Iran at a crossroads

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This is a podcast episode titled, Iran at a crossroads. The summary for this episode is: <p>In this episode we take a more practical look at open source intelligence and its role in understanding the current situation in Iran as it sits at the crossroads of a range of geopolitical choices, the result of which will play a large role in determining the course of the country’s internal dynamics, as well as its external relations with other states.</p><p><br></p><p>Janes Country Intelligence customers can also access our supporting special report on Iran at</p>

Speaker 1: Welcome to the World of Intelligence, a podcast for you to discover the latest analysis of global military and security trends within the open source defense intelligence community. Now onto the episode, with your host, Harry Kemsley.

Harry Kemsley: Hello and welcome to this episode of World of Intelligence from Janes. I'm Harry Kemsley, and as usual my co- host Sean Corbett. Hello, Sean.

Sean Corbett: Hi Harry.

Harry Kemsley: Good to see you, Sean. So as those of you who have heard our previous podcast will know, we often start with a definition of open source intelligence. We're not going to do that this time. We're going to let you go back to previous recordings and hear our definition of open source intelligence. And going forward, we're going to start focusing on not just what open source intelligence is, why it's useful, and considerations. We're now going to start looking at some of the practical applications of open source intelligence, by looking at some contemporary case studies. And Sean, I thought we might start with actually what is quite a challenging task for open source, which is to look at the Islamic Republic of Iran as a challenge in the security realm, and how open source can help us with that. So I think we might start with Iran, Sean.

Sean Corbett: Yeah, it's a really good subject, Harry, and I'm really pleased that you're covering it. With all the bad things that are happening in the world right now with Ukraine, what's happening in China, other pieces as well, it would be easy to basically let Iran go down the pecking order, in terms of some of the things that we're looking at there. So I think it's really important. And you could consider really that Iran's at an inflection point. I know we say this quite often, but I think in this case we're not far off. Because you've got the stalling of the JCPOA, and I know we're going to talk about that a little bit. Whither the JCPOA, is it now relevant, bearing in mind how far they've gone on? You've got the internal dissent, which as we know periodically turns up, but this has been going for some time now, with perhaps a biggest scale than before. So what does that mean? Then you've got the increasingly belligerent IRGC and others, that are acting more as global actors, if you like, and trying to influence the world. That's not just arms to Russia, it is external influences and potential terrorist activities elsewhere, as well. And then you've got the perennial, whither the supreme leader? You tend to find with autocratic regimes that there's always rumors about their health, always is. But regardless of whether he's fit and healthy or not, he's an old man. So what does that mean? So if you bring all those together, we really need to pay attention to Iran.

Harry Kemsley: Right. So it almost sounds like the country's at a strategic crossroad, so let's examine that now. To help us examine that, unusually, I've brought three colleagues from Janes to join me, who are all individually experts in Iran, and I'll explain who they are in just a second, and introduce them. But as we do so, let's make sure we're focused on the outcome, which is how does open source intelligence help with the analysis of something like the security challenge that the Islamic Republic of Iran might pose? So in no particular order, first of all, Lewis Smart. Lewis heads up the Janes Middle East and North Africa country intelligence team at Janes. A politics and international relations expert, he previously ran Janes chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear team. Hello Lewis.

Lewis Smart: Hi there Harry. Thanks for having me.

Harry Kemsley: Always a pleasure. Next we have Jake Abel, who has spent the last 11 years at Janes leveraging his previous experience within the US intel community, where he was an Iran expert within the Defense Intelligence Agency. He's also spent time with the US Congress conducting oversight for the House permanent select committee, and worked as a foreign policy staff member within the office of the speaker. Hello, Jake.

Jake Abel: Harry, good morning. Thanks for having me.

Harry Kemsley: Pleasure. And thirdly, but by no means least, we have Srishti Punja, who is a senior analyst within the Janes country intelligence Middle East and North Africa team, with a particular expertise, and over three years experience, on Iranian nuclear proliferation. Now, having a software engineering background, she's ideally qualified to apply advanced analytical techniques to the open source intelligence specialization. So Srishti, welcome. Hello.

Srishti Punja: Hello Harry. Thanks for having me.

