Skepticism Greets U.S. Protestations Over Iran

Times Staff Writers

For the second time in a year, the United States is trying to persuade a skeptical international community to confront a Middle Eastern nation that the Bush administration believes is bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

This time, the target is Iran instead of Iraq, but much of the script is the same. The administration believes that intelligence shows beyond a doubt that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and that the United Nations should respond with punitive action. Key members of the international community disagree on what to do.

And this time, the U.S. must contend with the skepticism raised by its failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The U.N. atomic watchdog agency last week issued a report saying that although Iran has long concealed elements of a nuclear program, inspectors have "found no evidence" that Iran's activities were part of a weapons program -- although it said such a goal could not be ruled out.

The U.S. says the covert activities make sense only as part of a weapons program, and it wants the matter referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. But some key European members of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, including Britain, France and Germany, argue that Iran should be given more time to explain itself. Iran insists that its nuclear program exists solely for generating electricity.

U.S. and European officials agree that at heart, their differences over Iran's nuclear activities are more about how to respond than about suspicions that U.S. intelligence is wrong.

"I think it's a political disagreement on how tough a stance to take and how much they want to accept Iran's promise," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. The U.S. believes, he said, that "there needs to be some sort of effort by the [Security] Council to make sure Iran complies with its promise" as well as "corrective activities" to deal with the Iranian history of noncompliance.

Still, IAEA officials, European diplomats and American analysts say U.S. credibility has been damaged by the way in which Washington built its case against Iraq, and they fear that, as a result, its ability to rally diplomatic support for future confrontations has been diminished.

Governments reluctant to support sanctions or other diplomatic actions against nations deemed threatening can point to Iraq and raise doubts when the U.S. says it has evidence of illicit weapons programs, these observers say.

Administration officials reject that assessment and say that the failure to find chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, or evidence that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, has not hurt their efforts to put together coalitions to confront Iran or North Korea, whose nuclear program has also alarmed the United States. They say American weapons inspectors are continuing their search in Iraq and have uncovered some evidence that Baghdad had not abandoned its banned weapons programs.

But with no banned weapons found in Iraq, the bar for the U.S. has been raised, observers say.

"Because of the lack of credibility [the Americans] have, many countries are not going to take their [assertions about other nations] at face value," said an IAEA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They're going to challenge it. They'll request additional information. They're going to say, 'Thank you very much, but we have to do our own assessment.' "

In a recent speech, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to President Carter, said the situation with Iraq had created a "credibility gap" that would undermine U.S. influence for years to come.

More than 40 years ago, Brzezinski said, French President Charles de Gaulle declined an offer to see U.S. spy photographs of Soviet missile installations under construction in Cuba, saying it was unnecessary.

"I do not wish to see the photographs. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me," De Gaulle said, according to Brzezinski, who added: "Would any foreign leader today react the same way to an American emissary sent abroad to say that Country X is armed with weapons of mass destruction that threaten the United States? It is unlikely."

That new skepticism is already in evidence.

The IAEA official who asked not to be identified said the agency would never have agreed to impose last month's deadline for Iran to answer questions about its nuclear activities based on U.S. intelligence alone. That stands in contrast, he and other agency officials said, to earlier cases in which American intelligence was essentially accepted at face value.

The IAEA official said U.S. claims about Tehran were viewed with skepticism until Iran owned up to some activities and the agency independently confirmed others.

"The U.S. has always been saying Iran has been pursuing a nuclear program, but based on what?" asked a second IAEA official, who also asked not to be named. "They've given us some information but nothing that would lead us to draw that conclusion. One year ago today, we knew almost nothing. It's only been from IAEA work on the ground that we have confirmation that there has been suspect activity."

Last August "was the first time we got information from the CIA and Iranian opposition groups saying that the Iranians were building a secret [uranium] enrichment plant," said the first IAEA official. "When confronted with that, the Iranians admitted it, and that triggered the whole process."

