Inter Press Service
As the George W. Bush administration built the case for war with Iraq in the early 2000s, press accounts picked up bits of leaked intelligence that described a weapons of mass destruction threat from then president Saddam Hussein. But once the U.S. military entered Iraq, they found nothing.
Now, with neoconservatives and other Washington hawks campaigning for ever more aggressive actions against Iran, they must contend with the spectre of Iraq and a popular scepticism that accompanies claims of weapons programmes. A new report from Washington's Atlantic Council aims to sort out the mess by asking: "How reliable is intelligence on Iran's nuclear programme?"
Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful medical work and energy production, but many suspect a clandestine weapons programme.
In a few words, U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear activities is "not bad", said IPS contributor and report author Barbara Slavin at an event Thursday. "There is less of a chance of underestimating or over-hyping the Iran threat."
The report takes a similarly mild tone, declaring intelligence on Iran's nuclear programme is "better and worse than Iraq". The most damaging information in the run-up to the Iraq war was largely single-source, and thought to be deeply politicised because the Bush administration was pushing for confrontation and needed to back it up with a threat.
"Nuclear and intelligence specialists say there have been major improvements in the way U.S. intelligence is collected and analyzed since 2002," said the Council report, "and that this sort of distortion could not take place now even if the [President Barack] Obama administration was eager to attack Iran, which does not appear to be the case."
But shortfalls still exist. Iran's leadership structure that makes the decisions is opaque. And access by international organizations, such as the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is limited. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which guarantees its right to a peaceful nuclear programme, but withdrew from a broader inspections regime called the Additional Protocols in 2006.
But in some ways the actual intelligence collection has improved, too: "[O]bstacles are better compensated for with better technical intelligence," says the report, "as well as human intelligence from defectors and others still in Iran."
Panelists on Thursday said getting Iran to voluntarily give access to its nuclear sites and information about its programme was crucial.
"Part of the reason for the [international] pressure and the justification for it is that it's worked in the past," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. He cited examples such as South Africa, Brazil and Libya, which had given up their weapons programmes because of pressure.
"Iran," Albright said, "has to be worried about doing something in secret because they've been exposed so many times."
Indeed, Iran raises such strong suspicious particularly because so many various aspects of its programme have been clandestinely developed and only revealed either by foreign governments or by Iran because of pressure.
Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at Georgetown University, emphasised the importance of being able to return to a full inspections regime in order to verify that no nuclear materials got diverted to a secret weapons programme.
"The single best source of information about things of this sort – and this is true about Iraq and Iran – is an international inspections regime," he said. The intelligence community is not designed to make "up or down judgments on things like this".
Pillar added, "Things don't become intelligence issues if we're sure about them in the first place."
Some of Iran's progress, said the report, has been blocked by international sanctions, particularly those passed by the U.N. Security Council in June 2010 that restricted the sale of material for nuclear development to Iran.
"Iran used to be able to exploit loopholes, but now they're running into brick walls," said Slavin at the Council event. The U.N. sanctions "are difficult to implement, but they're slowly being implemented".
But the biggest hurdle to knowing what Iran is up to with its nuclear development remains determining just what Iran's leadership cohort wants the programme to accomplish.
Understanding Iran's programme is "at least as much about intentions as about capabilities", said Pillar. And the U.S. and its allies suffer from a "lack of access to the inner circles where decisions are made."
Pillar's assessment, with which the Council report concurred, is that those crucial decisions about how far to take the nuclear programme "are yet to be made" by the Iranians.
"It is still possible to dissuade Iran," Slavin said Thursday.
Ali Gharib is a correspondent with Inter Press Service and Think Progress and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org).