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.
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He notes that in the case of Iran, focus has been "almost exclusively on how do we get them out of the nuclear business, and secondarily, how do we get them out of the terrorism business," says Mr. Riedel. "The harder thing to evaluate is ... do we have sufficient empathy for how the Iranians see the problem, instead of how we see the problem?"Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Iran's military might
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Military exercises, strident statements
Increasingly strident rhetoric toward war with Iran reached a crescendo earlier this year, especially from Israel, which claims an Iranian nuclear weapon would be an "existential threat."
Iran frequently trumpets its military power and conducts extensive exercises in its bid to deter any US or Israeli strike. And in Washington and Tel Aviv, "no option is off the table" is the typical code phrase for military action. The US has led the movement to impose stringent sanctions against Iran's economy.
Yet, notes Ali Vaez, Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group in Washington, the NIE assessment that Iran halted its structured clandestine nuclear program in 2003 shows caution in the US intelligence community when it comes to drawing conclusions.
But that restraint could be trumped by other factors. "The problem [today] is that more political lessons have been forgotten than intelligence lessons learned," says Mr. Vaez. "In a mirror image of Iraq, Iran is guilty in Washington's corridors of power until proven innocent."
Iran has refused access to Parchin in the past year, for example; Iranian diplomats suggest privately that they expect to resolve outstanding issues such as Parchin with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as part of a broader deal with world powers over its nuclear program.
But that Iranian refusal – while at the same time engaging in "substantial" landscaping of the site, which the IAEA says undermines its ability to inspect it for traces of past nuclear work – echoes many Iraqi weapons inspections in the 1990s. In those standoffs, Iraqi officials often behaved as if they had something to hide, when in fact they did not.
As the CIA’s 2006 assessment states, “Iraq’s intransigence and deceptive practices during the periods of UN inspections between 1991 and 2003 deepened suspicions … that Baghdad had ongoing WMD programs.”
The CIA further notes that Iraqi attempts “to find face-saving means to disclose previously hidden information” meant that Iraqi attempts later to “close the books” only “reinvigorated the hunt for concealed WMD, as analysts perceived that Iraq had both the intent and capability to continue WMD efforts.…”
This led Iraq to one conclusion, similar to the public declarations of Iranian leaders today: “When Iraq’s revelations were met by added UN scrutiny and distrust, frustrated Iraqi leaders deepened their belief that inspections were politically motivated and would not lead to the end of sanctions,” read the CIA report.