The agency reacted much differently in the early 1990s, when the United States prompted it to act on North Korea by showing it satellite pictures of a nuclear center at Yongbyon.

"Nobody challenged that information. The credibility of American intelligence was very high," said the IAEA official. "Based on that meeting, the U.S. convinced all the members of the board that the North Koreans were violating the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty."

The IAEA did send in its own inspectors to confirm the U.S. evidence, and it swiftly referred the matter to the Security Council.

It is not just on Iran and Iraq that the U.S. is facing skepticism.

Bush administration assertions that Cuba has a germ warfare research effort have been greeted with suspicion by many in Latin America. Few believe there is any basis for the claim, and some see an ulterior motive by the U.S.

"We are a lot more worried that [U.S. claims regarding Cuba] are a move to pave the way for an American intervention in Cuba," said Armando Chavarria, a member of the Mexican Senate's foreign relations committee.

Many diplomats say they still hold U.S. intelligence in high regard, and consider the failure to find banned weapons in Iraq an aberration. European intelligence services continue to cooperate closely with U.S. counterparts and respect the technological capabilities and global reach of U.S. spy agencies.

"The Americans have to be vigilant all over the world in a way that no one else does," said a European intelligence official who asked not to be identified. "And they do a good job."

Criticism of the U.S. intelligence on Iraq has been restrained because even European nations that opposed the war never disputed that Iraq had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, although some were skeptical of U.S. claims that the country had reconstituted its nuclear arms program.

European governments instead differed with the United States about what to do -- arguing that the threat posed by Iraq was not imminent and could be dealt with through inspections and sanctions.

But there is a perception -- shared by foreign intelligence services as well as U.S. lawmakers and experts -- that American policymakers have manipulated intelligence, and that the United States has relied too much on its technical prowess while neglecting its recruitment of spies. The CIA is only beginning to ramp up its so-called human intelligence programs after years of decline.

U.S. strengths and weaknesses, analysts say, are evident in the performance of U.S. spy agencies on Iran and Iraq. Although Washington may have missed the mark on Iraq, its intelligence on Iran has largely been verified.

Some explain that discrepancy by noting that a nuclear program like the one in Iran plays to U.S. intelligence strengths. Nuclear programs require large facilities and substantial quantities of material that are difficult to hide from satellites and other high-tech means of gathering information.

"You have to import a lot of parts, you have to bring in experts," said a senior administration official, who asked not to be named. "And if certain parts seem to be going to certain facilities that are suspect, it's hard to hide."

In contrast, bioweapons laboratories can be housed in small basements and involve relatively minuscule quantities of biological agents. Unearthing information on such programs often depends on defectors or spies.

The senior administration official also noted that Iran is a more open society than Iraq was or North Korea is, making it easier to monitor what is happening there. In fact, some of the most important new intelligence regarding Iran's nuclear program came not from the CIA or other spy agencies, but from a radical Iranian exile opposition group, the Moujahedeen Khalq, which seeks to overthrow the regime in Tehran.

"There were no such opposition groups in Iraq," said the senior administration official. "And North Korea is the most closed society on Earth. Most of its [nuclear] programs are underground, probably being run by slave labor. It's an extremely difficult target to penetrate."

Administration officials are dismayed by the IAEA's refusal in its report to conclude that Iran's activities were part of a weapons program.

"They drew an illogical conclusion for a political reason," said the senior official. He insisted that the IAEA's softer stance had nothing to do with intelligence, and instead reflected the agency's desire to encourage Tehran to cooperate with new inspections.

But the problem of credibility, diplomats and analysts say, will come up again.

"The problem of Iraq is that whenever there really is a wolf roaming among the flocks and we cry out, how is someone going to believe us?" said Greg Thielmann, a former official in the State Department's intelligence bureau. "We've wasted so much of our credibility."

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Times staff writers Sonni Efron and Paul Richter in Washington, Douglas Frantz in Istanbul, Turkey, Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Richard Boudreaux in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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