(Reuters) U.S. pulls staff from Iraq, says Iran gave ‘blessing’ for tanker attacks. Quoting,
A U.S. government source said American security experts believe Iran gave its “blessing” to tanker attacks…The source said the United States believes Iran’s role was one of actively encouraging militants but indicated the United States does not now have evidence that Iranian personnel played any direct operational role.
This quote, as meaningless as a diplomatic handshake photo,
Iran’s Foreign Ministry has called the tanker attacks “worrisome and dreadful” and called for an investigation.
suggests in context that that Iran may not have been fully complicit in the attacks, that they might have been the inspiration of a faction. While technical collections can rule out sophisticated underwater attacks, reliable assessment of the extent of Iran’s involvement requires HUMINT, which may have been used. Technical intelligence works best with an adversary using technology, but loses the race to the technological bottom. The Kremlin uses typewriters for the most secret communications.
There is another aspect of a society, not easily quantifiable, that is a source of my genial doubt. Iran’s society is highly structured. There are no free agents. An Iranian belongs to one or more groups, arrayed in hierarchies, with lateral connections. This results in a unique situation of multiple constituted governments, and centers of power that transcend the Western meanings of the terms.
In one of these hierarchies, the ultimate legitimization of power, even more than money, is found in the production of theological literature. The centrality of what we might call the impractical extends to the aesthetic domain in the form of poetry. In the West, particularly after the Industrial Revolution, poetry is viewed by “practical” people as the obfuscation of meaning in preference to some kind of spiritual truth.
This is an obstacle to figuring out what is going on. Iranian “idea production”, reaching Henry Ford levels, naturally obfuscates everything except for the cold facts of industry, such as how many centrifuges are spinning. It makes incomprehensible the wanderings of the bag-man, whose satchel may contain cash, quid-pro-quos, or brownie points.
The ability of societies to execute the underhanded has historically differed. The Abwehr was terrible; MI-6 was very good; the KGB the best before Mossad; the U.S. somewhere in between. The innate ability comes from understanding the adversary on the very personal level, and an ideological passion for the work. Hezbollah, Iran’s appendage in Lebanon , has been an active adversary for many years. Those who have had the occasion to lose conclude they run with the best.
The Shiite intelligence establishment, though loathing the West, understand us very well, enabling complex manipulations that may not be understood as such. Quoting,
The attack on the tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world’s oil consumption flows, appeared designed to test the resolve of the United States and its Sunni Muslim allies without triggering a war, analysts said.
A perfectly deniable attack does not serve well as a test. A provocation requires that you know who provoked you. Perhaps the word is what you have to give the press. As an sole hypothesis, it is a fruitless simplification, denying all extrapolations save “Will they let us get away with this?” The attacks were a manipulation, part of a strategy. Can we get elements of that strategy from the event? Consider this short list:
- The start of an attrition that denies the adversary a symmetric response.
- Exploit political division in the West.
- Provoke escalation, a subject in itself.
- A step of desensitization to conflict, elevating the threshold of response.
- Inspire the militias.
- A dry warning: This is what it’s going to cost us.
- An opportunistic approach, varying with developments. To taste a TV dinner, you have to thaw it first.
- A test. Of all the possibilities, the choice not to respond to a test encourages more and worse.
All of these may be under consideration by the intelligence community. Letting Iran partially off the hook is justifiable spin, provided it doesn’t actually imply simplified thinking. To assert that Iran is responsible for attacks where deniability cannot be publicly, or even privately refuted, risks appearance of impotence.
Unless one seriously respects the crocodile tears of Iran’s foreign ministry, the challenge to the intelligence community is now to deliver the goods in actionable form.