spring was not a wholly good thing—that’s a long discussion in itself. Suffice to say that stability in the region has been reduced and risk has grown–a lot. Libya and Egypt stand out.  Opportunities for Iran have have increased. It appears to many that the White House is trying to rebuild a relationship with Iran and that comes at the expense of traditional allies and friends like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc.

If you asked senior leaders in Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, or even Moscow or London, what the US policy and strategy for the Middle East (let alone East Asia and other regions) you would not get a clear answer. Far from it.


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ISIS – Next Steps

The President is now stuck with the ISIS problem. It is his, not former President Bush’s. The rest of his term may be defined by how he deals with ISIS, in some ways as Bush was defined by how he dealt with Al Qaeda.

I co-authored an OP-ED with former Iraq ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie in the Washington Post July 13, 2014 addressing the ISIS crisis in Iraq.  We stated that Prime Minister Maliki could not be part of any solution. He has now stepped down and a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi has been agreed by the new Iraq Parliament. This is a necessary, but clearly insufficient first step. Many, much more difficult steps are necessary—some by the US, some by Baghdad, some by the Kurds.

It is now generally agreed that efforts at inclusion of Sunni groups need to be made to remove the fertile ground where ISIS is spreading. I would go further. ISIS is benefitting not only from passive acceptance of a population alienated by the Shia dominated central government, but ISIS has organizational and military leadership beyond a terrorist group. Former Saddam military and Baathist officers are reportedly involved as some level. Former Saddam officers have tried to engage in dialogue over the years either directly or indirectly with the US. This has not happened so far as near as I can tell.

Why not? They are not Islamist radicals. The Saddam regime was steadfastly secular. Saddam emphasized in his debriefing sessions that he kept religion and religious leaders completely out of government. For all the horrors of Saddam, he was clearly secular. The former Baathists now operating with ISIS do not hate the West. They hate the government in Baghdad that has taken Iraq with a winner-take-all attitude about the electoral process. They do not seek (again as I hear it) to re-install a Baathist government. They want reconciliation and a respectable role.

Former Saddam lieutenant, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri or those generals and intelligence officers around him need to be peeled away from ISIS. In fact, if recent rumblings have any truth, those former Baathist and military leaders are already at odds with ISIS. Ultimately, these individuals can reverse the gains ISIS has made in the Sunni regions of Iraq.

A list of key steps that can be taken include:

  1. The central government should release selected members of the Saddam government who have been held in jail since 2003. Tariq Aziz, now quite ill is one candidate. This would be an important signal to Sunni groups that reconciliation is now on the agenda.
  2. The US should take a decision to actively engage with these groups. Optimally, it would be good if the US had a highly empowered Czar on for this issue. Someone who could make a deal and deliver. Since it is probably impossible for the Administration to do this (politically, organizationally and philosophically), they should at least not object when others follow this path.
  3. The Kurds, specifically the KDP led by Masoud Barzani, (and hopefully with the support of the PUK) should deeply engage with these groups. They have cut deals previously with these same people for various reasons. There were deals made to allow transport of Saddam’s oil illegally through Kurdistan during the sanctions.   Both sides made money. Barzani had an understanding with the regime when Saddam’s forces moved north militarily in 1996. The Kurds will understand that there is a congruence of interests in fighting ISIS. This is natural. The US should accept and indeed support this.
  4. The US should, in effect support step 3 by arming and training Kurds. The Peshmerga forces have turned out to be less than their reputation. This needs to change. Moreover, the Kurds need to believe that the US will reliably protect them (recall we provided aerial protection during the 1990’s) and they will not be forced to become a protectorate of Iran.
  5. The US must be unrelenting in pressuring Baghdad to open up to the Sunni interests. The new Prime Minister comes from the Dawa party like Maliki. I doubt he will be any better. The corruption of Maliki’s government will not be removed by this successor. Worse, the dependency upon Iran may grow. The Qods force chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani spends much more time in Iraq than anywhere else. He is not our friend. His forces have likely killed hundreds of Americans during the past decade.
  6. Once the US has a strategy and actions in place for the Iraq element, it will also need a stronger approach for the Syrian side—and that may be tougher.   Either the US supports a credible Syrian opposition group that can grow to compete with both ISIS AND the Bashar al-Assad government, or we in effect acquiesce to the survival of the Assad government—as the Russians have been suggesting. This is a tough choice and probably impossible for the President to address explicitly. However, providing insufficient support to opposition groups now will not suffice. ISIS has grown to the point where it is a bigger risk than a Syria ruled by Basher al-Assad.



