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Intelligence on Iran Still Lacking

Authors: Lionel Beehner, and Greg Bruno
Updated: December 4, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The Bush administration’s list of grievances with Iran grew significantly in 2007 to include charges of funneling money, weaponry, and militants to Iraq and Afghanistan and defying the international community by continuing to enrich uranium in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Heated rhetoric and a lack of diplomatic progress has spawned speculation about a military confrontation, which would be aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as well as groups and facilities the U.S. and other intelligence agencies link to violence in Iraq.

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But some U.S. analysts and policymakers continue to question the quality and credibility of American intelligence on Iran. A new National Intelligence Estimate released December 3, 2007, adds to the uncertainty. The report, a consensus review of Iran's nuclear capabilities by U.S. spy agencies, concludes Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program" in late 2003, a clear contradiction from previous intelligence reports. Bush administration officials have not disclosed what new intelligence led to the reversal. The United States has few actual spies on the ground and no consular presence in Tehran, relying on satellite imagery and intercepts.

Making matters worse, Tehran has been inconsistent on granting international inspectors access to observe its enrichment activities. Much like the run-up to the war in Iraq, U.S. officials must rely on intelligence from American allies in the region, Iranian exiles and political groups, a Dubai-based “listening post” aimed at collecting information from Iranians doing business in the Gulf, and captured Iranian-backed militants. Hovering above all these challenges, of course, are credibility problems stemming from the mishandling of intelligence before the war in Iraq.

Sources of U.S. Intelligence on Iran

Suspicions of Tehran’s nuclear intentions and its regional actions in Iraq—and more recently, Afghanistan—have prompted the United States to step up its efforts to gather intelligence on Iran. In northern Iraq, U.S. forces have confiscated documents and detained Iranian operatives. In a September 2007 interview, Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, a spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq, said six operatives with links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force were arrested in 2007, though two were later released (LAT). Coalition officials have said Quds fighters supplied Iraqi militias with lethal roadside bombs for use against American forces. The munitions include mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and armor-piercing explosive devices, called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), all bearing serial numbers that U.S. officials claim link them to Tehran. The latest intercept came in September 2007, when the Pentagon announced the capture a suspected weapons smuggler, Mahmudi Farhadi, in Iraq’s Kurdish region. U.S. officials say Farhadi was responsible for the cross border movement of weapons, people, and money from Iran into northern Iraq for over a decade. American officials also say they have found evidence of Iran supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, though intelligence officials acknowledge the connections there are less conclusive. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell tells CFR.org the Iranian links to Afghanistan are simply “compelling,” while evidence linking the regime to violence in Iraq is “overwhelming.” Iranian officials deny both accusations.

“I think it’s fair to say there are major gaps in knowledge. There’s definitely a role from Iran, but I thinks it’s been overstated.”–Paul R. Pillar, a career CIA officer and professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

The United States has also begun monitoring Iran from Dubai. About a half-dozen U.S. State Department officials have opened a diplomatic mission there to collect information from Iranians in the region. There are as many as five hundred thousand Iranians, including a large number of Iranian businessmen, who reside or do business in Dubai and the surrounding emirates. The U.S. mission has drawn comparisons to Washington’s listening station in the Latvian capital of Riga during the period between the 1917 Russian Revolution and the U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933. At the time, Latvia’s capital offered a kind of window into the USSR. Among those stationed there was a young George Kennan, the author of the famous “X” article for Foreign Affairs. The Dubai-based embassy is the first of its kind devoted to Iran since diplomatic relations were suspended after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis. A State Department official based in Dubai rejects the term “listening station,” because “it makes it sounds like we have radars hanging out our windows and ‘station’ sounds like CIA.” The purpose of the post, the official continues, “is to get a sense of what's going on in Iran. It is not some recruiting office and is not organizing the next revolution in Iran.” Still, the official says the Iranian press is very concerned by the U.S. presence in Dubai, which it refers to as the “regime-change office.”

Timeline: U.S.-Iran Relations Some experts say the U.S. mission in Dubai may not prove useful. “By publicly advertising the Iran ‘listening posts’ and comparing them to the Riga station during the cold war, the State Department really limits their effectiveness,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The U.S. government has created this huge aura of suspicion around a small office of diplomats in Dubai who are simply trying to understand Iran better, not overthrow the regime.” Indeed, U.S. officials have not been shy about talking about the mission in Dubai. As Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns told the Council on Foreign Relations in October 2006, “In the past year we’ve built up an office in Dubai solely dedicated to watching Iran and understanding Iran and talking to the thousands of Iranians who come out of Iran into Dubai itself so that we might better communicate with Iranians from all walks of life.” The Dubai-based official says “it doesn’t do me any good to give a lot of publicity to what we’re doing, or if these people get too scared and don't want to come talk to us. We try to be discreet.”

