Why The United States Was Caught Off Guard On Iran

American President Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran toast following a formal dinner in the Niavaran Palace in Tehran, Iran

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Many intelligence agencies were caught off guard by the Arab Spring in 2011. Similarly, many agencies failed to anticipate the Islamic State taking over Mosul in 2014. Yet, the reasons behind these instances of strategic surprise weren’t new at all. They were already apparent over 25 years before prior to the Iranian Revolution, and still pervade contemporary intelligence work.

In the months leading up to Iran’s 1979 Revolution, foreign intelligence communities failed to grasp the possibility that a Shi’ite cleric would topple an experienced monarchy with petrodollars to spend, a brutal coercive apparatus at home, and powerful allies abroad. As late as August 1978, the Central Intelligence Agency assessed that ‘Iran [was] not in a revolutionary or even “prerevolutionary” situation’.[i] A Defense Intelligence Agency report the following month even suggested the Shah was likely ‘to remain actively in power over the next ten years’.[ii] Until early November 1978, when the US ambassador to Tehran realized and reported on the popular anger against the Shah and support for Ayatollah Khomeini, these views still remained widespread.[iii]

There are many explanations for this intelligence failure. Despite Iran’s strategic importance to the United States – it was one of the United States’ two pillars of stability in the Persian Gulf alongside Saudi Arabia during the Nixon administration – Washington knew little about the country. Round two of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II), the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, and the thawing of relations with communist China dominated intelligence priorities. Within Iran, the United States was not concerned with its domestic politics; it focused instead on maintaining its Tacksman sites in northern Iran, which monitored and intercepted telemetry signals from the Soviet Union’s development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles across the border.

Problems of organizational structure in American intelligence also contributed to this strategic surprise. The CIA’s National Foreign Assessment Center only had four full-time Iran hands with little interaction between desks, let alone with other agencies.[iv] Iran specialists didn’t even exist in other agencies such as the DIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Though the Tehran Embassy had Iran experts, it was understaffed.[v] Even the incoming U.S. ambassador, William Sullivan, admitted knowing little about Iran and the Middle East.[vi] U.S. intelligence assets in Iran had little contact with regular Iranians, let alone opposition members, thus limiting their interactions to the Shah’s court.[vii] Furthermore, embassy reports coming out of the country, already classified as a second-tier priority, focused on current rather than longterm strategic intelligence.[viii]

A failure of imagination was pervasive within the intelligence community; analysts did not consider scenarios which lacked precedent, nor did they seek out ‘dogs that don’t bark’. This problem was compounded by the tendency towards single-outcome forecasts, which excluded ‘black swan’ events.[ix] Meanwhile, the Shah gave the impression that things were under control.[x] The opposition itself also appeared too fragmented to arouse concerns.[xi] Few expected revolutionaries to assume the form of religious reactionaries.[xii] Given the drawn-out pace of events, analysts tended to discount incremental developments.[xiii] [xiv]

The intelligence failure was compounded at the policymaking level. Disagreements flared over the significance of developments inside Iran. U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski viewed Iran’s political tumult through a Cold War lens, and supported the Shah’s using brute force to crack down on the burgeoning unrest; This stance placed him at odds with other key figures such as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner and Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan.[xv] Washington’s nearly unimpeachable confidence in the Shah’s ability and longevity also colored policymakers’ views.[xvi] The Carter Administration wanted to preserve a valuable Middle Eastern ally, and the structure of the United States intelligence community made it hard for alternative views to rise to the policymaking level.

Decades after the fall of the Shah and the 1979 Revolution, the United States faced another high-profile intelligence failure in the run-up to the Iraq War. In the Bush Administration-sponsored 2005 Iraq Intelligence Commission, the authors traced Iraq’s WMD fiasco to defects in information sharing protocols and mechanisms among agencies, ‘excessive adherence to conventional thinking’, and the ‘timidity…in challenging the orthodoxies of…superiors’.[xvii] The report showed how little had changed since Iran. Resistance to change and reform in intelligence organizations is everywhere, and the United States is hardly immune to the problem.

About the Author

Kevjn Lim researches foreign and security policy in the wider Middle East. He is also consultant analyst for IHS Markit, senior analyst with Open Briefing: The Civil Society Intelligence Agency, and a doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University’s department of political science.

[i] RP 10289, cited in US House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Evaluation, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Staff Report, Iran: evaluation of U.S. intelligence performance prior to November 1978 (Washington, DC: GPO January 1979) p. 5.

[ii] Cited in Ibid., p. 6.

[iii] See William H. Sullivan, Mission to Iran (NY: W.W. Norton, 1981), pp. 201-3; For a critical discussion of ‘Thinking the unthinkable’, see Gary Sick, All fall down: America’s tragic encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985), chapter 5; for a contrarian view suggesting that change was around the corner, see ‘Iran: a political assessment’, RPM 78-10422, 8 Aug 78 (CIA), cited in Willis C. Armstrong et al., ‘The hazards of single-outcome forecasting’, CIA Senior Review Panel (declassified report), 16 December 1983, p. 41 <http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/5829/CIA-RDP86B00269R001100100010-7.pdf>

[iv] See also William J. Daugherty, ‘Behind the intelligence failure in Iran’, International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence 14.4 (2001), p. 472.

[v] See Robert Jervis, ‘Failing to see that the Shah was in danger: introduction, postmortem, and CIA comments’, in Why intelligence fails: lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), pp. 21-2.

[vi] Uri Bar-Joseph, ‘Forecasting a hurricane: Israeli and American estimations of the Khomeini Revolution’, Journal of Strategic Studies 36.5 (2013), p. 726.

[vii] Armstrong et al., ‘The hazards of single-outcome forecasting’, p. 40.

[viii] Jervis, ‘Failing to see’, p. 44.

[ix] Armstrong et al., ‘The hazards of single-outcome forecasting’, p. 5.

[x] Jervis, ‘Failing to see’, pp. 25, 69-75.

[xi] Ibid., pp. 75-85.

[xii] Ibid., p. 38; Iran’s specific brand of Twelver Shi’ism, called Usuli, institutionalized the authority of leading clerics known as Mojtaheds, whose followers were free to choose but who were then bound to abide by their juridical rulings. This laid the foundation for mass followings of prominent clerics such as Khomeini, who had in addition long served as mouthpieces whenever popular protests rose against the state. The Shah’s clampdown on all segments of the opposition but the clergy only enhanced their ability to mobilize protests.

[xiii] Jervis, ‘Failing to see’, p. 40.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 39; NIE 34-1-75, May 1975 (CIA) <http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v27/d121>

[xv] Michael Donovan, ‘National intelligence and the Iranian revolution’, Intelligence and National Security 12.1 (1997), p. 160.

[xvi] See Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Iran: evaluation of U.S. intelligence performance prior to November 1978.

[xvii] Janne E. Nolan, Douglas MacEachin & Kristine Tockman, ‘Discourse, dissent, and strategic surprise: formulating U.S. security policy in an age of uncertainty’, Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 2006, p. 10 <https://isd.georgetown.edu/sites/isd/files/Discourse_Dissent.pdf>; see also pp. 102 and 109.


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