David Shedd is one of the most influential American intelligence officers in the post-September 11 era. During the Bush Years, serving in the National Security Council and eventually as Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Policy, Plans, and Requirements, he implemented sweeping intelligence reforms and a new “National Intelligence Strategy.” Under the Obama Administration, in August 2010, he was named Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and, four years later, took the post of Acting Director for several months before retiring from public service.
In his exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Mr. Shedd recalls his views of the Arab world during the “Arab spring” period and how they differed from the majority view within the Obama Administration. He explains the challenge of conducting intelligence work on Iran and the role of intelligence in America’s policies toward the Islamic Republic. Finally, looking ahead to the next White House, he presents some new options for the United States which would mark a significant departure from Obama Administration policies.
Q: What were your foremost concerns about the Middle East and North Africa on the eve of the upheavals of 2011-12?
A: Well before the “Arab spring,” I was seeing a growing arc of instability that extended from Damascus to Tehran and Lebanese Hezbollah — a relationship that was necessary in order to keep Bashar in power. It also went in the easterly direction toward Baghdad and southern Iraq, wound its way down through the Gulf, and looped around all the way to Yemen by Iranian support to the Houthis. That’s the fulcrum of the conflict we see today. And as I was told by a very senior official in Kuwait three years ago, “Thank you for putting Iran on our border.” He meant that Basra, in the south, was so Iranian-dominated following our departure from Iraq that it was de facto Iranian territory. What proved to be the other arc of instability was of course the North African wave of the Arab spring that launched in Tunisia and ended up with Egypt and Libya in dire straits politically in 2011 and 2012. While my opinion was not mainstream, there were certainly those that shared my view about the “Arab spring” that, at a minimum, the expectations of Tahrir Square would not be realized — and either Al-Qaeda would take advantage of it or Iran would see it as a useful tool to promote instability. The institutions were not in place in these countries that could provide the basis to meet the aspirations of the protestors.
Q: What is your view of the Administration’s response to the revolutions?
A: The Administration’s response engendered a feeling among those incumbent leaders still in power that we weren’t going to stand with them. And in fact, we were even prepared to dump our partners — in addition to Mubarak, also Qadhafi, who had been helping to fight Al-Qaeda in Libya and had given up his nuclear ambitions. So the message was very clear: The U.S. would be not even neutral — but actually pivot toward Tehran.
Q: What was the thinking behind the Administration’s decision to pursue a deal solely on Iran’s nuclear program, while leaving aside the regime’s support for international terrorism?
A: The plan was always, let’s carve out the nuclear file, get that done — and as the Iranian government is embraced by the international community over that “good behavior” of putting limitations on their nuclear program, we then will start to see opportunities to deal with the rest of the portfolios that were left unattended, such as international terrorism and human rights, such that Iran rejoins the international community.
Q: What is your view of this logic?
A: It reflects a certain naiveté. Samuel Huntington observed that revolutions must reinvent themselves. At some point, the second and third generations have to find a reason why there still has to be a revolution, because the reasons that applied at the beginning no longer do. The Iranian regime, in order to stay in power, needs to constantly reinvent its revolution. And the fact that religion plays such a crucial part of the revolutionary ideology — the waiting for the advent of the twelfth imam — means they actually have to create instability and violence in order to create the conditions where the Imam would arrive.
Q: What is your reading of the effectiveness of the Obama Administration’s negotiation with Iran?
A: The one thing that I saw consistently when it came to that part of the world is that, the worst thing you could do was negotiate from a position of weakness — either of actual weakness or perceived weakness that becomes reality. And indeed, the Iranians perceived this administration as weak. We couldn’t get a deal on a residual force in Iraq and, so, we left. We put no boots on the ground in Syria, and our “red line” disappeared. That was absolutely the worst approach when you’re going into negotiation. I got the sense in the final March-through-June 2015 period of negotiations that by then it was very clear to the Iranians that there was virtually nothing they couldn’t demand that would cause the United States to walk out.
Q: Over the period of the negotiations, what was the role of American and international intelligence agencies in assessing the Iranian Supreme Leader’s strategic thinking?
A: Iran has been an extraordinarily challenging target to any of our international intelligence partners to acquire information on the plans and intentions of the Supreme Leader and his inner circle. In the absence of that knowledge, there was a lot more reliance on evaluating the broader Iranian psyche. In other words, the inquiry was shaped around how well the sanctions were working: how badly they were impacting the Iranian economy, against the backdrop of the Iranian population’s frustration and anger that the Supreme Leader had to deal with. So you’d look, for example, at how the price of pharmaceuticals in Iran were being affected by the sanctions. But you’d also have to be careful about potentially getting a “false positive,” because the elite may still be getting whatever pharmaceuticals they want, regardless of what the majority population has to pay.
Q: Were there efforts to scrutinize Iranian government media as a possible window into Khamenei’s mind?
