Can lessons from Iraq be applied to US-Iran tensions?
A declassified CIA report on Iraq says numerous intelligence lessons have been learned from the search for WMD. But the political dynamic around Iran's nuclear program is a different matter.
More than nine years after US forces invaded Iraq, the CIA's declassified analysis of mistakes over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is rich with lessons that apply to Iran, as talk of another war simmers.Skip to next paragraph
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The outlines of the US intelligence failure on Iraq are well-known: Expectations that Saddam Hussein had a dangerous arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and even fresh nuclear ambitions, proved to be an illusion.
Less understood are how the Iraq conclusions are being applied to understanding the Islamic Republic and its nuclear motivations. Signs abound that the US has learned numerous intelligence lessons; but the fraught political dynamics that can lead to war persist.
"Analysts tended to focus on what was most important to us – the hunt for WMD – and less on what would be most important for a paranoid dictatorship to protect," says the January 2006 report, one portion of what the CIA calls its “Iraq WMD Retrospective Series.” Labeled "Secret," it was declassified this summer and published in September by the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, though entire sections of the document are excised.
"Viewed through an Iraqi prism, their reputation, their security, their overall technological capabilities, and their status needed to be preserved," notes the report, which was released six years after the archive made its request. "Deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread."
One obvious result of the lessons learned from the Iraq intelligence failure already become clear, and were made public, however, with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. That report challenged long-held assumptions with its determination that Iran had halted a nuclear weapons effort years earlier, in the fall of 2003, and that Iran made decisions based on a rational “cost-benefit analysis.”
Similar conclusions were made in a second NIE on Iran in 2011, which has never been made public. US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reaffirmed those Iran conclusions again in testimony last January.
But it's unclear if the US is any closer to understanding Iran's gamesmanship on related issues, from the UN's yearlong bid for access to a suspect site at Parchin to the sincerity of repeated statements rejecting nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.
"The Iraq experience has already produced a different mindset in the intelligence community in its premier national product (the NIE)," says Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA who worked on Iran and Iraq for years and is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.