The United States has in the past collected intelligence on Iran from various exile organizations, including the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that was once aligned with Saddam Hussein’s regime and remains a designated terrorist organization by the State Department. Its ideology used to blend Marxism with Islamism but in recent years has dropped its more radical Marxist rhetoric. Perhaps the MEK’s greatest claim to fame was its discovery of clandestine enrichment activity at Natanz in 2002. Shortly thereafter, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pressed Iran to open the facility up to international inspectors. The U.S.-based Iranian expatriate community and MEK also provided useful intelligence on the existence of Arak, a heavy-water research reactor in Iran. With the State Department now having a more pronounced role over Iran policy, some experts expect Washington to work less closely with Iranian exile groups like the MEK. Paul R. Pillar, a career CIA officer and professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says it’s wise to remain skeptical of expatriate groups. “Iran has its Chalabis, too,” Pillar says. Ahmed Chalabi, briefly a deputy Iraqi prime minister after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, is widely criticized for providing faulty intelligence to the United States about Iraq’s weapons programs and exaggerating his own ability to win support inside Iraq. “There are some lessons to be drawn from having your intelligence coming from some quarters and not others,” Pillar concludes. Experts also say there is a greater willingness to meet and talk with high-ranking Iranians and organize cultural exchanges. A visit to the United States in 2006 by former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami may foreshadow more such unofficial visits. More recently, Bush administration officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have pushed for a diplomatic approach to containment.

On Iran’s nuclear program, the United States in the past has flown unmanned surveillance planes to monitor enrichment facilities. It also relies on information gathered by Iranian scientists and academics traveling abroad with contacts overseas, as well as IAEA inspectors, whose access to nuclear sites has been inconsistent. Some experts say the Iranian exile community is better informed than the Iraqi exile community that supplied Washington with faulty intelligence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction before 2003 because Iranians regularly travel back and forth between Iran and the United States and Europe. “Rarely would Iraqi [expatriates] ever go to Iraq,” says David Albright, a nuclear expert on Iran and president of the Institute for Science and International Security. In 2004 U.S. officials obtained a laptop, spirited out of Iran by an expatriate, which administration officials saidcontained data on a reentry vehicle that could potentially carry a nuclear warhead as well as diagrams of a small-scale uranium-enrichment facility.

Gaps in the Intelligence

Nonetheless doubts remain as to the reliability of U.S. intelligence on Iran, especially on the nuclear question. For example, the information on the laptop mentioned above is widely believed to have been forged (strangely its contents were in English, not Farsi). Bush administration officials had pointed to the laptop as Exhibit A (NYT) in what they said was proof Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. But the veracity of that intelligence was thrown into question in December 2007 with the release of the updated NIE on Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities. According to the intelligence review Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program" in late 2003, before the discovery of the computer.

Meanwhile, nuclear experts say there is no “smoking gun” evidence the Iranians are developing a clandestine military-related enrichment program, despite repeated U.S. claims (PDF) that “Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons." (The December 2007 NIE, by contrast, states "we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.") Much of the imagery and satellite data paints an incomplete picture of Iranian actions. “There’s nothing distinctive about a centrifuge facility, which is impossible to find if a country chooses to hide it,” says Albright. And the restrictions imposed on IAEA inspectors will only make U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts more difficult. Inspections of some facilities resumed in July 2007 after a hiatus, and IAEA inspectors have unveiled a new “work plan” which would require Tehran to answer historic questions about its uranium enrichment program. But an August 2007 report from the UN nuclear watchdog says despite the overtures, “the agency remains unable to verify certain aspects relevant to the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear” ambitions. A November 2007 report notes that the "agency's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear programme is diminishing."

