- - Monday, March 30, 2015

If the United States cannot verify that Iran isn’t developing nuclear weapons, then President Obama swears he won’t strike a deal with Tehran. This week, though, he seems hell-bent on doing precisely that, despite lingering questions about Iranian cheating. It is enough to drive a good man to distraction. Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton even argued in an editorial last week that we should bomb Iran ourselves before the Israelis beat us to the punch.

Those lingering questions about verification led me back to the archives and my 1981 study on verifying SALT II, the once-controversial U.S.-Soviet agreement on controlling strategic weapons. A generation later, it is not clear if we are better or worse off, whether those difficult Cold War experiences provided lasting lessons or only fading memories of a discarded history.

The article resulted from a term paper written for a notoriously demanding Harvard graduate school professor. The academic world was intrigued by those “national technical means of verification” President Carter had revealed in a 1978 speech. If our spy satellites were so good, then wasn’t SALT II or any future arms control agreement a slam dunk? If we could see every square inch of the USSR, monitor Soviet missile telemetry and intercept Politburo communications, then wouldn’t the all-seeing eyes of the U.S. intelligence community be able to detect Soviet cheating? As a junior intelligence officer, I wasn’t so sure, having already encountered bureaucratic agendas.

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Back then, we were at least as suspicious of the Soviets as we are of the Iranians today. President Carter even withdrew from SALT II after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and prolonged Russian bullying of an increasingly restive Poland. So it is startling to re-read the same reservations about SALT II that trouble today’s nuclear proliferation experts. How should such an agreement be monitored? Which government or international agencies would perform a competent “risk analysis” so that “cheating, concealment and deception” could be detected prior to a possible “breakout?” Today we see the same concerns, sometimes even the same language.

SALT II limits were sufficiently well understood that its provisions were carefully divided up throughout the U.S. intelligence community. Soviet missile submarines, for example, were monitored through reconnaissance satellites, aircraft and ships as well as electronic and signals intelligence designed to track these weapons from factory development through shipyard deployment. While the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies might feud like the Hatfields and McCoys, those rivalries helped to guarantee an overriding national objective: the precise integration of all-source intelligence.

Because our intelligence collection systems were deliberately designed to overlap, ambiguities and “emerging areas of uncertainty” were thrashed out in senior-level “verification panels” where agency heads and even the president’s national security adviser might make the final judgments. With high-level accountability certain, intelligence responsibilities became more clear-cut, and the best people were assigned to the most difficult verification challenges. Better yet: Inter-agency red teams were asked: “Now if the Russians really wanted to cheat, what would they do and how would they do it?”

This system of shared, top-down responsibility was matched by a shared consciousness throughout the executive branch that congressional scrutiny of verification issues helped ensure “that all the bases are covered.” The great irony was that SALT II was never ratified, but those verification efforts insured stability between the superpowers even as the Soviet Union was collapsing. “Trust but verify” insisted President Reagan, as he demanded strict Soviet accountability and eventually the arms reductions of the START treaty. Finally, this robust intelligence-diplomatic-legislative infrastructure witnessed the demise of the Evil Empire itself.

These cautionary tales are especially important when the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warns that additional protocols are needed for short-notice inspections of undeclared Iranian sites or nuclear activities. They are more critical still when David Albright, dean of American non-proliferation efforts, testifies before Congress that, “Tehran’s long history of violations, subterfuge and non-cooperation require extraordinary arrangements to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed peaceful.”

Given those dangers, what confidence should the American people repose in an administration that relies on media spin rather than its own intelligence reports? Or that stonewalls Congress as if the Constitution explicitly recognized the divine right of presidents? David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy magazine argues that “a nuclear Iran could fundamentally alter the calculus of the nuclear age” making the risk of nuclear war “substantially higher than at any time in the past 70 years.”

His point may be more than purely academic. Israel is believed to possess at least 80 nuclear weapons. So what happens if the Israelis lose all faith in Mr. Obama and decide that “Never Again” means bombing Iran? Why on earth should we assume that their strikes will only use conventional weapons — and not nukes?

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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