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Iran: Smoke, Mirrors and the Rest

The only certainty we have in the public discourse in regards to Iran is that we are dealing with smoke and mirrors with every player.
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By definition, the benefit of hindsight is habitually illuminating. In the matter of the current Iranian situation, it will undoubtedly prove telling.

Media pundits are doing their level best, with varying degrees of expertise, to provide enlightening commentary on the current situation with Tehran. Unfortunately, by the very nature of foreign policy, they speculate from a position of limited knowledge.

For they lack key information from one crucial source: the second oldest profession. Spying. As Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist, philosopher and military general wrote: "It is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for the purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results."

One must never underestimate the impact the intelligence communities, the secret world, is having on international relations. Whilst studying at Cambridge University, it was drummed into me by the masterful Professor Christopher Andrew and the like, that contemporary commentators tend to make at best incomplete and at worst incorrect, assumptions about the topics of the day.

Take World War Two. Perspective on it was turned on its head in the 1970s, when the high-level intelligence produced by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the UK was revealed. Winston Churchill referred to the codebreakers as "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled." The intelligence, codenamed Ultra, provided such crucial assistance to the Allied war effort, that according to General Dwight D. Eisenhower it "saved thousands of British and American lives and, in no small way, contributed to the speed with which the enemy was routed and eventually forced to surrender." Ultra certainly quickened the arrival of VE day and consequently the first nuclear bomb went off over Japan not Germany.

It is simply impossible -- and illegal -- for anyone to paint a full picture of present foreign policy for public consumption. Journalists can speculate in leading fashion, but they cannot know or reveal for sure. Take Strobe Talbott, former diplomatic correspondent of Time. He noted in February 1984 that he was struck by how "extraordinarily conciliatory" Ronald Reagan's comments on the death of Andropov and his succession by Konstantin Chernenko were.

It later came to light that Ronald Reagan's almost overnight abandonment of his "evil empire" rhetoric against the Soviets in the 1980s was in no small part down to the secret world. Intelligence, including that provided by the double agent Oleg Gordievsky, helped convince Reagan to change course. Thanks to the American President's incendiary words combined with Soviet paranoia, the NATO exercise Able Archer in 1983 was misinterpreted by the Soviets as a potential first strike. The world had come closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Reagan wrote in his memoirs, "I feel the Soviets... are so paranoid about being attacked that without in any way being soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that."

We know that secret contact with the Iranians has been a hallmark of the West's foreign policy with Iran for decades. From the covert action in Iran during the Truman years -- operations designed to diminish Soviet and Communist influence, to 1953's fake Tudeh crowds organised by the CIA under Eisenhower. And of course Iran-Contra. More recently, the West has been involved with a covert war with Iran in an attempt to head off an overt one. The Stuxnet computer virus that set back Iran's nuclear program. The killing of several Iranian nuclear scientists on Iranian soil.

The only certainty we have in the public discourse in regards to Iran is that we are dealing with smoke and mirrors with every player. Politicians are involved in rhetorical posturing to their bases, but are quite probably of other views behind the electioneering scenes. History will be their eventual judge.

It is vital that we have a vigorous public discussion about Iran. But to a great extent we are left hoping that the secret world is providing our leaders with accurate intelligence -- and that they are listening to it.