CIA entry floor

Understanding President Donald J. Trump’s position on Iran over the two remaining months until the November election is no feat for the fainthearted. The unfolding drama from American efforts to extend expiring United Nations sanctions against Iran by imposing the “snap back” feature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in May 2018, comes amid conflicting media trends alternatively suggesting a weakening or hardening of the president’s position. Depending on the source to which one subscribes, Trump is either provoking conflict with Iran or working a secret back channel to secure a deal, both variables purportedly intended to support his election prospects. So which is it? Or can it be both?

Whatever Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo think they have been doing to curb Iran’s threat, “maximum pressure,” if measured against progress concerning Iran’s nuclear program, reducing its malign activities across the Middle East, integrating it further into the world economy, and advancing the cause of democracy, has been a failure. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s public remarks in August on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha stipulated that Iran would develop its nuclear program as an absolute necessity and not negotiate with Trump. In fact, Khamenei said Iran was better off relying on its own industrial development to guard against Western economic sanctions and maintain close alliances with regional militia groups to strengthen Iran’s “axis of resistance.”

Yet reflections in both Iranian and Western media recently captured by the Atlantic Council's well-informed Iranian expert Sina Toossi suggest that the Germans are shepherding a back channel between Washington and Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, teased the possibility, as did the Iran Newspaper. A similar story likewise found its way into The Iranian Labor News Agency.

The suggested rapprochement generated a great deal of social media activity that Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Abbas Mousavi tried to stamp out. Whatever the details, it’s no secret the Germans and French have sought to generate such a dialogue. Along with the Russians and British, the JCPOA’s concerned parties have actively sought a means to preserve at least some remnants of the agreement to avoid the route Trump and Pompeo are pursuing, which could damage the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) legitimacy and leverage in ways that extend well beyond Iran. For Rouhani, the media reflections suggest at least a trial balloon and influence effort aimed at softening Khamenei’s position to some form of reengagement with the U.S. to relieve the strangling economic impact of sanctions.

“The U.S. has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Iran over 40 years of enmity, believing at various times that the regime was on the brink of collapse and needed but an additional shove. But Iran’s most hardline elements are now more firmly in control than ever.”

On the other side has been an alternatively provocative theme advocated by American and Israeli hawks that now is the time to push even harder. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz has written as such, recently advocating that “to land a twelfth-round economic knockout, its time to throw one more punch to put the mullahs on their back.”

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has also continued to call for the U.S. to overthrow the Iranian regime. And Pompeo, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, and former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell have reportedly argued for even more direct military action against Iran to push it to the negotiating table, if not accelerate the regime’s outright collapse.

The U.S. has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Iran over 40 years of enmity, believing at various times that the regime was on the brink of collapse and needed but an additional shove. But Iran’s most hardline elements are now more firmly in control than ever. Rather than securing a “knockout blow,” short of managing to start another war, further escalation would only prove Einstein’s point that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

U.S. policy is best informed by intelligence concerning the current realities that reflect the cycles of influence among the competing Iranian lobbies. This is a strategy that requires adjustments in alignment with our national security needs and the balanced carrot-and-stick approach to which post-1979 Iranian leadership has responded — one that is neither all carrot, nor all stick. And the CIA has surely provided the president any number of assessments concerning how Iran has reacted to maximum pressure and what to expect from UNSC members under current circumstances.

Even if he’s not reading the intelligence, CIA Director (DCIA) Gina Haspel has an opportunity to speak with the president at least once every two weeks. And I can tell you from long personal experience, the CIA possesses tremendous expertise on Iran. So what exactly is Director Haspel telling the commander in chief? 

It would seem that despite Trump’s record in bullying, berating, and investigating the United States Intelligence Community, when it comes to Iran, the CIA’s leaders have been among the enablers of his more hawkish tendencies. They have instilled in him the confidence that “maximum pressure” is winning.

Given the profound Iranian expertise the CIA and other Intelligence Community agencies possess, could they have missed it on this one by encouraging the president’s hawkish approach? The more likely reality is that the White House refused to accept views that did not align with Trumps, as has been the case throughout this presidency. As a result, CIA leaders have found themselves appealing to Trump’s flawed perspective and leaving the U.S. to confront this combustible state of affairs with the constrained independence of its Intelligence Community, the very part of the state best situated to help avoid a catastrophic misjudgment.