Harry Kemsley: Thank you for coming. So for the three of you, and with Sean's help, I believe that where you have a relatively closed society, such as the nature of the Iranian society, with heavy censorship, robust counterintelligence, it actually makes penetrating that kind of environment even more challenging for open source. As an intelligence we are trying to draw from Iran, it's very hard to do that when it's closed. So given that context, Lewis, perhaps I could start with you. To what extent do you think open source, and the intelligence you can derive from it, is actually suited for enabling a better understanding of Iran as a security challenge? Lewis?

Lewis Smart: Yeah, thanks Harry. So I'm going to be a bit controversial here, and start by saying that I think actually... and I'll go on to say how OSINT can be a help, but also I think the issue is that actually OSINT can be a hindrance. And that's because although Iran is a closed society, there's actually quite a lot that breaks out of the country, in terms of video imagery, social media posts. The Iranian regime certainly make sure to keep as much as it can within the country, but there's actually a significant leakage. And I think actually the issue with this leakage of OSINT is actually can make analyzing Iran more difficult. And it can lead to certain perceptions of what's happening in Iran to take root in the media, especially the western media. And also that can have a kind of deleterious impact on policymaking and responding. So actually, to go back to Sean's introduction, that's why we've done this report. That's kind of the raison d'être of why we've done this report, is to set out actually how OSINT can be used in the free areas we've written about, in terms of the protest in September, the breakout estimate and the nuclear issue and succession, how OSINT can be used, and how we go about authenticating that leakage of OSINT from a country like Iran, into actionable insights and intelligence assessments, for our customers.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, thank you. I should have mentioned at the beginning for the listener that the Janes team on the podcast today are responsible for the creation of a significant paper, Iran at The Crossroads. So we'll put a link to the podcast for those that wish to see it if we can. Jake, you had your hand up.

Jake Abel: Yep, thanks Harry. And I agree with Lewis, that we do see a lot of leakage of information coming out of Iran. And I think that's really important as you build your assessments using open source. And what I tend to do is look and see if a similar event that I'm researching or looking at has happened in the past, and see if that information has become public. Because I like to think of Iran as a creature of habit. So they tend to mirror their activities, and that's where I find open source to be very valuable, is to look at, see what's happened in the past, and how they responded.

Harry Kemsley: Just before I go to Sean, Lewis, an interesting start there to say that open source can be a hindrance. Are you alluding to the fact that it can be filled with mis- and disinformation, or just that there is a huge amount of information you've got to wade through?

Lewis Smart: So it's actually all three. So I think information overload can be a detriment, but obviously as long as the information is good, you can decipher that information for analytical use. But you're absolutely right, the misinformation and disinformation is a emerging problem. As OSINT becomes a more established source of intelligence for companies, and for intelligence agencies, those two are obvious concerns. And there is the partisan nature of someone using OSINT to their own end. So I think we'll talk about this in more detail when we cover the protests, but that's one of the things we've addressed in this report, is exactly the use by partisan media across the west, but also those who cover Iran that may be based in the west from the diaspora, that can have an impact on the narrative of the protests. And it can actually really affect some intelligence assessments, as I said, for policy makers, if there is this bias emerging of something happening that isn't quite the case, or what we assess to be the case, that can have dire policy choices and implications. So yeah, misinformation and disinformation is something we've seen. I mean, it's something OSINT analysts should really be on guard for, not just for Iran but across the board.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, absolutely. And Sean, we talked about that in the past. But before we go back to that, because I think there's a discussion to have there around the unrest and how the west media has been trying to convey that in a particular way. Before we go to that, Sean, you had an observation?

Sean Corbett: Yeah, I was just really... Lewis nailed it, and I was just going to reinforce his first point, that we always analyze the intelligence that is available. And of course in this case how much of it is almost self filtering? Because by definition the people that are getting intelligence out are trying to message. So we've got to be careful not to get a skewed view. And this is where the expertise that's in the room right now, and the experience in the background is so important. Because you've got to say, okay, what is different here? As opposed to just to use the vulgar American phrase, drinking the Kool- Aid, and being influenced by people who are trying to influence. So it's a really challenging target.

Harry Kemsley: So Srishti, if you don't mind, you are one of the lead analysts on this broader aspect of intelligence on and about Iran. What was your view about how useful open source is for you in your work?

