A CIA report on Iran sounds suspicious.
According to the Los Angeles Times a secret CIA assessment predicts that Iran will spend most of the expected $100 billion windfall from the lifting of international sanctions on its economy, not on allies or militant groups in the Middle East. Citing two U.S. officials who insisted on remaining anonymous, the article noted, "Intelligence analysts concluded that even if Tehran increased support for Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen or President Bashar Assad's embattled government in Syria, the extra cash is unlikely to tip the balance of power in the world's most volatile region."
For the Obama administration, which wants Congress to approve of the Iran nuclear deal, this conclusion is very convenient. Yet much in the summary of the evaluation seems based on information that remains unclear or imprecise, not least what Iranian objectives in the region really are.
As American officials have implied, control over all or part of the funds will be a consequence of a negotiation, or a struggle, between two broad interest groups in Iran: those who are on the side of President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called "moderates," who would like to reinvest the money into the domestic economy; and the paladins of Iran's regional operations, above all the Revolutionary Guard, who would regard the funds as a boon for advancing their agenda in the Arab world.
What is most likely to occur is a compromise, overseen by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, so that both sides can pursue their aims -- Rouhani to revive the Iranian economy and the Revolutionary Guard to finance its regional actions. Khamenei needs to keep both parties satisfied to enhance his own authority. He needs a healthy economy, and he has to compensate the Revolutionary Guard for the fact that the lifting of sanctions will represent a loss for its companies, which have benefited from sanctions to implement government projects that would otherwise have fallen to private or foreign firms.
But beyond this, the intelligence officials who were quoted by the Times offered up a strange qualification when pointing out that the fresh funds would not allow Iran to "tip the balance of power" in the Middle East. That's reassuring to know, but who says that Iran actually seeks to tip the regional balance?
In fact wherever Iran has operated, from Iraq to Syria, from Yemen to Lebanon, it has heightened social divisions in pursuit of its interests, not imposed hegemony. Tehran has played on sectarian rifts, even worked toward partition, favoring constant instability. That's because it realizes its Shiite or Alawite allies, whether a majority or a minority, cannot prevail in mixed Arab societies unless all communities are at odds with one another.
In Syria, for instance, the Iranians appear to be backing permanent partition, by establishing a rump state between the Syrian coast and Damascus and areas in between, which would be linked to Shiite-majority areas of eastern Lebanon. There is no impetus to "tip the balance" at all, but rather to set achievable objectives and defend these. And even a few billion dollars is more than enough to achieve such a thing.
In Yemen the Iranian plan seems to be different. Rather than striving to control the country, Tehran appears to have made inroads into the backyard of Saudi Arabia, in response to Saudi support for the rebels in Syria. What the Iranians have managed to do is create a potential quid pro quo for the future, one in which negotiations with Riyadh over Yemen may require Saudi concessions in Syria. Once again, it has not required much money for Iran to attain what it wants in Yemen.
But more intriguing in the CIA report is how the agency arrived at its conclusions. How can the Americans claim to know how Iran will spend its windfall, when so much remains to be negotiated between the Iranian protagonists themselves? Even if this represents an assessment, there are simply too many variables for anyone to reach convincing conclusions.
President Barack Obama, a master at misstating reality to favor the political courses he desires, has said: "The notion that they're just immediately going to turn over $100 billion to the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] or the Quds Force, I think, runs contrary to all the intelligence that we've seen and the commitments that the Iranian government has made."
No one realistically believes, or has stated, that the entirety of the Iranian windfall from a lifting of sanctions would go to the Revolutionary Guard or its institutions, which is why Obama's comments were deceptive. But $100 billion is a great deal of money, so that even if a fraction of it is disbursed in conflicts throughout the Arab world, it is bound to have a major impact.
Iran has shown great litheness in advancing its strategy in the Middle East, and one needn't descend into conspiracy theory to argue that Rouhani likely shares many of the intentions of his more hardline rivals in Iran. That's not to say there are no divergences, no disagreements over what should take precedence; but nor should we presume that the Iranian leadership is so split that when it comes to the $100 billion it's an "either-or" proposition. The Iranian leadership is bound to cooperate in pursuit of the country's overriding objectives.
Yet an "either-or" proposition seems to be what the Obama administration is peddling these days, because oversimplification will make it easier to pass the nuclear deal. It remains to be seen what role the CIA is playing in this debate. No one is suggesting the agency is politicizing intelligence, as it did when George W. Bush was in office. But when so much remains indefinite in Iran, its conclusions are suspect.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.
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