Disappointing as such behavior might be, it’s not surprising. Between Attorney General William Barr’s investigation led by U.S. Attorney John Durham into the basis for the Intelligence Communitys assessment that Russia tried to help Trump win the 2016 election, the housecleaning at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and across the community to purge perceived deep staters,” and the mass firing of inspectors general, theres less appetite to speak truth to power.

“... while others worried about reprisals, the DCIA reassured colleagues that Iran's response would be measured and predicted the most likely response would be an ineffectual missile strike from Iran. … As of February 2020, the Pentagon reported 109 U.S. service members were suffering from traumatic brain injuries incurred from the Iranian strike.”

Reflections of this dynamic were illustrated during the targeted U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. White House officials claimed that Trump’s decision to strike Soleimani in January was buoyed by DCIA Haspel, who “was convinced there was evidence of a coming attack and argued the consequences of not striking General Suleimani were more dangerous than waiting.”

The United Nations determined, however, that the Soleimani strike failed to meet the criteria for the internationally lawful right of self-defense. Although the CIA is adept at providing releasable versions of threat reports and prepares them all the time for foreign partners and domestic agencies, curiously “the U.S. didn’t mention any imminent threat and pointed solely to past incidents,” according to the U.N. report.

And despite Irans demonstrated ballistic missile capability and the lack of U.S. air defense platforms, which were otherwise deployed to Saudi Arabia at the time, for the 5,000-plus American personnel throughout Iraq, the DCIA reportedly remained unconcerned. White House officials claimed that “while others worried about reprisals, the DCIA reassured colleagues that Irans response would be measured and predicted the most likely response would be an ineffectual missile strike from Iran on Iraqi bases where American troops were stationed.”

As of February 2020, the Pentagon reported 109 U.S. service members were suffering from traumatic brain injuries incurred from the Iranian strike. More evidence of the CIA leadership’s malleability to Trump’s own views might be found in the curious series of explosions and fires at sensitive Iranian installations over recent months. If they are indeed the result of actions undertaken by foreign powers, presumably Israel, which would likely have necessitated at least some degree of collaboration with the U.S., the episode suggests a path toward further escalation. And the CIA, at least at the leadership level, would have necessarily endorsed Trump’s flawed appreciation for Iran’s internal political dynamics and overconfident risk-versus-gain calculus.

First responders gather at the scene of an explosion at the Sina At'har health centre in the north of Iran's capital Tehran northern Tehran on June 30, 2020.
First responders gather at the scene of an explosion at the Sina At'har health center in Tehran on June 30, 2020. (Photo by AMIR KHOLOUSI/ISNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Countries conduct covert action to achieve goals through deniable measures that mitigate the risk of retaliation and political damage. Preserving such a fig leaf, albeit sometimes paper thin, makes it harder for an adversary to justify an overt military response. The gain has to be well worth the risk. So if the explosions were what the world believes, and the CIA played a role, what was achieved?

While damage assessments vary, those offered by anonymous Iranian officials, an “unnamed Middle East Intelligence official” who the press suggests was Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, and the Atomic Energy Commission, claim the explosions accomplished little more to slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions than that which would have been achieved through the JCPOA.

The explosions further undermined those in Iran’s “globalist” camp who, while certainly not moderates or prepared to normalize relations with the U.S., pursue a less confrontational path and seek economic integration with the West. And such covert operations come at significant risk, require extensive resources and planning, and once expended, those assets and capabilities are no longer available. Was it worth it?

In his 2018 book, “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations,” Israeli journalist Ronen Bergmen looks at the assassination of Lebanese Hezbollah operative Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, which he argues was a joint CIA-Mossad operation. Despite the risk that Iran and Hezbollah would ultimately hold the U.S. and Israel responsible, the plausible deniability, albeit arguably limited, complicated their ability to retaliate. And while certainly an act of justice, Mughniyeh’s death warranted the risks by denying Iran and Hezbollah a proven and innovative operational leader who was going to kill again.

Iran is no small problem for the U.S., but unlike some of our allies in the Middle East, it is neither an existential one, nor our top priority. That factors into the risk calculus weighted to do no harm. Only the CIA’s posture has enabled the flawed assessment likewise championed by Pompeo, that Iran’s regime is crumbling and unlikely to retaliate if further pushed. Yet in remarks made to the Middle East Institute on June 10, 2020, CENTOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who leads forces that would defend us from Iran, assessed that while Iran might be struggling, “I am not certain that it makes them less dangerous.”

“Pompeo’s continuing influence over the CIA by virtue of his support for Haspel’s succession as director also looms large.”