Srishti Punja: Well, in dealing with Iran, it's very difficult to find credible information, on the ground truth, because we have limitations, because we don't have reporters on ground who can report the reality. For example, the protests, if you take the protests, we had several videos on social media that showed the nature of the protests that were going on. But we couldn't take them at face value every time. So what we relied on is triangulation. If I found three different videos from the same location showing the same nature of protest, then I didn't mind that, okay, this is the way it's going. That's how it was.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, that triangulation's certainly something Sean, we've talked about in the past, which is always under that umbrella we bring out when we talk about open source information and the intelligence we derive from it, tradecraft. Good tradecraft determines you need good sources, and good process to understand what the sources are really telling you. To your point, Srishti for example, triangulation. Jake, just to bring you for one final bite on this particular topic, the intelligent community that you know well, clearly Iran will be a high priority. It's one of a small number of very high priority areas of the world that certainly Western intelligent communities will be interested in. What do you think the appetite is from the intelligent community for open source to support their work?

Jake Abel: Well, I'll just take you back over the last decade. When I was a member of the intelligence community, we stressed open source intelligence, but I don't know that it had the same value. So just to give you an example, I remember writing a report, and I included a piece of open source intelligence in that report. And one of my senior intelligence analysts looked at the report and asked where I came up with this assessment. And I looked back and said, " Well, it's from open source." And they gave me a weird look and said, " Well, anybody can read open source, we work in classified." So that took me by surprise, but I think that view has changed over the last decade, to where now open source is one of those priority forms of intelligence, and it's valued. And most times I think information gets out in the public before it does in the classified. So it's really valuable, and it can help an analyst break a case.

Harry Kemsley: Sean, you and I have spoken of this on numerous times in the last couple of years, about how open source has come through a change, a shift in its perceived value, and indeed in some cases it's leading intelligence analysis. And we've spoken to enough guests to hear that, have we not?

Sean Corbett: Yeah, and I think what you're talking about, Jake, and we were in the same organization, is a cultural shift. And I think largely that's happened. There aren't many Luddites left now that just completely disassociate themselves with open source, because there is so much information that is valuable. I think there's still sometimes a perception from some of the analysts that they should ignore it, because their seniors won't appreciate it. But I think we're getting through that. We're not there yet, but I think largely that is happening. I have seen, and I don't really mind this, I don't think, I have seen open source intelligence be reclassified as secret NOFORN, because they think people will read it more. Now, that is again, a cultural issue, and a security issue in itself, but as long as they're using it, then maybe you can let that go for a bit.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, that's a great example of being very pragmatic about trying to get something through to the boss, by putting the right title at the top. All right, let's move on. Time will always be against us. Let's move on to something practical. So the joint comprehensive plan of action, the JCPOA, Sean, you described it as stalled and probably unlikely to be resurrected, was the inference I got from the way you described it. So Iran is declaring that their nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. We're not here to discuss the likelihood or otherwise of that being true. But let's make an assumption that they're actually trying to build a nuclear weapons capability. That's actually a very, very tricky thing for us to assess from open sources, is it not? But how close are they to achieving a nuclear weapons capability from our assessment, from an open source perspective? And then we'll move on to how we actually come up with that assessment. So Lewis, perhaps you can get us started on that.

Lewis Smart: Yeah, sure. And I think this is a great example from the actual first question of, well, how can OSINT help? And in terms of Iran's nuclear weapons acquisition, if it chooses to do so. One of the problems is that this is an incredibly complex, momentous decision for Iran to implement. So first of all, it's a long process. It's not... And the media will come out at certain times and say, " Iran is close to a nuclear weapon," but what does that actually mean? Because from the actual acquiring of the nuclear fissile material, that's one thing. Then there's the actual weaponization of that material into a warhead, which is another thing. And then there's a delivery of that vehicle. So those are the three things that should be assessed together, but also independently technically. But then there's also the other questions such as, well if Iran does do this, the political choice is does it leave the NPT, does it declare itself a nuclear power? What's its nuclear doctrine? What's the softer stuff like command and control? Is it with the Ayatollah? Is it with the president? So just to emphasize on this, there's a whole gamut of this argument that I think gets lost in the media. Now, for us to tackle this as open source intelligence analysts, we think, and have developed a breakout estimate using open sources. So the part of the puzzle about the acquiring of weapons grade fissile material, that's where we've applied our OSINT analysts and expertise. And the reason we've done this is because over the last two to three years, since President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, and Iran started transgressing the JCPOA, there's been a lot of different assessments, a lot of, as we talked about some rather partisan, some rather scary because it always grabs the headline, that Iran is about to have a nuclear weapons capability. Well no, actually we've said the breakout estimate is the time it would take for Iran to acquire one nuclear weapon's worth of nuclear material. So that's where OSINT, so we can make sure that we define it, and then we need to go and build our methodology using open sources. And that's probably a great actual time to bring in Srishti Punja, who is the mathematical genius on our team. I'm more of the concept guy, she makes sure that the concepts actually work out. So Srishti can explain that. Yeah, but that's what I would say on that.