Likewise in Iraq and Afghanistan, the evidence of Iran’s involvement in roadside attacks against American forces is scattered, intelligence analysts say. They stress it is difficult to track the flow of funds, arms, and personnel across Iraq’s porous border with Iran, especially given Washington’s lack of a consular presence in Tehran. “I know there’s a great deal of cynicism and skepticism about all these claims, and similarly about their activities in Afghanistan. Given the track record of the Bush administration [on Iraq] it’s understandable,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now working as a Middle East policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “My view, however, is it is very likely, if not certain, that the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], including the Quds Force, is very active in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

U.S. officials say an early 2007 raid of a weapons cache in southern Iraq provides the strongest evidence yet of Iranian involvement in the manufacturing of EFPs. The material included infrared sensors and electronic triggering devises traceable to Iran. The Los Angeles Times reported in September 2007 that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki secured a pledge from Iran to “help cut off weapons” flowing across the border, a seeming admission of smuggling activities. But even military officials have acknowledged some of the components uncovered are widely available commercial products. Skeptics say the gap in Washington’s intelligence on Iran closely resembles the prewar gaps in the U.S. intelligence on Iraq, which of course proved to be wrong. “The Americans have no intelligence on the Iranians, just like they had no good intelligence on the Iraqis [prior to the 2003 invasion],” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director at the International Crisis Group. “They don’t have the human resources or the skills for it.” Similar criticism has been raised in the wake of the December 2007 NIE, most notably by the Israeli government, which remains convinced Iran has restarted its pursuit (IHT) of nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. government has created this huge aura of suspicion around a small office of diplomats in Dubai who are simply trying to understand Iran better, not overthrow the regime.” –Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

At present, the largest gap in U.S. intelligence may be Washington’s lack of understanding of the decision-making apparatus in Iran. “U.S. intelligence on Iran is admittedly weak given there hasn't been a U.S. embassy in Tehran since 1979. But even European countries [that] have had embassies in Tehran since the Revolution have great difficulty understanding how the Islamic Republic operates,” says Sadjadpour. “I think even most Iranian officials don't really understand how their government operates.” Some experts liken Washington’s inability to divine Iranian decision-making to the Kremlinology that clouded U.S. policy during the Cold War. Moreover, even with perfect intelligence, it is difficult to surmise the purpose of Iran’s enrichment program or its supply of munitions to militias. Some analysts say the most significant question—determining the role of the Iranian leadership in the clandestine activities—is the least understood. “There seems to be far more doubt in connecting the Iranian regime with particular shipments or specific material,” Pillar says. “I think it’s fair to say there are major gaps in knowledge. There’s definitely a role from Iran, but I thinks it’s been overstated.”

Yet there’s little doubt the U.S. intelligence community is taking steps to close that gap. During an April 2006 CFR symposium, former CIA Middle East analyst Reuel Gerecht said there were around 175 CIA intelligence officers on the Iran desk, in addition to about thirty-five analysts, numbers that at the time represented an increase in staffing. Seymour Hersh, writing in October 2007 in the New Yorker, says the upward trend continues, and is now similar to the surge in personnel on the Iraq desk in 2002—the year before the U.S.-led invasion.

Policy Implications of Better Intelligence

It remains unclear what effect better intelligence would have on U.S. policy toward Iran. “We place too much of a burden on intelligence when what really matters is how policymakers manage limited knowledge,” says CFR science and technology fellow Michael A. Levi. “It would be nice if new intelligence had a substantial effect on our policy but the record of the last five or six years is it doesn’t.” Jon Wolfsthal, an international security fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts it this way: “I’d rather have good policy and bad intelligence than bad policy with good intelligence.”

Others disagree, suggesting that better intelligence could lower the level of uncertainty and thus affect U.S. policy toward Iran. “The impression I get is you cannot, based on what’s been turned up in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can’t deny at least Iranian weapons are making their way to both places,” says Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There seems to be a certain amount of cooperation between Quds Forces in both countries. The question is, does the Supreme Leader know about it? Does he have a role in it? It’s hard to believe these things would happen without him knowing.”

Without “smoking gun” evidence of Tehran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, experts say mobilizing support for tougher sanctions in the UN Security Council or for U.S.-led air strikes in Congress will be difficult. Indeed, Washington’s evolving intelligence on Iran has important ramifications for U.S. policymakers. The December 2007 NIE offers the best recent example. CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Ray Takeyh says the report "essentially removes the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue."

Yet Takeyh says Iran's nuclear ambitions have not disappeared. Tehran's current nuclear program could "be converted for military purposes on short notice," he says. Estimates range from two years to ten years, depending on whether Iran may be secretly developing a military enrichment program, which is still a possibility. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates Iran could produce a bomb as early as 2009, though it’s likely to take much longer. In any case, says Levi, “If we expect ironclad evidence that distinguishes a military from a civilian program, our nonproliferation program will be a failure because if you wait, it might be too late for diplomacy.”

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