Here’s a little test for you. Question 1: Do you think the US intelligence agencies got it right about Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction? Question 2: Do you think the US intelligence agencies have got it right now about Iran having suspended its nuclear weapons programme four years ago?
My guess is you answered No to Question 1. (It’s not too difficult, as the agencies themselves have admitted they got it wrong.) But what did you answer to Question 2?
First, a reminder of what the new US National Intelligence Estimate said on Monday: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
Compare that with what was being said two years ago: “[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”
Were they right then, or are they right now? If you accept that they got it wrong about Iraq, are you more likely to accept that they’re right about Iran? I don’t know about you, but this kind of stuff makes my head hurt.
So, always anxious to be of service, I have been trying to discover why the spooks and spies have changed their minds. Here’s what the New York Times reported yesterday: “American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program …
“The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.”
Which immediately raises another question: Where might they have obtained these all-important notes? Well, there’s an intriguing theory (and it is, as far as I know, no more than that) that a man named Ali-Reza Asghari may have something to do with it. He’s a retired general in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, a former deputy defence minister who was cold-shouldered after President Ahmadinejad came to power and who disappeared (defected?) in Turkey last February.
The Michigan-based Middle East analyst Juan Cole describes him as “someone who knows where all the bodies are buried with regard to Iranian covert operations” – and recalls that at the time of Asghari’s disappearance, a Turkish newspaper reported that “Turkish intelligence and police had discovered that Asghari was opposed to the Iranian government and that he holds information regarding its nuclear plan.”
All of which may, or may not, help you make up your mind. My point is simply this: intelligence estimates are, as their name suggests, estimates. They are only as good as their source material and the analysis of that material. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are not. Unfortunately, we often don’t find out which is which until long after the decisions based on the estimates have been made. But given what you’ve just read, if you had to make a decision now about how to approach Iran, what would you decide?