Harry Kemsley: So Srishti, I'm intrigued. So without scaring me with mathematical equations which I won't understand, please, can you help me understand how it is that we can build an estimate of this nuclear breakout, as defined by Lewis, that will give us a true estimate of just how close a country like Iran would be to the nuclear weapons capability that everyone is claiming they're very close to?

Srishti Punja: So when we started working on Iran's breakout capability in 2020, I think the biggest challenge we faced was the lack of reliable, detailed and unbiased single source of information regarding the Iran's nuclear capability. So what we decided to do through breakout is give the customer a good idea about what Iran's intentions are through the breakout capability. So we relied on technical information available in the open sources regarding the Iran's latent technological capabilities, and its current capability in terms of enrichment, to calculate this breakout estimate. So most of the information that we needed, like the stockpile and the enrichment level of the stockpile, when I say stockpile, I mean the interest uranium stockpile. So all these information was available through IAEA's, which is the International Atomic Energy Agency, their quarterly report. So the information on these aspects were available on the open source through these reports, and these are updated quarterly. So that part was covered, but what we didn't have is the technical information on, say, the functioning of centrifuges, efficiency of centrifuges. And these are the things that we, again, had to do a lot of OSINT research, triangulation, and all such processes to datamine and use that for our breakout calculations.

Harry Kemsley: So how long does a process like that take, Srishti, to actually get to a point point where you feel as though you are gathering sufficient content in your analysis that you can start to triangulate well enough, that you can say, " Our estimate of the breakout of Iran nuclear capability is X?" How long is that process?

Srishti Punja: Depends on how lucky you are, I suppose. I mean, it took us about, say, two to three months, I would say. And we had a fixed number of factors, things that we had to factor in to calculate the breakout. That didn't change. What we needed was credible information, and that required a lot of digging through the open sources, sometimes even consulting external experts who have worked with the IAEA previously. So that gave us a lot of insight on certain things that me, I'm not a nuclear engineer, so for me to understand how much quantity, or how much quantity of uranium, enriched uranium is required in reality to build a nuclear bomb, is something that a nuclear engineer can give more insight about.

Harry Kemsley: Right. So it's not just about getting that report from the atomic agencies, it's also about speaking to experts who really understand the so what of that content, and bringing that together. Lewis, sorry, you had a comment to make?

Lewis Smart: Yeah, no, Srishti's exactly right. And I will just add that through OSINT we also need to be very clear in our methodologies what we're not including. So in our methodology we assume that this is not taking into account these factors which we are unable to verify. Iran might very well have six other facilities dedicated to spinning centrifuges that we don't know about through the open sources. So in our breakout estimate, we make very clear, and if you subscribe to Janes, you can see it in our Iran CBRM profile. But if you don't subscribe, maybe you should. We actually list out to customers exactly what Srishti is doing and what our assumptions are, what OSINT we've used, and what we don't have. Because that methodology is important to convey to our customers, because I think there's a risk sometimes that OSINT may overstep itself, and that's where OSINT may get a bad rep, because it overstress itself. We should be very clear of what we can and can't cover.

Harry Kemsley: Sean, I'm interested to come to you and to Jake for an intelligence community perspective of the utility of this kind of estimate from open source intelligence. Srishti, you had a point though, before I go to Sean and to Jake.

