Iran General NewsU.S. scrambles for information on Iran

U.S. scrambles for information on Iran


ImageNew York Times: As President Obama and his advisers watch the drama unfolding in Tehran, they are having to cope with a frustrating lack of reliable information — about the clashes between the police and protesters, about the strength of the opposition movement and, most of all, about the divisions within the ranks of Iran’s powerful clerics.

The New York Times

Published: June 23, 2009

ImageWASHINGTON — As President Obama and his advisers watch the drama unfolding in Tehran, they are having to cope with a frustrating lack of reliable information — about the clashes between the police and protesters, about the strength of the opposition movement and, most of all, about the divisions within the ranks of Iran’s powerful clerics.

With no diplomatic relations and with foreign journalists largely expelled from the country, an administration that was already struggling to make sense of Iran finds itself picking up tidbits about the crisis in the same ways private citizens do: viewing amateur videos on YouTube and combing posts on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Mr. Obama receives a daily intelligence briefing, and the White House receives reports from allies like Britain and France, which have embassies in Tehran. Also, the State Department has a small outpost in Dubai, the Iran Regional Presence Office, where diplomats monitor Iranian state television and talk to Iranians who travel through the Persian Gulf emirate.

Because of these resources, Iran is not as opaque as the administration’s other foreign policy headache, North Korea. Officials concede that they know next to nothing about the health of North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, or the motives for the country’s recent bellicose behavior.

Still, several officials said, the paucity of information from Iran adds another layer of complexity to Mr. Obama’s challenge as he wrestles with how to respond publicly to the crackdown on demonstrators and weighs what it means for his effort to engage the Iranian government on its nuclear program.

“It’s bad. You’d prefer to have the information,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic delicacy of the matter.

Even more than the lack of information, there is a lack of understanding of the Iranian establishment. It is unclear if any senior American official has met the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What they know of the opposition figure Mir Hussein Moussavi dates mostly from his tenure as prime minister more than two decades ago, in the early days of the Islamic republic.

This estrangement is a legacy of the rupture in diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran in 1979.

“The way the U.S. collects information about countries, having an embassy is absolutely critical,” said Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst. “You need political staff that can go out on the street and talk to people, pick up the gossip.”

In the late 1970s, Mr. Riedel was one of a small number of C.I.A. analysts who predicted the fall of the American-backed shah and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution. Now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Riedel says Iran today is a tougher nut to crack. “You’re trying to penetrate the top of the clerical establishment,” he said.

Much has been made of the words and images transmitted via YouTube and Twitter — not least by the State Department, which asked Twitter to delay an upgrade of its system last week to avoid disrupting service in Tehran, the capital.

But Mr. Riedel said of Twitter, “Unless you know the sender, it’s hearsay.”

The Bush administration made a push to collect more information about Iran in 2006, when it was trying to tempt Tehran back into nuclear negotiations. It set up the regional office in its consulate in Dubai, with a staff of a half-dozen diplomats, backed up by 15 more people in Washington. The office was modeled on Riga Station, an outpost set up in Latvia in the 1920s to watch the Soviet Union, according R. Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state who held the Iran portfolio during the Bush administration.

In recent days, the office has been providing hourly reports to officials in Washington.

The C.I.A. also elevated Iran as a spying priority by creating a special division in the agency’s clandestine service to coordinate all human espionage operations against Iran.

The Bush administration used overt and covert means to build ties to dissident groups in Iran. Some of these efforts have begun to give Washington a glimpse into the workings of Iranian politics, according to current and former officials.

“Iran is a tough target, but by no means a closed one,” said one intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s a complex society, with its share of factions and interest groups. You can get real insights on a society like that.”

After the 1979 revolution, the C.I.A. set up a secret base in Frankfurt to collect information about the new government. Case officers regularly debriefed Iranian exiles and tried to establish a network of agents inside Iran. Often, these agents were arrested by Iranian security operatives and imprisoned or killed, several former American officials said.

Still, intelligence agencies have faced criticism for failing to produce in-depth analysis about political and social trends inside authoritarian countries. Since the Sept 11 attacks, analysts at the C.I.A. and elsewhere have been flooded with demands by the Pentagon to give intelligence support to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some agency veterans say that long-term strategic analysis falls victim to these immediate demands.

As Richard L. Russell, who served 17 years as a C.I.A. analyst focusing on the Middle East, put it, “You look at bridges, you look at logistics networks, you look at tribal affiliations in one province. You look at minutiae.”

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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