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Obama Learns of Malaysian Aircraft Destruction form Putin?!

The Malaysian aircraft destruction is tragic, but not unique. Commercial Airliners have been shot down before.  In 1983 the Soviet air defense fighters shot down a Korean Airlines 747 that had strayed off course, impinged on Soviet airspace and the Soviet Air Defense presumably mistaking the aircraft for an American surveillance aircraft, downed it.  The completely bungled the aftermath by denying it and then the US let on that we had collected all the communications and we went on to play them in the UN Security Council. (I happened to be the State Dept. analyst who accompanied Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick during this Council meeting.)

The US mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus (killing about 300) during the Iran Iraq war when the US was patrolling the Gulf to protect oil shipping.  The USS Vincennes fired in error and it was a tragic disaster, but the US admitted it.

The Malaysian case will play out similar to the Korean incident.  The Russians will not be so boneheaded and deny the event.  What happened will be clear from intelligence sources and the investigation.  What Russian and Ukraine will be doing is making responsibility as murky as possible.   Intercepted communications will drive this.

One point that does stick out from the events of yesterday.  The White House declared that President Obama learned of the event during a phone call with Vladimir Putin on Sanctions.  This is amazing.  The Intelligence Community, which has lots of technical collection in the area (recall we still watch for Russian nuclear missile launches to warn of sudden attack among other things) must have seen this virtually in real time…but for some reason, no one  passed the word to the President?  Maybe they thought he wouldn’t care?   Maybe the message got tied up in the DNI bureaucracy?  Maybe the White House staff held it up?  Maybe they just dismissed it as a non-threat incident?  There is a story there that would be interesting to read.

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Don’t Trade Iraq for an Iran Nuclear “Agreement”

There will come a time, and that may be right now, when Washington has to decide if any deal on Iran nuclear programs is more important than the risk faced from ISIS in Iraq. So far it looks like we have the priorities wrong.

Iran is blatantly intruding on the future of Iraq according to some members of parliament. Iran is said to be blocking candidates for Prime Minister that are any less dogmatic and sectarian than Maliki. Iran’s actions, unless countered, will assure that Iraqi Sunnis continue to see no hope in the central government. Iran’s role in Iraq must be confronted forcefully, now. (There should be no hope of relaxing sanctions if they don’t back off in Iraq.)

If Washington continues to dither, Sunnis will never be persuaded to fight ISIS. Without the Sunnis taking on ISIS, these radicals will occupy and rule a large portion of Iraq (or as some call it, “Syraq” as it now includes a good piece of Syria.   This is a clear and present danger as they say.

If playing hardball with Iran over Iraq causes Tehran to back away from the nuclear talks, so be it. Iranian commitment to forsaking a nuclear weapon is dubious in any case.

Of course, it may be that Washington has taken a concerted decision to link its future to Tehran. This would be astonishing, but certainly that’s how some Gulf States interpret US actions. We have conceded points (i.e. enrichment of uranium) to Iran with their nuclear program that we did steadfastly refused to permit the UAE with there, truly peaceful nuclear energy program. Moreover, the US is now viewed as tolerating and even encouraging the Iran dominance in Iraq. And, add to that, just this week an Assistant Secretary of State who has long publicly opposed the regime in Bahrain, met with Shia opposition members in Bahrain in a direct snub to the government.  They Bahrain government (host to the US Navy fleet headquarter for the Gulf) threw him out of the country.

There are a lot of long-term allies in the region who see this as a concerted series of steps to align the US with the Shia generally and Tehran particularly.

I suspect these steps by the US were without any plan, but simply incoherent reactions to surprises that caught decision-makers off guard. However, it is very difficult to convince leaders in other countries that the US is not pursuing some strategy—at their expense.

Hello? Washington? Does someone have a strategy in there? Just wondering, but it looks from the outside like things are out of control. Or worse, we are aligning with Iran because we have changed, not Iran.

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