Srishti Punja: Yeah, I just wanted to add to what Lewis said, just about transparency. So even when we did find other breakout estimates online, there was no transparency about the process that was used, the methodology that was used. So what we did by building a methodology was give the customer the transparency to understand, okay, this is how it's being calculated, and this is the information that's being used. So minimize the misinformation about it.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, that's a great point. And I think is it not fair to say to Sean and to Jake, both ex- intelligence analysts themselves, that actually just knowing how something was estimated and the process and the sources that were used, is actually very useful for you to assess against your own perhaps more exquisite secret versions of the same? So Sean, let me just start with you in terms of an intelligence community's perspective of an estimate generated from open sources, such as the one we've heard here from Janes, with a breakout estimate.

Sean Corbett: Yeah, well I think that there's a couple of other points I wouldn't mind making as well actually, on the back of what Lewis said. But yeah, I think validation is one of them on open source. And a lot of the information, let's face it, that's being used is from the IAEA as well. So one would think, or like to think we're going to come up with similar conclusions. And that's always good to reinforce without having groupthink, or anything like that. So I think that is important, particularly when the focus is on one specific area. Because you do tend to go to the sources that you know, and trust. So the IC will go to its own sources, the exquisite stuff as well. And there's a degree of granularity that will be different, and where there are gaps, that is where I see the IC going, " Right, okay, now let's put our exquisite resources, as you call them, into trying to find what those intelligence gaps are," and building up a bigger picture. But this is a classic case where I think open source very much can help to validate what is going on within the intelligence community. I've got a couple things to say, but I'll let Jake finish on this one first.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, let me come back to you in just a sec. So Jake, your perspective on this utility of the open source breakout estimate?

Jake Abel: Yeah, I agree with everything Sean said on reinforcing your pre- assessments as an analyst, I think that's really important. But I'll take this a different angle. An assessment by Janes is important because it's unclassified. So now you have a shareable document that you can go in and have a discussion with your allies, and try to get their thoughts and positions. And that's equally and sometimes more important to see what your friends are thinking, and where their assessments are at this point.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, I think that's a great point, and Sean, you and I have certainly heard that word used frequently in the discussions about utility of open source. Which has come really to the fore I think with Ukraine where you've got governments of the world who are not used to dealing with other governments closer to Ukraine geographically, and how do I share my intelligence with them without revealing capabilities? So yeah, I think it's a great, great point. Sean, you had another couple of points you wanted to make?

Sean Corbett: Yeah, just again on... and I think there's two really important points here. I think it's all very easy with an intelligence problem set, to say, " Right, we're at the end of a certain thing, so we've reached breakout. Right, now finish and move to something else." But this is a journey, this will not be ongoing for... and even if they do, and when they do, I would argue, reach that capacity to create one, or enough material for one nuclear weapon, it's very important to say it in that way, that's not going to stop the process. It will keep going. So you've got to keep monitoring it. But then I go back to the really other good point where threat equals capability, plus intent, plus opportunity. So if the capabilities are there, what is the intent? And it's what Srishti was saying actually, is that we've really got to understand what they want to do with it. So that needs us to look at what their doctrine is going to be, but also at the tactical level how, and when, why are they going to weaponize it? You might have the right level of materials to actually produce a weapon, but actually weaponizing it, as others have found, is quite complicated. So we need to be looking, where would that happen, how would that happen, and what would be our indicators and warnings? So it's part of a full journey. And I might argue that when you're starting to look at doctrine, and how a country will use a particular capability, that's when, again, open source has got a chance. Because these things get discussed at the political level, and may get exposed. I'm not saying that will be the case in this event. So this is all part of a journey.