Like the president, Pompeo’s outlook is founded not on hard evidence but rather politically motivated interests. His behavior suggests being beholden not merely to Trump’s political base, but likewise powerful sources of support in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates that have pressed the White House for greater action. Having briefed Pompeo and his political strategist Brian Bulatao myself while at the CIA, his behavior is unashamedly influenced by a focus on the White House in 2024.

Pompeo’s continuing influence over the CIA by virtue of his support for Haspel’s succession as director also looms large. Director Haspel, who I also briefed, is a smart and seasoned intelligence officer, but one with a history of unfettered compliance with her superiors regardless of right or wrong. Pompeo has helped Director Haspel weather Trump’s occasional displeasure, and she owes him big.

Still, DCIA Haspel is not Trump and Pompeo’s only reliable ally at Langley. Key among the DCIA’s lieutenants for Iran is a caustic senior officer. Given the judicious balance required in influencing Iranian behavior, this officer’s penchant for direct action over patient intelligence collection might make him the right kind of “bad ass” Trump likes, but not well suited to the nuance and complexity called for. Well known for saying that “his carrot is the absence of a stick,” this senior officer’s default tool is the hammer, and he is always looking for a nail.

This officer’s influence over the DCIA dates from having endorsed her first high-profile management assignment years ago, and Director Haspel is nothing if not loyal to her patrons, past and present alike. She owes Pompeo, and this officer owes her. Haspel rescued this officer from professional exile at the hands of former DCIA John Brennan, who hoped to pressure the wildly unpopular misanthrope into long-deferred retirement. His leadership style is one that discourages inclusion and alternative perspectives. This is illustrated by another among his favorite quotes, drawn from the slave galley scene in Ben Hur, that his subordinates should “row well and live.”

So now what? In pursuing the extension of U.N. sanctions without the authorities the U.S. surrendered in withdrawing from the JCPOA, the U.S. gifted Iran the diplomatic and propaganda high ground and further empowered the IRGC. Iran recently leveraged that chip in a well-publicized concession to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect two previous blocked nuclear sites.

And it’s the IRGC to whom Iran turns to evade sanctions, repress democracy, and threaten the U.S. and its allies through malign activities across the region. The stronger and more influential it becomes, the more likely to be realized are the very risks Trump claims to be reducing. And let’s not forget this is playing out amid a looming Iranian succession process. Supreme Leader Khamenei is in his 80s and rumored to be suffering from declining health. Trump and Pompeo have facilitated the IRGC’s consolidation of power at our own peril.

But for all of Trump’s doubling down on maximum pressure and brinksmanship, it does not exclude his willingness to engage in back channel dialogue or surrender whatever equity he falsely thinks his approach might have earned in order to bolster his odds come election day. But like the U.S. has found in the flawed and repeatedly undermined Feb. 29, 2020 troop withdrawal agreement negotiated with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Trump and his amateurish minions are likely to be outplayed by their Iranian counterparts. The Iranians will more likely come away with a deal better than the JCPOA, or believe they had, facilitating behavior even more likely to risk miscalculation and confrontation between the two countries.

CIA leadership should be telling Trump that the U.S. is best served by seeing the Iranian political landscape for what it is, rather than what we would like it to be, and to leverage behaviors and interests among the constituencies competing for influence. Even the most hardline Iranian leaders have acted with a degree of pragmatism when in their interests. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accepted a United Nations cease-fire in 1988 to end the Iraq War in a decision he referred to as drinking from the chalice of poison.” And Khamenei called for “heroic flexibility” in accepting the JCPOA in 2015, and again in a May 2020 tweet.

Trump’s proclivity to falsely spin reality, speak from both sides of his mouth, and willingness to prevaricate threats to engender political support or spoil a transition should be of increasing concern to Americans. This is a danger that takes on increased relevance in relation to the degree of desperation Trump might feel as November approaches and his flawed Iranian risk calculus becomes increasingly apparent. For the CIA and the rest of the Intelligence Community to help stave off this danger, protecting the nation requires its leaders to speak truth to power, an obligation to which Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, Ms. Haspel, and her lieutenants have repeatedly fallen short.


Douglas London retired from the CIA’s Clandestine Service in 2019 after a 34-year career that included several assignments as a Chief of Station and executive positions that included the CIA’s Chief for Counterterrorism in South and Southwest Asia. At the CIA, he was a subject matter expert on Iran, the Middle East, Counterterrorism, and Counterintelligence. He is an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute. Follow him @DouglasLondon5. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/ Getty Images