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Iran Intel 'Gives Pause'

Prepared by: Michael Moran
May 11, 2006

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"Why should the American people, given the prewar failures in Iraq, be confident in what they are getting from the intelligence community on Iran?" That question, posed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is on many minds these days. Precedent does indeed "give one pause" (CNN), Rumsfeld answered.

So, too, do the similarities to early 2003. Once again, whether officially acknowledged or not, discussion of, and by some accounts (New Yorker) planning for a military strike against Iran is under debate. As in 2003, the scenario involves dire warnings of the consequence (StateDept) of the nation in question acquiring nuclear weapons, international inspectors combing its facilities (Global Security), debates in the UN Security Council over how to react (VOA), public threats against Israel (Haaretz), and exiled dissident groups touting evidence against a tyrannical regime.

This leads back to the inevitable question: Given the flawed judgments and faulty intelligence that preceded the Iraq war, outlined in this 2004 report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a host of independent reports, can the American public or the world be sure the current debate rests on more solid ground?

Last year, after it became clear just how off the mark prewar Iraq intelligence had been, the bipartisan Robb-Silbermann presidential commission examined how the U.S. gathers and assesses intelligence on WMD. Its conclusions, besides confirming the abysmal performance on Iraq and the difficulty of the task generally, suggested the United States may not have much in the way of proof with regard to Iran, either. As this CFR Background Q&A by Lionel Beehner explains, it may be impossible to be certain about Iran's motives, even if IAEA inspectors can confirm a pattern of deception going back 20 years. While intelligence on Iran's program is widely believed to be much better than the situation before the Iraq war, CFR Fellow Michael Levi points out: "You're never going to get bullet-proof intelligence...[What] they are looking for in Iran is hard to detect."

There is dissent. "I continue to believe that our sources are stale and our case is thin," Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, recently told the New York Times.

But there are reasons to be sanguine, too. First, there is relative agreement between U.S. and European intelligence agencies with regard to Iran's program after the EU-3 (Britain, Germany, and France) spent years on negotiations that collapsed when it was revealed that Tehran had deceived UN inspectors. Further, unlike the case in Iraq, in Iran the IAEA is clearly regarded as the authority on the ground. While the IAEA's reports are careful to note they cannot glean Iran's motives from their inspections, the latest report states: "the existing gaps in knowledge continue to be a matter of concern."

The letter Iranian President Ahmadinejad sent Bush this week is being dismissed by the administration as a ruse, though it is playing well in the Arab world. And, combined with the very "pause" Rumsfeld referred to, it has emboldened a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. to press for direct talks with Tehran (WashPost).

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