John Stokes

The West’s intelligence deficit on Iran

The West's intelligence deficit on Iran
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At the headquarters of the Defense Intelligence Agency outside of Washington DC, there are no cardboard mockups of Iran’s nuclear sites that can be used for briefing the military on plans of attack. Instead, there is a very cool 3D map table that allows the viewer to fly into and through the many layers of the nuclear facilities.

A movement of the hands can expand or contract the view from an image of an individual room to the perspective from an overhead satellite. On the basis of that briefing, an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites looks easy, right down to the dialing in of the depth at which a new line of bunker busting bombs would have to detonate to do the maximum damage.

If only the reality of intelligence was so simple. The harsh facts on the ground are that neither a single intelligence agency, nor the collective wisdom of the Brits, Israelis, French and Americans, has given us a full picture of what is going on either in Iran’s nuclear program or in the minds of the leadership in Tehran.

It is that lack of confidence in the intelligence that has constrained all western diplomatic activity so far. Behind all the rhetoric designed to persuade Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions lies one simple question: if diplomacy fails, would a military strike succeed?

The answer, as in so much military planning, is an equivocal ‘maybe’.

For the last decade, intense effort has been put into trying to understand the extent of Iran’s nuclear program. There have been some successes: the discovery of a laptop which revealed a great deal about the programme and the recruitment of some spies have both been helpful.

However, there is nobody who will confidently predict that a military attack by the US on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be effective. Certainly the known sites could be destroyed but one depressing scenario suggests that Iran has a much more developed nuclear weapons programme than is thought, that the really secret sites remain undetected and the consequences of a preemptive strike by the US might be a retaliatory strike against Washington, Paris or London with devastating consequences.

The wild card in all this is Israel, which has good intelligence sources inside Iran. The Israelis have made clear that they will have no hesitation in launching a preemptive strike to safeguard their homeland. They argue that even if Iran has a more extensive nuclear programme, an attack is worth the risk.

If Iran agrees this week to a Western proposal to ship its uranium to Russia for reprocessing, there is no guarantee that the nuclear program will end. On the contrary, US intelligence is certain that Iran has other hidden and still secret nuclear sites where work on developing a nuclear bomb could continue.

Current estimates suggest that Tehran could have a nuclear bomb by the end of next year or early 2011, although other estimates place the date somewhere in 2014. But, then, those estimates have always been wrong before. Israel, South Africa, Libya, Pakistan and India all had secret nuclear programs the extent of which were a surprise to US intelligence agencies once they were exposed. And, on the other hand, where US intelligence believed that Iraq had a nuclear program, there was none.