Revelations that Iranian agents plotted an alleged attack to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and blow up the embassies of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the heart of Washington should have surprised neither analysts nor journalists. The only thing certain about the Islamic Republic, after all, is its uncertainty.
More than 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran remains a black hole for American analysts. The unknowns regarding Iranian command, control, and capabilities represent an intelligence failure the likes of which make the Central intelligence Agency's 2002 false findings regarding Iraq weapons of mass destruction program look like small potatoes.
The first hint about the scope of America's Iran intelligence woes came in 2005, shortly after the relatively unknown Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised analysts by becoming Iran's president.
Almost immediately, a debate erupted about whether Ahmadinejad had been among the hostage-takers who seized the American embassy in 1979. The debate indicated an intelligence failure, not only about Ahmadinejad, but also about why, after more than a quarter century, the CIA has not parsed every single photograph of the embassy captors to determine the identity of each.
This would enable American officials to issue warrants, prosecute, seize or, at the very minimum, blacklist so that those who abused American hostages would not even now be able to enjoy the legitimacy a diplomatic conference room grants let alone gain visas to enjoy visits to Hollywood Boulevard or even Disneyland.
During his press conference outlining the terrorist plot, Attorney General Eric Holder fingered the Qods Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), as responsible for the alleged assassination plot. It is ironic that while it is the IRGC that most concerns Western policymakers, American officials know very little about the group. After all, while analysts debate whether Iranian politicians are reformers, pragmatists, or hardliners, there is no corollary debate about the factions within the IRGC.
Both inside and outside government, many analysts argue that many recruits join the IRGC less on ideological grounds and more for the incumbent privileges: higher gasoline rations, advantages in university entrance exams, and job security amidst Iran's economic woes.
That may be true, but without doubt, others join the IRGC for purely ideological reasons. General David Petraeus, the new director of Central Intelligence, can brag about an achievement as important as the Iraq surge should he illuminate what his predecessors failed to do and force the intelligence bureaucracy he overseas to map out who believes what within the IRGC.
There is no more important question. After all, as the guardians of the revolution, the IRGC will control Iran's nuclear arsenal.
While pundits might debate Iran's nuclear program as a whole, what should keep policymakers up at night is their failure to understand who would actually have their finger on the button. Ninety-nine percent of Iranians might be pragmatic, reasonable, and averse to national suicide, but if an ideologue willing to take the fight to America regardless of the consequences controls a nuclear bomb's launch codes, then neither containment nor deterrence will work, and millions of Americans may be at risk.
Whether the Iranian plot on Washington was a rogue operation or not is irrelevant should the Iranian system allow the same rogues to achieve custody of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
American authorities also remain largely ignorant of Iranian decision-making. Any book purporting to explain Iranian politics comes replete with wire diagrams seeking to explain the relations among Iran's myriad power centers. That not all wire diagrams match reflect some analytical confusion, but the real danger for Iranian analysis is that such wire diagrams may be increasingly irrelevant.
After all, the IRGC has executed a slow, creeping military coup d'état. While Americans picture the Islamic Republic as a state run by ayatollahs and clerics, a cleric heads only one out of 22 ministries; most of the rest fall to IRGC veterans (or their wives).
Ahmadinejad himself is a veteran of the IRGC. The governorships are stacked with IRGC veterans, and the current parliament is stacked with IRGC veterans. Most of these IRGC members or retirees are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War. When predicting Iranian behavior, what matters most are not the formal networks outlined on wire-diagrams, but rather who served with whom on the frontlines with Iraq. When battle buddies can pick up phones and coordinate among each other, the formal network go out the window and the informal network—one about which the United States has little clarity—become everything.
Analytical ignorance, however, could mask good news. It is not certain that the Islamic Republic can survive. After all, over the 2,500 year expanse of Persian history, the ayatollahs represent an anomaly rather than a natural outcome of Iranian political evolution. Here, filling in another analytical blank becomes essential: In September 2007, the IRGC reorganized.
With threatening regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan gone, and declaring the Americans little more than paper tigers, IRGC head Mohammad Ali Jafari restructured the force to counter-internal dissent more than rebuff external enemies. It was partly because he had assigned one IRGC unit to every province and two in the capital of Tehran that the regime was able to weather the 2009 post-election uprising.
The question analysts should ask, however, is whether those staffing any particular IRGC unit hail from the province in which they are stationed.
If they do not, then that is a sign that behind Ahmadinejad's bluster lays a country without the confidence to assume that their revolutionary guardians would obey orders to fire on crowds if there was a chance that their family members, neighbors, or classmates were among the protestors. A coherent strategy in such a situation would be to exacerbate Iranian internal divisions rather than cut a deal which would protect the status quo.
It is because of the fortitude of the Justice Department—as well as just plain luck—that the United States was able to avert a bloodbath in Washington, D.C.
Rather than shrug off the incident in the hope of further engagement, the Obama administration should recognize how little the United States knows about the power centers and relationships which matter within our chief adversary in the Middle East. Only when American analysts are able to fill in the blanks will President Obama or his successors be able to craft a strategy which can truly counter the Iranian threat and protect American national security interests.