The current crisis in the Strait of Hormuz between the UK and Iran has led to a number of criticisms of UK preparedness in the wake of the seizure of a UK flagged tanker, the Stena Impero. Admiral Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, has accused the UK government of a dereliction of duty by allowing the Navy to be run down to the point where it “can no longer do what our nation expects of it and probably endangers our nation”. These are strong words. In turn, Julian Lewis, chair of the UK’s Defence Select Committee, has claimed that the Royal Navy is at fault for failing to anticipate the developing crisis saying: “…it was blindingly obvious that British-flagged vessels should not have been allowed to navigate this waterway unaccompanied.” But as representatives of the Royal Navy and the UK government take pot shots at one another, behind closed doors, the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service is also coming in for considerable criticism.
According to security sources, ministers are demanding to know why there was no intelligence warning of Iran’s plans. There is also little indication from intelligence sources of how the Iranian regime intends to proceed. Some ministers feel that they are “planning in the dark”. As one minister has stated: “The Iranian reaction (to the seizure of their tanker at Gibraltar) was hardly a surprise.” So why was SIS caught unprepared? The current gap in intelligence coverage appears to reflect a long term decline in SIS capabilities in the region.
Historically, Britain had strong intelligence capability in the Middle East. The benefits of Empire meant that the UK had personnel with experience and a good basis for helpful contacts in the region. SIS has regularly sent a number of key personnel for intensive training to parts of the Middle East in preparation for such work. The CIA, which has problems recruiting Arabic sources because of their close association with Israel (at least in some Arab minds), meant that the Agency used to rely heavily on SIS resources. On some occasions SIS was even referred to as “the CIA’s camel corps.”
But the UK’s involvement in the two Iraq wars changed all that. The UK became seen as simply an extension of the US and SIS began to have problems in recruitment. They simply were not trusted. The recruitment issue was not overwhelming, but it was significant.
Another problem was that in the 1990s, in the wake of budget and staffing cuts, the Middle East suffered disproportionately. In 1993, according to government statistics, expenditure in the Middle East was reduced to just 15% of the SIS budget. This may not sound too bad, but the figure included a sizeable element for combating WMD proliferation, a worldwide concern including the Indian sub-continent.
This lack of preparedness by SIS was reflected during the conflict with Iraq. In September 2002, SIS issued a key CX report that Iraq was producing nerve gas. It was subsequently discovered that the agent was making the whole story up and that his account of glass beads containing the nerve gas was taken from the plot of the Sean Connery action movie “The Rock”. Similarly, in July 2003, US ambassador Joe Wilson revealed that SIS had released a report stating that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium for nuclear weapons from Nigeria and that this report was also false. SIS gave the impression of scrabbling around trying to get reporting from any source at any price.
It might be thought that perhaps these examples of failure do not accurately convey the picture of SIS efforts and that behind the scenes SIS was actually providing far better intelligence that the public never heard of. That hope was severely undermined by evidence presented to the Iraq Inquiry which revealed that at the time of the crisis, SIS only had one high level source in Iraq and that source did not have access to the circle of advisors around Saddam Hussein who might make decisions concerning WMD. In August 2008, the investigative journalist Ron Suskind revealed that in 2003 SIS had been forced to recall a senior officer with Middle East experience and sent him to the Middle East in a desperate attempt to get better intelligence. This story appeared to be confirmed by a subsequent statement by Nigel Inkster, former deputy director of SIS.
The 2004 UK government Spending Review allocated an increase to the SIS budget of 21% for the period 2005-8 with the intention that this should be used to open new stations and increase staffing to address the intelligence failings. However, the focus in the Middle East was now on Islamic terror rather than state intentions and the intelligence failings against this target remained significant. The conflict in Afghanistan also attracted a larger and larger slice of SIS funding.
Another recent factor in the weakness of SIS in the region is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Brexit. The need for commercial intelligence has soared on the WISP list (the areas specified by UK ministers as requiring intelligence input) and the UK has been increasingly relying on a combination of US intelligence and the electronic resources of GCHQ to provide a picture of developments in the region. Middle Eastern states have also been tightening up aggressively on immigration checks. Applications for resources now often involve demands for social media and other records that have made movement in the area a far more labour intensive task in order to justify cover stories. (Admittedly this has been a factor elsewhere in the world as well).
The failure of SIS intelligence was reflected in the decision by the Royal Navy in April 2019 to withdraw two Wildcat helicopters based in Oman. These helicopters were providing the UK with a naval surveillance capability in the Strait of Hormuz, but the Navy withdrew the asset on the grounds that they were: “no longer needed”. The fact that this vital asset was withdrawn just two months before a serious crisis developed has led to considerable criticism of the Royal Navy’s leadership. But the decision was made based upon the intelligence provided, in large part, by SIS. SIS clearly had no idea of how the mood in Iran was souring.
The UK apparently does not have the military resources to force the release of their tanker. Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said that the UK is going to use diplomatic channels to solve the crisis. But those diplomatic efforts will need to be supported by first class intelligence from humint sources within the Iranian regime. UK ministers need to know what the Iranians want and who is really controlling the situation.
At the moment, it looks as if that key intelligence is unlikely to be available.