April 19, 2023

IntelBrief: Leaked Documents Reflect and Amplify Mideast Policy Challenges

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

Bottom Line up Front

  • The leak of U.S. intelligence documents can potentially undermine relations with several key American allies in the Middle East, including Egypt, Israel, Turkiye, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  • The leaked revelations about Egyptian consideration to provide military help for Russia’s war in Ukraine will likely amplify calls for additional conditionalities on U.S. aid to Egypt.
  • The documents, if authentic, might further damage U.S. national security by revealing the extent to which the United States can gather intelligence on Iranian regime decision-making.
  • The leaked material assesses Israel as potentially seeking U.S. support or participation in escalated military action against Iran, in exchange for providing Israeli-made military equipment to Ukraine.

The unauthorized release of highly classified information, allegedly by a young U.S. airman and confirmed by several U.S. officials as, for the most part, authentic, risks complicating U.S. policy toward both allies and adversaries. On Friday April 14, 21-year-old Jack Teixeira was formally charged in a federal court in Boston with being the source of leaked national defense information and other classified documents. The material reported publicly thus far contain information on numerous countries, although press reports about them have centered on Russia’s war against Ukraine. The reports reveal significant findings from several U.S. intelligence agencies about key U.S. allies and adversaries in the Middle East – a region in which the United States has significant security responsibilities and in which there is a wide range of threats and several ongoing conflicts. Tensions will likely be exacerbated due to the region's history as an arena for competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union, leaving many governments there historically suspicious of U.S. intelligence gathering and interference. The leaks could reignite longstanding fears and suspicions of U.S. intent and actions.

The documents have significant potential to damage U.S. relations with a key regional partner, Egypt, by amplifying criticism of Egypt in the U.S. Congress and among expert and interest groups in the United States. According to reports by The Washington Post, the documents indicate that Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi considered, and possibly took some steps toward, supplying military equipment to Russia for its war against Ukraine. An early 2023 document reports that Sisi and senior Egyptian military officials planned to supply Russia with 40,000 rounds of artillery to help Moscow alleviate its ammunition shortages and that Sisi sought to conceal the transactions “to avoid problems with the West.” U.S. officials quickly sought to shield relations with Egypt from damage by telling journalists, on background, that Egypt did not follow through with any military exports to Russia. Since the 2013 Egyptian military coup, U.S. legislation has imposed human rights and democratization conditionality on a portion of U.S. aid to Egypt. Many in Congress want most or all U.S. aid to Egypt to be subject to progressively stricter conditions. In issuing those denials, U.S. officials sought to prevent Egypt’s critics from using the leak to argue for additional conditions, or outright reductions, in U.S. aid to Egypt. Despite the expanding conditionality, the United States remains a major aid donor to Egypt, giving approximately $1.4 billion per year over the past few years, mostly in the form of Foreign Military Financing (FMF). A U.S. aid cut would undoubtedly worsen Egypt’s mounting economic difficulties resulting from food inflation and other economic factors, and exacerbate resentment of the United States.

The reported documents contain similar allegations about Turkiye - a NATO member and U.S. regional partner- asserting that Russian operatives from the Wagner Group had approached their contacts in Turkiye about the possibility of buying weaponry. As with Egypt, no arms exchanges appear to have resulted from the contacts, according to U.S. officials. According to reports by The Associated Press, the leaks also cite another key regional partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as entertaining overtures from Moscow for additional cooperation. The documents assert that, in early 2023, Russia’s main foreign intelligence service, the Federal Security Service or FSB, boasted that UAE security service officials had agreed to work together against U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies. Although UAE leaders have recently worked with Moscow on oil production issues and engaged Russian officials at high levels, UAE officials categorically denied the assertions. Still, the leaked documents could give credence to critics of the UAE in the United States who cite the wealthy Gulf state for refusing to enforce Western sanctions on Russia and enabling Russian oligarchs to shelter assets there.

Some of the documents focus on the primary U.S. ally in the region, Israel, but do not appear to contain any particularly derogatory information. Rather, the Israel-related leaks center on U.S. efforts to encourage Tel Aviv to provide material support for Ukraine in support of U.S. efforts there. One document, reportedly prepared in early 2023 by the Defense Intelligence Agency, outlines scenarios under which Israeli leaders might agree to U.S. requests to provide lethal aid to Ukraine. Israel has a large number of citizens of Russian origin and requires tacit Russian cooperation in order to strike Iran-controlled targets in Syria, one of the reasons causing Tel Aviv to hesitate to supply lethal equipment to Kyiv. Iran poses multiple threats to Israel, and Israeli leaders assert that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an “existential threat” to Israel. The leaked documents assert that, in the view of U.S. intelligence, Israel might request that the United States take armed action against Iran in exchange for Israel supplying Ukraine with its industry-leading rocket and missile defense systems. Another reported document – first reported by The New York Times – appears to contain sensitive details from U.S.-Israeli consultations on Israel’s campaign of air strikes against Iran in Syria and Israel's concerns about Russian-Iranian military cooperation.

At the same time, the documents also could damage any U.S. or joint U.S.-Israeli efforts against Iran by demonstrating the degree to which U.S. intelligence has been able to penetrate internal Iranian regime discussions and plans. Iran has widely been considered a “hard target” for U.S. intelligence. Still, the leaked documents indicate that the United States has been able to at least partially thwart regime efforts at secrecy. The revelations could prompt Iranian leaders to limit the circle of decision-makers on key issues and adjust how they share information among themselves. Some of the leaked documents detail the regime’s strategy to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in advance of a visit by IAEA Director Rafael Grossi in early March, to close a longstanding inquiry into Iran's undeclared nuclear sites. That inquiry is based on allegations that Iran has concealed some nuclear activities that its Safeguards Agreement, as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), requires Iran to disclose. Another document apparently exposed the degree to which the United States can learn about regime abuses against Iranian protesters who have taken to the streets since September to agitate for more political space. One leaked document, reported by an Iran-related media outlet, contains remarks by 45 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders and clerics at a meeting at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office in early 2023. According to the document, the participants spoke about the negative impact of the protests on the morale of forces under the command of the IRGC - the institution that suppresses large or violent protests - with several offering anecdotal accounts of insubordination. The alleged scale and nature of the leaks are sure to prompt greater introspection among U.S. defense institutions and the intelligence community regarding access to information and employee vetting. As The Soufan Center’s Senior Research Fellow Colin Clarke recently wrote in the LA Times, “the insider threat must be taken more seriously. This should include a wholesale evaluation of how individuals are screened for security clearances.”