Thursday, February 10, 2005

 

U.S. Intelligence on Iran Seen Lacking - Experts.

More whistling past the graveyard:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence is unlikely to know much about Iran's contentious nuclear program and could be vulnerable to manipulation for political ends, former intelligence officers and other experts say.

Amid an escalating war of words between Washington and Tehran, the experts say they doubt the CIA has been able to recruit agents with access to the small circle of clerics who control the Islamic Republic's national security policy.
First off, it must be remembered that there are two types of intelligence: capabilities intelligence, and warning intelligence, i.e. knowledge of enemy intentions.

The dilemma for the United States is that, just like in Saddam's Iraq, we feel pretty comfortable that we know the strategic intentions of Iran: they want to acquire nuclear weapons.

The operational intentions of Iran-- how fast they want to acquire nukes, how willing they are to "cheat" the international community to get them, and the reasons they feel it's necessary to get nukes in the first place-- all of those intentions are probably dark to us right now.

What's worse is that we also probably have an incomplete picture in the realm of capabilities intelligence. In fact, to hear David Kay's estimate, we may have no picture at all:
Former chief weapons inspector David Kay, the first to declare U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a failure, warned that the Bush administration is again relying on evidence from dissidents, as it did in prewar Iraq.

"The tendency is to force the intelligence to support the political argument," Kay said in a CNN interview on Wednesday.

He added that the CIA has yet to give U.S. policymakers an up-to-date comprehensive intelligence assessment on Iran.

"We're talking about military action against Iran and we don't have a national intelligence estimate that shows what we do know, what we don't know and the basis for what we think we know," Kay said.

I've met Kay, heard him lecture; he's a very smart guy. Outside of his recent testimony to Congress, I haven't heard him talk at length about the pre-Iraq war WMD intelligence. I would suspect that he would agree with the assessment that Saddam Hussein still wanted nuclear weapons, and probably tried his best to make some efforts toward acquiring nuclear weapons, but in the end, Iraq no longer had the capability to mount a nuclear program. Basically-- we knew Saddam was a bad guy with bad plans, but he didn't have the means to back his plans up.

The problem was, of course, we didn't know Saddam didn't have the means to back his plans up until we marched into Baghdad. Like a beat cop, we knew he was a criminal, a criminal with intent, but he wasn't carrying a gun when we shot him.

With regard to Iran, we're in much the same spot. The Iranian mullahocracy hates America and it hates Israel, and has long stated its desire to inflict damage on the interests of both nations. The mullahs have also stated their desire to build nuclear weapons. Finally, it's public knowledge that Iran has a modest nuclear research capability.

And while Iran proclaims that nuclear capability is entirely peaceful, the Iranian nuclear research infrastructure lends itself quite well to a weapons program-- in fact, is ideally suited for one. You don't need the capability to enrich uranium to generate power, yet that's the very capability Iran has so desperately sought.

Yet, in the end, not all moving parts are in plain view, or accessible by European inspectors. Using the criminal analogy yet again, we know he's got a backyard full of fertilizer in barrels. While it's entirely possible that the criminal is telling the truth when he announces his gardening plans, any appraisal has to take into account the criminal's previously stated desire to truck bomb a Federal building.

It's like Ronald Reagan used to say: trust, but verify. The nuclear dilemma is that the bar for trust is much higher, particularly with a nation that has repeatedly avowed its hope that the Great Satan would be crushed.

So, what do we do now? Obviously, the intelligence community needs to come together and figure out what we know about Iran. However, I would sincerely hope that the intelligence effort focuses more on capabilities than intentions, as the latter is not only inherently subjective, but is more susceptible to institutional bias. Iran may have a Bomb program, but OF COURSE those Iranians would never use it. I'm sorry, but hope is not a strategy.

What I care about-- and what our leaders should care about-- is what Iran can do, not what it wants to do. Because, at the end of the day, our policy is not about keeping Iran happy so it doesn't use nuclear weapons: it's about preventing Iran from *having* nuclear weapons. And that means we must focus our efforts on knowing the capabilities of the Iranian nuclear program.

Why? First, so we can target international inspections where they can be the most effective. Letting those guys only waltz over the nuclear sites Iran allows them to waltz over will do nothing to prevent Iran from getting weapons, as they have undoubtedly camouflaged their infrastructure against the types of inspections they watched Saddam's Iraq suffer through. Worse, such farcical inspections can only lull us into false security.

The second reason why we need to learn as much about Iranian nuclear capabilities is that we may have to do something about them militarily.

Now, here at Garfield Ridge I've discussed before the challenges facing any military action taken against Iran. There aren't many easy options, even if we knew every site we had to hit. Which we don't.

Obviously, certain locations are more important than others. But a lot depends on our knowledge of the technical nature of the Iranian nuclear program. If their program is geared towards a sustained, multiple-bomb producing infrastructure, then it's likely that many of the more obvious nuclear sites play the critical role in the Iranian nuclear program.

However, if the Iranians learned the lessons of the Iraqis and the North Koreans, they are likely to have built a program with a number of major components well-hidden from international scrutiny. Those components may not be efficient nor ideal from the perspective of a major sustained nuclear development program. But given enough time to operate surreptitiously, a covert nuclear program could bear ill fruit.

Dangerous times we live in. . . and nothing is getting easier.


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