Although convinced that Iran is “vigorously” pursuing programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the U.S. intelligence community has few sources of reliable information on any illicit arms activities by the Islamic republic, current and former intelligence officials and Middle East experts say.
The United States has struggled to get more than glimpses and incomplete accounts of Tehran’s weapons programs, they say, despite the fact that American spy agencies are in a better position to collect information on Iran since U.S.-led invasions and occupations of two of the country’s neighbors in the last three years.
The dearth of quality intelligence has complicated American efforts to convince other nations to more aggressively confront Iran, and accounts for the caution expressed by some U.S. intelligence officials last week when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he had seen important new evidence that Iran was pursuing ways to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
“There are parts of the Iranian world that are not impenetrable,” said a former senior CIA official who left the agency several months ago. The CIA and other U.S. spy services have been able to get a steady stream of reports on political developments inside the regime, he said, and have had some success tracking Iran’s support of terrorist networks, including Hezbollah.
But Tehran “is particularly controlling and tight” in maintaining secrecy around its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs, the former official said.
“As with any country that may be pursuing WMD,” he said, referring to weapons of mass destruction, “that’s the most difficult nut to crack.”
The combination of the hard-line U.S. diplomatic stance and the scant underlying intelligence has prompted comparisons to the United States’ flawed case for war against Iraq. Despite the parallels, officials and experts said they believe there were important distinctions.
“We have so much more access to Iran” than U.S. intelligence did to Iraq before the war or to North Korea currently, said a congressional official with access to classified intelligence reports.
The official noted that significant numbers of Iranians travel abroad and that Iran is more open to outside visitors than either Iraq or North Korea.
“The window into Iran is much better,” the official said.
Indeed, a secret CIA station in Los Angeles for years has cultivated contacts with members of the large Iranian population in Southern California, seeking information from those who have returned from trips to Iran or are in contact with relatives there, former CIA officials familiar with the program say.
Intelligence officials also note that unlike in Iraq, where inspectors searched the country before the U.S. invasion and found no evidence of ongoing illegal weapons programs, United Nations inspectors over the last year have confirmed that Iran has built facilities capable of enriching uranium, the main ingredient in a nuclear bomb.
Tehran says the facilities and equipment are for providing nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian use. Many U.S. analysts and experts doubt that explanation.
On Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. watchdog, reported in Vienna that Iran and three European nations were near agreement on Iran’s suspending programs to enrich uranium using centrifuges, a process that can provide material for either power generation or nuclear weapons. An earlier agreement with Britain, France and Germany appeared to unravel this week when Iran insisted on allowing 20 centrifuges to continue operating.
This week, the CIA released a report concluding that Iran has “continued to vigorously pursue indigenous programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.” In particular, the report says the U.S. “remains convinced that Tehran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program” and that Iran “received significant assistance” from the nuclear proliferation network headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Iran has pledged to suspend enrichment activities, but some U.S. officials are concerned that it will continue nuclear weapons work at hidden locations. Although inspectors have visited Iran’s declared sites and gathered valuable information, “they don’t have any access to facilities that are undeclared or covert,” a CIA official said. “Inspectors inspect what they’re allowed to inspect.”
The suspicion that Iran may have secret nuclear facilities would be a major complication if the U.S. or another nation were to attempt to disable Iran’s program with military strikes. The Bush administration has not proposed such an extreme measure and so far has backed European leaders’ efforts to negotiate with Tehran.
The U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided new opportunities for American intelligence agencies to recruit informants traversing Iran’s borders. U.S. officials believe that hundreds of Iranian intelligence operatives and members of the country’s Revolutionary Guard have flowed into Iraq to provide material and support to Shiite Muslim clerics and elements of the insurgency.
Iran’s activities are “bad news for what the United States is trying to do in Iraq,” said Daniel Byman, a former Middle East analyst at the CIA who is an assistant professor at Georgetown University. “But the silver lining is it gives you access to streams of recruits,” meaning some Iranian operatives might be coaxed into providing information to the United States.
Officials said that although there had been efforts to question Iranians, they had produced little useful information.
David Kay, the former head of the U.S. weapons search team in Iraq, said that “all the collection efforts are so dominated by security issues in Iraq” that the Iranians were asked almost exclusively about threats to U.S. forces and the interim Iraqi government.
Questions about Iranian weapons programs or other developments in Tehran were not part of interrogation scripts, Kay said, in part because Iranian agents operating in Iraq were seen as unlikely to have valuable information on those topics. The CIA declined to comment on its activities in the region.
The United States also relies extensively on satellites, surveillance aircraft and electronic eavesdropping equipment to monitor Tehran’s nuclear activities. But “technical” collection efforts on Iran suffered a major blow this year when Tehran learned that the Americans had cracked its communications codes. U.S. officials have accused a former close ally of the Pentagon, Ahmad Chalabi, of leaking the information to Tehran.
“There was little doubt about that,” said the former CIA official, who added that the disclosure had crippled one of the most successful U.S. intelligence operations against Iran.
Chalabi has denied the allegation.
In his remarks to reporters last week, Powell asserted that Iran was seeking to develop the capability to attach a nuclear warhead to a missile.
Experts said such efforts to develop longer-range missiles can be detected from satellite photos of the missiles and their launching stations, or from monitoring of tests of the devices. Improvements in warhead design are far more difficult to detect, if not impossible, without information from a human source with knowledge of the program.
Some of the most valuable information on Iran to surface in recent years has come from a longtime opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which claims to have a network of supporters inside the country tracking Tehran’s nuclear and terrorist activities.
The Paris-based group was the first to disclose the existence of the secret uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, a report that was subsequently confirmed by inspectors. The group has a mixed record on the accuracy of other claims, and several years ago it was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department. But its public statements and claims are studied carefully by U.S. intelligence agencies.
“They obviously got sources inside their home country,” said the former CIA official. “It’s better than ‘rumint,’ ” he said, using a common spy term for intelligence based on rumors.
Times staff writer Sonya Yee contributed from Vienna.