U.S. Intelligence on Iran: The quests to get it, and to believe it

Following the leak of a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on September 23, which suggested that the Iraq intervention had stimulated the growth of terrorism, intelligence has become the focus of the mid-term election campaign. (President Bush has now partly declassified the NIE.)Politicians from both parties are attempting to influence intelligence analyses of Iran’s nuclear activities, which may have political and policy implications.


Curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is perhaps the most significant foreign policy challenge for the United States after the ‘war on terror’ and Iraq and is bound up with both of those issues.

U.S. policy options hinge on discerning the true nature of nuclear activities in Iran. Tehran contends they are peaceful and within the bounds of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it has lied about its nuclear activities in the past. U.S. intelligence is expected to help discern the true nature of Iran’s nuclear program, thereby strengthening international resolve against Iran’s activities. But these efforts have been hobbled by two interrelated factors:

• Without direct access to all potential Iranian nuclear sites, intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) research and development involves a level of conjecture.
• In the aftermath of the October 2002 NIE on Iraq’s WMD, there is considerable international skepticism about any U.S. intelligence in this area.
NIE scope

Much of the debate in the United States has centered on the forthcoming NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. NIEs are the most significant in-depth analyses produced by U.S. intelligence. Most agencies within the intelligence community take part in them, and they are personally authorized by the Director of National Intelligence. NIEs give agencies scope to disagree, but the fact that the estimates involve so many powerful government organizations makes them influential.

NIEs are typically initiated by the intelligence community on issues that they know will require this type of treatment to inform and support policymakers. Members of the administration can also request NIEs, as can Congress. For example, the 2002 Iraq WMD estimate was written at the request of the Senate Intelligence Committee to assist senators before the vote on using force against Iraq, although very few senators appear to have actually read the estimate.

The two major parties are both jockeying to leverage intelligence, particularly the NIE process, to support their preferred approach to the Iran nuclear issue:


In May, several ranking Democratic senators sent a letter to President Bush requesting an in-depth estimate on Iran, including its foreign policy goals, nuclear activities, military capabilities and ties to terrorism. The letter cited the need to avoid the “mistakes made” prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The political goal was to forestall any policy moves by the president until there was more intelligence analysis on Iran. In June, Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (D-Nev.) escalated this push, introducing the Iran Intelligence Oversight Act, which would require, among other provisions, an updated NIE on Iran with an “unclassified summary”.


In August, the Republican-controlled Intelligence Policy Subcommittee of the House Intelligence Committee released a staff report entitled “Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat.” The report, based on ‘open source’ materials, notes there are “critical” gaps in U.S. intelligence on Iran. However, it concludes that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons, probably has an offensive chemical weapons program, and probably has an offensive biological weapons program.


This report is something of a departure for an intelligence oversight committee, as they rarely prepare independent analyses of current intelligence issues. More typically, they offer assessments of how well U.S. intelligence agencies are performing. Democrats charged that the committee was trying to influence intelligence analyses by publicly stating a conclusion ahead of an NIE. The House report became even more controversial in September, when officials of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called it “outrageous and dishonest” and said that some statements in the report were false, “misleading and unsubstantiated.”


At this point, any U.S. intelligence analysis of Iran is likely to be met with severe criticism, if not outright dismissal, from one or both parties

Intelligence assessing that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons will be attacked by Democrats as the product of pressure from the administration and congressional Republicans. These critics are almost certain to cite the Iraq WMD estimate and argue that since its conclusions proved very problematic, assessments of Iran should also be viewed skeptically.

Intelligence assessing that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons will agitate members of Congress concerned about the direction of the Iranian program. They will probably argue that the intelligence community is ‘soft’ on Tehran or that it is ‘gun shy’ after the Iraq experience.

Such an assessment might also risk displeasing the Bush administration, which has had a difficult relationship with some intelligence agencies (particularly the CIA) since 2004. At that time, some members of the administration suspected that the intelligence community was supporting the presidential candidacy of Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJohn Kerry to NYU Abu Dhabi: We can't address world problems by 'going it alone' Juan Williams: Trump's dangerous lies on Iran Pompeo: US tried, failed to achieve side deal with European allies MORE (D-Mass.). Relations became so strained that John McLaughlin, the acting director of central intelligence, called the president to assure him that these allegations were false.


The Iraqi precedent will loom large in any deliberations in the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions against Iran if it were found to be violating its NPT obligations. Likewise, the politically charged and very public nature of the U.S. intelligence debate may also have a significant impact on Washington’s diplomatic efforts. These factors may make the task of convincing other council members to take action against Iran, based upon U.S. intelligence reports, exceptionally difficult. It gives countries that are already inclined to resist U.S. leadership over the Iranian nuclear issue an additional excuse to demur.

The continuing political controversy surrounding U.S. intelligence assessments means that, for the time being, such analyses may have a comparatively small impact on policy. This may have a negative impact on Washington’s efforts to rally international support for action against Tehran’s nuclear program.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com.