Srishti Punja: Yeah. Just to add to what Sean said here, breakout is just an estimate of the time needed for one weapon's worth of nuclear enriched uranium. So it's not necessarily defining what happens after that, which is the process of weaponization, and all the political decisions that come into play. Also, to add to what Jake said about unclassified information, so just I think a couple of days back, the Under Secretary of Defense stated to the House of Representatives that it would take Iran 12 days to break out. Now the Janes estimate is about, say, eight to nine days. Now, we go back to the methodology again, and because most of the other open sources use the IAEA's term, which is called sufficient quantity or something along those lines, which is 25 kgs, is the amount that is needed to build a nuclear weapon. But what Janes is using is less than that, because we have consulted with external experts who don't believe that this quantity that's stated by the IAEA is updated. They think that it's outdated, and the technology today would mean that we would require a lesser quantity to build a nuclear weapon. So that's another thing that goes back to what Jake added.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, so again, understanding how the estimate has been created, and how it comes up with the outcome is almost as important as the estimate itself, for the reasons we've said. All right, look, I sense we could probably spend the next hour talking about this, but I'm going to move us on. Let's move to the internal unrest that we've seen reported out of the country in recent times. I think it's fair to say there've been some fairly optimistic commentary about what might be going on, and what that might be leading to, in terms of potential regime change, et cetera. Now it's fair to say that the unrest's been fairly enduring, perhaps more so than we've been used to, but how realistic is this scenario of regime change, given what we've seen from in internal unrest? Is this misinformation or misunderstandings of what's going on in the country? Let me start with you Lewis, on that question.

Lewis Smart: Yeah, thanks Harry. This has been a fascinating test case for open source intelligence, and also for the inaudible team in our new country intelligence unit. So this is in no way bragging in any sense, but our assessments early on a month or two after the process, were that this was unlikely to pose a significant challenge to the regime. And I think actually this poses a really great question of, well, okay, our assessment seems to have borne out, but that's in hindsight. But actually, one of the reasons that we actually thought about it is, well, why is this our assessment? Because there's protests everywhere. There's protests across the world, not just in Iran. But the problem is this was quite a significant outbreak of protests in the country, against an autocratic regime that does shoot its own people. So for us, we had to go a bit deeper, and I think this is where OSINT as an input, needs to develop its tradecraft to make sure that the analyst is, it's got its OSINT input, but to get to its output of intelligent assessments, it needs to be a bit more open about the black box in between. And this is the great old question of structured analysis techniques, and what's in that black box. Is it intuition, is it art, or is it science? And I think for us, we adopted a model to help us clarify our assessments from Hossein Bashiriyeh, who's got eight factors when looking at revolutionary moments. And in fact, this helped us to actually solidify our outlook and assessment much more coherently to us, but also to the customer. Because, and this is what our report details, this is look, actually, the protests, while they are highly emotional, there's a lot of protests, and it is significant, it's significant mainly in its anger. It's significant in the sense of people are clearly fed up with this autocratic regime. But, and that's the big but for our intelligence assessment, is this is not a threat because one, well, there's no leadership of the protests. Two, there's still, from what we could see, elite cohesion among the Iranian regime. There's still significant capacity of the security forces. And also then the demographics. So actually in terms of mass discontent, the protests Srishti and I were tracking, we saw a lot of young people, a lot of students, women did participate in quite large numbers, but that's not enough for a revolution. That's not enough to overthrow a regime. So what are the middle classes doing? What are the working classes doing? Where's the buy- in from the other segments of the population for this? So I mean, I'm starting to go on a little bit, and there's a lot to digest there. But overall, I think this was a test case, not just of OSINT as an input, but also for us as analysts to check our black box, and to make sure we know why we're saying what we're saying, but also our customer does, and how that may change with new events and inputs into that model.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, that's great. And John, I'll come you in just a second. I think what I took from that was when you mentioned the use of a framework, a model, to actually start to segment what you're seeing, understand how those things interrelate, and then coming up with predictable, and somewhat normalized outcomes from your analysis. As opposed to it being, as you say, a black box, which is very, very hard to analyze what's going on inside, and is spitting out results. Sean?

Sean Corbett: I was just going to reinforce what Lewis said, in terms of, you can learn parallels here. So the Arab Spring, for example, the reason that a lot of the regime changes failed was because they were protesting against something, but there was no organization, or no sort of new model, or new leader, or new philosophy, around which to cohere. And that was a real issue, and I suspect that's what we're seeing here as well.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah. Jake?

