The Obama administration elevated an agreement with Iran to a legacy defining issue. You might think the administration seeks out as much information as possible to inform its decision-making and to negotiate a better deal. But history shows that sometimes presidents don’t want to know certain things when they have already made up their minds. The political stakes of the nuclear deal with Iran are so high that the administration appears to be operating on a need not to know basis.
The president does not want to acknowledge Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq, including Tehran’s green-lighting of the use of chlorine gas by the Assad regime. Nor does Obama want Iran’s role in fostering sectarianism in Iraq to become clear. Bringing these problems to light would provide little short-term benefit and, more importantly, would be a gift to the administration’s critics who would welcome any rationale for delaying a nuclear deal. From the administration’s perspective, criticism for putting up a smoke screen is better than acknowledging a smoking gun that opponents could use to derail an agreement.
The president has gotten into the habit of drawing “red lines” in order to sound decisive, but he has little incentive to stick to them or learn whether these lines have been crossed. If Tehran crossed one of the red lines in the nuclear negotiations, the president would face the undesirable choice between military action and scuttling an agreement.
Obama is not the first president who prefers that some issues remain opaque. All presidents make decisions that balance their own political interest with serving the national interest of peace and security. It becomes tempting to politicize intelligence by fitting the facts to a pre-existing policy solution.
A common way to politicize intelligence is to champion evidence supporting a president’s favored position while discounting evidence to the contrary. In the buildup to the second Iraq War, for instance, claims that aluminum tubes sent to Iraq were intended to be used for nuclear centrifuges served the political goal of building support for a military attack and regime change, despite evidence that suggested Baghdad no longer had a nuclear weapons program.
Our research on the politicization of intelligence uncovered the possibility for a different kind of politicization. In this variety, American presidents have reasons not to want to know information that would upset their political goals, and in doing so, negatively impact international peace and security as they define it.
During the Ford administration, for instance, journalist Seymour Hersh uncovered evidence of CIA-sponsored assassinations and political plots overseas. President Nixon had ignored Hersh’s articles, but as evidence mounted, Ford was forced to create a commission to investigate the CIA’s “family jewels.” He tapped his own vice president to head that panel and hoped that this friendly commission would cast doubt on the more shocking allegations. The strategy worked for a time, but eventually Congress picked up the investigations, which became the Church and Pike Committees.
To take another example, in 1979 a mysterious double flash appeared in the skies over the south Atlantic. The evidence wasn’t definitive, but the most convincing explanation was that the flash was a secret nuclear test conducted by South Africa and Israel. If the event were a nuclear test, President Carter had several reasons to want the issue to remain murky. He was engaged in nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union, Israel was an ally, and he was pursuing peace talks in the Middle East. A revelation about a secret nuclear test could derail all of these.
Carter created commissions that cast doubt on what could be known. His administration benefitted from the lack of clarity, but clarity about an illicit nuclear test might have turned policymakers’ eyes toward the need to strengthen non-proliferation rules well before the Iraq crisis and its impact that persists today.
Some would argue that in the age of Twitter, camera phones, and Internet broadcasts, it is hard to keep a secret. And this may well be true when it comes to the Kardashians’ latest hijinks. But technical details of nuclear negotiations or destabilizing activities in the Middle East are not as easy to spot. In the nebulous arena of these nuclear negotiations, there is so much speculation and rumor that it is relatively easy for issues to remain murky rather than clear.
Contrary to common sense, presidents sometimes prefer that the details surrounding foreign policy matters remain opaque rather than clear. In the high stakes Iran talks, there are reasons why Obama does not want to highlight problems connected to the Iranian government in the Middle East. These reasons make it all the more important to look closely at Iran’s proxies in the Middle East and the technical details of nuclear supply. The most important goal is to constrain Iran’s aggressive potential over the long term and support Iran’s growth into a stable and peaceful partner in the region – this much, at least, is clear.
Roberts is an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria campus and Saldin is an associate professor at the University of Montana.