A: Great advances have been made in developing computer algorithms that analyze the media — not only social media but also traditional media — for trends in the tone and content of state propaganda. The algorithms identify key words and key phrases that, together, start to paint a picture. But the reliability of the analysis is only as good as the extent to which official media are truly a reflection of the Supreme Leader’s thoughts. It presumes that anything said by the Supreme Leader as well as everything said about the Supreme Leader that comes from an official source is actually sanctioned.
Q: In light of all these limitations, what kinds of input would analysts provide as the negotiations progressed?
A: The question of when to lift sanctions was obviously crucial. No one who was supportive of the deal said that the sanctions weren’t working. We all agreed on that. The question was, when do you get your maximum leverage on the sanctions? As someone who was very favorably inclined to the stiffer sanctions and maintaining them for a longer period of time, I nonetheless could not give them an answer as to when was enough. There was no good measure of intelligence that would tell you, in a sort laboratory-tested way, “If you wait 18 more months and do x, y, and z, this will break the regime.” I did not know the answer. All I knew was that instinctively, if the sanctions were working to this degree, how about one or two or five more degrees? But as the political window started to close for the [Obama] Administration, they decided to move. I believe the Administration acted prematurely to lift sanctions in exchange for a weak deal — one that did not dismantle the program, which was the original promise of the negotiations.
Q: Looking ahead, how would you assess prospects for an internal process of change in the Iranian government?
A: I believe the likelihood of a new “green revolution” in Iran is very low. I think the intelligence and security apparatus of Iran took many valuable lessons from the green revolution, and decided that that kind of opposition is unacceptable.
Q: What about systemic change through the election of the Majlis?
A: The Majlis is mainly an outlet that is part of the system itself and its survival to allow that. It is highly controlled. They Majlis may have the authority to figure out the annual budget or wherever the fiscal year is. Every system, particularly an authoritarian system, requires outlets. It can’t cap everything, because at some point it explodes, and so very adeptly, the regime in Tehran works to have those outlets. I believe the lifting of sanctions is going to be able to provide them with the kinds of additional resources which they need to foster those outlets as well.
Q: Now ten months away from a new White House, what do you see as some desirable policy options for the next President with respect to the Arab region?
A: There needs to be a clear and decisive signal of a strategic rebalance. Part of that is for a new administration, regardless of who it is, to come out with a relatively quick win in the Middle East. It may be a game changer in Raqqa, and probably requiring some boots on the ground: You won’t get there through an air campaign, and you won’t get there with allies alone. It needs to be led by a US presence. I’d achieve this “quick win” by rallying around something that’s the closest thing to a common enemy: international terrorists. So you’ve got the Russians on your side, on this specific, narrow problem set. You’re in consultations in Ankara and Amman. You go in and wipe out ISIS in Raqqa on that corner into Anbar, into Iraq. You retake Mosul. Something that’s a very significant victory, which also at the same time provides very direct and vivid evidence that ISIS is not invincible. It’s about staking out something that’s decisive and big. Maybe you clean out Sirte in Libya. You assist the Nigerians with Boko Haram in a dramatic way — including Cameroon and Niger. Some two or three big achievements, fairly quickly, would signal a serious reassertion of American military force that goes far beyond drones.
Q: Would the American public support such a shift?
A: I think it’s a question of presidential leadership. Right now, a lot of Americans are in the fog of wondering, “Are we winning or not?” The President needs to level with the American people about how, just when you thought the situation couldn’t get worse, it actually can — and will, unless we act now.
Q: What about the “tilt toward Iran”?
A: There has to be a clear American re-engagement with its traditional Arab allies. That doesn’t mean throwing away the Iran nuclear deal entirely, unless the Iranians do it themselves. But it does mean a very strong outreach to Sisi, to the Gulf — an escalatory outreach. It means that a lot more capabilities need to be brought to bear for countering the Iranian proxies and their promotion of instability in the region. What I would not do, however, is say on day one, the nuclear deal is off. That’s a bumper sticker — the situation is far more complex than that. The President has committed us. You’ve got the UN, and now a long cue of Europeans desiring to invest in Iran is what it is.
Q: As a career intelligence officer who has worked closely with your counterparts in the Middle East, could you share some views about Arab intelligence agencies as partners?
A: I would distinguish between Arab intelligence agencies on the one hand and, on the other hand, the intelligence agencies of the so-called “five eyes” — the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada — together with France and Germany. To a large extent, the latter category of intelligence agencies has done two things: First, they’ve removed the politicization of intelligence, that is, telling those who hear what they want to hear. They are able to deliver bad news that doesn’t necessarily fit the political narrative. The second thing is that the leadership of these intelligence agencies is separated from the political establishment. You don’t go into running the CIA, for example, because you’re a Republican or Democrat. Your job is not to reinforce either the politics or the policy perception. By contrast, the Arab world is a region where their intelligence capabilities tend to be, first, inward looking — on their own opposition, or threats to their own stability. Second, they are not standing back and reporting on the threats without a political bias, but rather, in such a way as to promote their own leadership. In terms of their capabilities, they give us geographic advantage by virtue of the fact that they are actually in the region with which we are concerned — but oftentimes they do not give us a whole lot of capability advantage.