Jake Abel: Yep. Thanks, Harry. If you look at the protests, I think it got Iran analysts excited and talking about regime change, because they're the largest form of demonstration since the 2009 Green movement. But I do agree with Lewis's assessment that at this point, the regime does not look threatened. But here again is the importance of open source. If you look past the current protests and see what's going on, they're not happening in a vacuum, and see what actions the government has taken, you can start to draw some conclusions, as we look at an issue like succession. If the supreme leader was willing to be more flexible and open up the regime, and negotiate with the opposition, he would've done so already. Instead, what we've seen is the exact opposite. He's actually dug in, and pushed the government more to the right, to the hardliners. So he's expanded the authority of the IRGC and the besiege forces. They've led the crackdown on the opposition movement, arrested, imprisoned demonstrators. He's hired, appointed a new country police chief, who has ties back to the 2009 Green movement. And this is after clearing out the assembly of experts, which appoints the next supreme leader, to make sure that it's stacked with his loyalists and supporters. So if you take all of these activities, it leads us to a direction where five years ago the assessment may have been, there's a potential that we might get a reformist as the next supreme leader. And today, looking at the activities and the steps taken, all of the data points lead toward the next supreme leader being another centralist, and supporter of the supreme leader. Which may draw opposition when that time comes, but, as Lewis said, without an organization and leadership, it'll fizzle, and have the same results.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah. Just a matter of interest for me, just how powerful is this position of the supreme leader? From a Western perspective, we're not tuned to that sort of leadership, the religious based leadership, in the way that we can see is the case there. But just how powerful is it in the regime of Iran to have the supreme leader, the Ayatollah, doing what he's doing? Jake?

Jake Abel: Well, he's taken that position, which he's held now since 1989, and he has removed all forms of opposition. He is the single most powerful person, official, in the government. So while he's living, I assess that no one would be willing to challenge him.

Harry Kemsley: And you make that assessment based on a range of different data points that you alluded to earlier. Particularly the way he has flushed out people that might be considered passive or even against him, as well as many other data points, I take it?

Jake Abel: Yeah, just look at the last presidential election. They disqualified every candidate who would be considered a reformist, or not a loyalist. So he almost handpicked his president, and he's done that with every other important body within the government. So the judiciary, the assembly of experts, the legislative body, they'd all be considered hardliner or pro hardliner.

Harry Kemsley: Right. Lewis?

Lewis Smart: Yeah, no, 100% of what Jake said. And I think it was a couple of articles, or it definitely emerged during the first three months of the protests, was that the IRGC might break away and somehow support the protests, and set up some sort of military government and topple the Ayatollah. And that's again what we talked about before, where the OSINT has got to clearly delineate the noise from what is authentic and useful. And this is where people start to mirror image, or start to project their own hopes on open sources, and use open sources to their own effects. Is there a chance that the Ayatollah could be overthrown? Yeah, there's always a chance, but it's very, very unlikely. Or almost certainly not the case until we check other factors. And I think that's where the model does come in again, useful, where we assess each of these people, whether it's the Ayatollah, the IRGC, what are their interests, what are the kind of indicators and the drivers that would indicate that the IRGC might be turning against the Ayatollah? It's not impossible, but it's very unlikely and we need to, as OSINT analysts, set up, so we've got our inputs, as we said, we've got that methodological kind of box that we're using, to actually analyze the input of OSINT. But also not getting stuck by these methodologies. They can't just be exclusive. You have got to accept that there's other things that factors out there as well.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah. Thank you so much, all three of you, Sean as well, for your contribution to that. It's a fascinating topic, taking us right back to where we started then. So we've got this difficult challenge of looking at what's a relatively actually quite closed environment for us to penetrate with open sources to draw utility. That was the question at the beginning. And what we've done, we've looked at that through the prism of several things, not just the problems on the streets of Iran that we've seen in recent times, not just even the succession planning, and the way that is being swayed perhaps towards a more hard line, but also the nuclear breakout problem, which is a really nutty issue. And I think in all three cases we've seen real utility from an open source perspective, for a variety of different purposes. So just to wrap up, as always, I'm going to ask each of you, if you wanted the audience to take one thing away from this session, what would it be? Jake, what would your one takeaway be?

Jake Abel: Yeah, my one takeaway is as you look at the potential for the Supreme Leader's succession, if the Supreme Leader determines that the government is not stable, you may see him, which would be, there's no blueprint for the succession process, because it's only happened once in the Islamic Republic's history, you may see the Supreme Leader call for his successor prior to his death. In that case, we may see a hereditary succession.

