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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Background Q&A: The Iran Intelligence Gap

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Lionel Beehner, Staff Writer
May 11, 2006


Serious gaps remain in American intelligence on Iran, experts say, creating uncertainty among some policymakers—as well as UN Security Council member states—on how best to respond to Tehran’s nuclear machinations. The gaps largely stem from a lack of spies and official U.S. presence on the ground, poor communications intercepts, and unreliable satellite imagery and data. A recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report finds no undeclared uranium-enrichment material in Iran but is inconclusive on whether Iran is carrying out a parallel program clandestinely run by the Iranian military. Estimates on how far off Iran is from being nuclear capable also vary, ranging from two to ten years.

How solid is U.S. intelligence on Iran?

It varies, experts say. The United States has had no embassy presence in Iran since 1979, and U.S. sanctions against business and limited academic ties have made it more difficult for American spies to penetrate high-level circles as nonofficial cover. "I continue to believe that our sources are stale and our case is thin," Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, recently told the New York Times. Others point to the United States' inability to read the actions of the Iranian leadership. " U.S. intelligence on the ground is quite poor, especially as it relates to understanding how decisions are made and who controls the power centers in Iran," says Jon Wolfsthal, an international-security fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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

Copyright 2006 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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