A weekend article in the McClatchy Newspapers illustrates a critical problem facing the Bush Administration, as it presses for tougher sanctions against Iran, or possible military action to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Simply stated, there is no conclusive proof that Iran has actually embarked on a nuclear weapons program, despite years of scrutiny by the international community, and intense monitoring by our intelligence services. As reporter Jonathan Landay eagerly notes, the absence of irrefutable evidence (supposedly) puts President Bush and Vice-President Cheney at odds with "experts" both in and out of government.
Despite President Bush's claims that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons that could trigger ''World War III,'' experts in and out of government say there's no conclusive evidence that Tehran has an active nuclear-weapons program.
Even his own administration appears divided about the immediacy of the threat. While Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney speak of an Iranian weapons program as a fact, Bush's point man on Iran, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, has attempted to ratchet down the rhetoric.
''Iran is seeking a nuclear capability . . . that some people fear might lead to a nuclear-weapons capability,'' Burns said in an interview Oct. 25 on PBS.
''I don't think that anyone right today thinks they're working on a bomb,'' said another U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Outside experts say the operative words are ''right today.'' They say Iran may have been actively seeking to create a nuclear-weapons capacity in the past and still could break out of its current uranium-enrichment program and start a weapons program. They, too, lack definitive proof but cite a great deal of circumstantial evidence.
And there's the rub. Administration critics--even those within the government--apparently want a standard of proof that may be unattainable under normal circumstances. Barring some sort of accidental discovery by the IAEA, a military raid that recovers evidence of a weapons program, or Tehran simply deciding to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities, it may be impossible to prove that Iran is working on a bomb until that first device is displayed, or (God forbid), it's actually used against a western target.
On the other hand, the lack of credible reporting on WMD in Iraq undercuts the circumstantial evidence that's been used to build a case against Iran. Reports of suspicious activity in Iraq--which supposedly indicated an active WMD program--proved to be exaggerated or false, the result of limited intelligence reporting and poor analysis on Saddam Hussein and his regime. The many intel failures in Iraq have provided a convenient excuse for questioning current analysis on Iran.
Yes, those assessments should be challenged, but only with the understanding that no analysis is fool-proof or 100% reliable. Borrowing from Don Rumsfeld's dictum about the army, a country goes to war--or makes policy decisions--with the intelligence it has, not the intel it wishes it had. In the case of Iran, circumstantial information may be as good as it gets.
In our view, that's more than sufficient justification for tougher sanctions against Iran. As the McClatchy article indicates, Tehran has been less-than-forthcoming about its work in various areas of nuclear research, including larger centrifuges, uranium hemispheres and Polonium 210. Collectively, these projects could result in more material for weapons and more efficient nuclear warheads. More importantly, some of these efforts--notably the hemisphere and Polonium research--have little (if any) applications in a civilian power plant, the officially stated "goal" for Tehran's nuclear program. Absent a smoking gun, these indications provide plenty of reasons to be suspicious, and tighten the screws on Iran.
Additionally, there's the very real possibility that Iran may have a parallel, covert nuclear program, in addition to its declared facilities. As we've noted before, it is relatively easy to conceal key activities in nondescript, warehouse-sized buildings, with no exterior signatures. Aside from a defector, dissident group reporting or a slip-up in Iranian security, the existence of covert facilities and programs would be extremely difficult to detect, further denying the "conclusive" proof that some are demanding.
The problem is further compounded by the definition of a "search area." In looking for signs of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, both the IAEA and western intelligence agencies have concentrated their efforts inside Iran's borders--an area roughly the size of Alaska. That seemed to be a logical premise until early September, when Israeli jets attacked a nuclear facility inside Syria. Subsequent reporting--not fully confirmed--have suggested that Iran may have been financing that project.
There have also been reports of a major accident last summer, during a missile warhead mating exercise conducted by Sryian and Iranian technicians. Scores of personnel reportedly died in the mishap, which was also conducted on Syrian soil. That accident--and the Israeli airstrike--suggest that portions of Iran's WMD programs have been "farmed out" to Syria, making it more difficult to uncover key facilities and activities, or (at the very least) widening the potential search area by thousands of square miles.
Efforts to confirm Iran's nuclear weapons program offer another reminder of the importance of intelligence sources and methods. Ideally, the existence of a program or capability should be affirmed through multiple channels, using various intel disciplines. But, with our past attempts at gutting our human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities and improvements in adversary denial and deception (D&D) techniques, we have--in some cases--grown reliant on limited sources, with limited accuracy and credibility.
Evidence of that trend was on display last night, during a segment of 60 Minutes. The CBS program spent two years tracking down "Curveball," the supposed high-level Iraqi source that claimed Saddam had resurrected his WMD programs, during the run-up to the Iraq War. It was Curveball who identified an agricultural complex as a WMD plant, and reported that Saddam had created mobile biological weapons labs, a claim that Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated during his famous U.N. presentation.
In reality, Curveball was a German source, an Iraqi emigre who apparently concocted fantastic tales to get his green card. He refused to meet with CIA interrogators, and our personnel never got more than transcripts of his debriefings with the German intelligence service. Still, the information was enough to convince us that something was going on in Iraq, and provide another reason for the 2003 invasion.
Since it was the Bush Administration that accepted Curveball's claims, CBS is more than happy to report the story. But in its efforts to discredit the White House, 60 Minutes (predictably) misses the larger point: the scandal isn't that we bought Curveball's story; it's the fact that decades of mismanagement and deterioration in our intelligence system forced us to rely on a single source--that we didn't control--in making the case for going to war.
Five years later, our lack of "conclusive proof" on Iran's nuclear program tells us two things. First, the Iranians are getting better at D&D, and secondly, our sources in Iran are probably no better than they were in Saddam's Iraq.
And that is, indeed, scandalous.