Harry Kemsley: Interesting. Thank you, Jake. Lewis?

Lewis Smart: I suppose it's too brazen to say that people should subscribe to Janes and read our report as a takeaway.

Harry Kemsley: inaudible.

Lewis Smart: But on a more serious note, I think it's on the emphasis of, and this mirrors my own journey of OSINT is an increasingly valuable sector. But it's an input, it's an intelligence input, and we should, as an OSINT industry, focus on the process that goes through, and how it gets to our outputs, and make sure we're firmed up methodologically, and from a structured analysis perspective there.

Harry Kemsley: Yeah, thank you. Srishti, your thoughts?

Srishti Punja: Yeah, so I think one takeaway for me is Iran's intentions for, or rather say incentive to build a nuclear weapon is something that's in question right now. So we need to look at what would be the cost that Iran has to pay in terms of say, economically, which is already paying to a certain extent right now. And also inaudible and politically, what would be the price that Iran has to pay? And when it comes to succession, when you're talking about issues such as regime stability and succession, would getting a nuclear weapon actually bolster Supreme Leader's position or the, let's say, the principal's position in Iran, or is it going to be a challenge, even after they build a nuclear weapon?

Harry Kemsley: Thanks, Srishti, that's great. Sean, final word?

Sean Corbett: Other than the very obvious point that open source intelligence does have a pretty strong role, even the hardest of targets, and I think that's really important. It's not just gap filling, it's not just context, and it's not just shareability, it's actually got some value in itself. But I'd use an almost more subtle one as well. And it's an area of tradecraft that we've spoken about a little bit before, that to fully understand the particular intelligence problem, you need to try and get into the mindset of the potential adversary, or the person you're looking at, not look at it through your own lens, if you like. And there's a really good anecdote for this. I was privileged enough to be part of a really quite high level think tank when ISIL was at its prime. We were in Jordan with a bunch of academics and other people, that really knew the subject, and the discussion was, what do we do about it? And there was an Iranian academic that joined as well, which I got quite excited about. And funnily enough, when he turned up, he didn't have two heads, and didn't have explosives all around him. He was a very articulate, very clever person. And of course I got into quite deep discussion with him. And he was saying to me, " Look, I know you think we're really bad people, but look at it from our perspective. We see ourselves as the custodian of the Shia faith. And that is around what we base everything. If you put us us in the middle of a map and look at all the people that are surrounding us, it is all people that wish to do that harm. Which is why we do what we do." Now, I will take some of that at face value. I mean, some of it clearly isn't true. But from his perspective, he absolutely, genuinely believed that, and many people do. So you need to get into what's the incentive, what is the philosophy, and why do they think as they do? We've covered it before.

Harry Kemsley: Thanks, Sean. And my final takeaway is actually one that's actually quite practical. And that is Lewis and Srishti, you both talked about the use of models to help you break down the analysis process, make the tradecraft repeatable, and predictable, in terms of the kinds of things that it produces as an outcome. And I think that's quite an interesting topic in itself, is what are the models that we use for analytical purposes? But rather than starting that conversation, we'll hold that for another day. But let me finish the session then, by saying a huge thank you to you, Srishti, Jake and Lewis. Really, really valued your inputs on an interesting topic around Iran. And given that you work quite closely to where I work, stand by for further requests to do more of this in the future. Thank you all so much for coming.

Lewis Smart: Thanks Harry.

Speaker 1: Thanks for joining us this week on the World of Intelligence. Make sure to visit our website, janes. com/ podcast, where you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode.


In this episode we take a more practical look at open source intelligence and its role in understanding the current situation in Iran as it sits at the crossroads of a range of geopolitical choices, the result of which will play a large role in determining the course of the country’s internal dynamics, as well as its external relations with other states.

Janes Country Intelligence customers can also access our supporting special report on Iran at

Today's Host

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Harry Kemsley

|President of Government & National Security, Janes

Today's Guests

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Srishti Punja

|Senior Analyst, Country Intelligence Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Janes
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Jake Abel

|Pursuit Customer Success Manager, Janes
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Lewis Smart

|Country Intelligence Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Team Manager, Janes
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Sean Corbett

|AVM (ret’d) Sean Corbett CB MBE MA, RAF