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Lessons from past shift debate on Iran

By Daniel Dombey in Washington
updated 3:12 a.m. ET Dec. 6, 2007

This week's US finding that Tehran has halted its nuclear weapons programme - which has transformed the debate on Iran - was partly a response to lessons learnt from the intelligence failures over the Iraq war, say the officials responsible for it.

They say the new estimates, which contradict assertions US officials have made this year that Iran continues to seek the bomb, were subjected to extraordinary scrutiny over the past four to six weeks and did not depend on any single source of information.

"Based on the 2002 experience we've really tried to make our process much more robust," said a senior intelligence official this week, referring to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate which said that Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons and had advanced with its chemical and biological weapons programmes - conclusions which turned out to be wrong.

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"We went back and scrubbed every source, every analytic product, every assumption and judgment from the earlier assessments of Iran's nuclear capabilities and intentions."

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That earlier assessment, in 2005, said Tehran was still operating a nuclear weapons programme. The new estimate says the weapons programme was halted in 2003.

"This intelligence assessment unequivocally undermines the case for military action and, at the same time, strengthens the case for diplomatic engagement," said Joe Cirincione, a proliferation expert at the Center for American Progress and an adviser to Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate.

At a briefing this week top officials involved in the new estimate - all of whom insisted on anonymity - said the information was largely assembled by August, at which point the crucial work of analysis began.

Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman, revealed on Wednesday that President George W. Bush had been told in August the intelligence estimate would be delayed because "new information had been obtained just as they were about to finalise the report". Mr Bush was told "Iran does in fact have a covert nuclear weapons programme, but it may be suspended".

Then, four to six weeks ago, the new judgments were systematically challenged - to assess, for example, whether Iran was deliberately trying to foster the erroneous impression it had stopped a nuclear weapons programme. Such scrutiny was all the more important because of the political sensitivity of the file. But the officials said they decided to go public with the key judgments from the estimates - despite new intelligence guidelines to the contrary - because the 2005 conclusions had become "part of the public policy dialogue".

Those conclusions had formed the backdrop to the Bush administration's assertion that Iran's nuclear programme needed to be tackled - an argument made particularly forcefully by Dick Cheney, vice-president.

Asked about whether the new judgments were related to the disappearance over the past 12 months of General Ali-Reza Asgari, a former top Iranian official who some people believe may have defected to the US, the officials said that there was no single "Rosetta stone" or "cable from the front" that transformed their assessment. Instead, the findings resulted from a blend of the new, more thorough approach to analysis and fresh information. "The proximate cause, the centre of gravity of this, is new information which caused us to challenge our assessments in their own right," said one.

But the officials reject charges that their efforts revealed an intelligence failure, insisting they were more confident than before that Iran had previously maintained a covert weapons plan. "We think this is actually doing the job properly," said one. "The new information allowed us to better interpret that which we had before."

In particular, the new assessment appears to embody some of the key recommendations of the 2005 Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States regarding weapons of mass destruction, charged by Mr Bush to draw lessons from the intelligence failure over Iraq.

That commission, which reported too late to alter the work for the 2005 estimate on Iran, called for the intelligence agencies to be open to different views, admit lack of knowledge and give greater attention to publicly available information.

At the briefing, the officials made clear their "paucity" of knowledge on some aspects of Iran and emphasised that the days had gone when a majority assessment could be pushed through. "Gaps remain and we admit the gaps," said one.

Instead, they said one intelligence agency, the state department's bureau of intelligence and research, differed with the others as to when Iran could obtain enough fissile material for a bomb: it says it is unlikely before 2013, while the others maintain a 2010-15 timeline.

They also made clear they had used public information more than before, not just International Atomic Energy Agency reports, which remain the main indicator of Tehran's progress in mastering nuclear technology, but also photographs taken by journalists of the Iranian enrichment plant at Natanz.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.
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