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Backgrounder: Intelligence on Iran Still Lacking

Council on Foreign Relations

Authors: Lionel Beehner
Greg Bruno, Staff Writer

Updated: December 4, 2007


The Bush administration’s list of grievances with Iran grew significantly in 2007 to include charges of funneling money, weaponry, and militants to Iraq and Afghanistan and defying the international community by continuing to enrich uranium in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Heated rhetoric and a lack of diplomatic progress has spawned speculation about a military confrontation, which would be aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as well as groups and facilities the U.S. and other intelligence agencies link to violence in Iraq.

But some U.S. analysts and policymakers continue to question the quality and credibility of American intelligence on Iran. A new National Intelligence Estimate released December 3, 2007, adds to the uncertainty. The report, a consensus review of Iran's nuclear capabilities by U.S. spy agencies, concludes Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program" in late 2003, a clear contradiction from previous intelligence reports. Bush administration officials have not disclosed what new intelligence led to the reversal. The United States has few actual spies on the ground and no consular presence in Tehran, relying on satellite imagery and intercepts.

Making matters worse, Tehran has been inconsistent on granting international inspectors access to observe its enrichment activities. Much like the run-up to the war in Iraq, U.S. officials must rely on intelligence from American allies in the region, Iranian exiles and political groups, a Dubai-based “listening post” aimed at collecting information from Iranians doing business in the Gulf, and captured Iranian-backed militants. Hovering above all these challenges, of course, are credibility problems stemming from the mishandling of intelligence before the war in Iraq.

Sources of U.S. Intelligence on Iran

Suspicions of Tehran’s nuclear intentions and its regional actions in Iraq—and more recently, Afghanistan—have prompted the United States to step up its efforts to gather intelligence on Iran.

Read the rest of this article on the cfr.org website.

Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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