US Intelligence on Iran Does Not Stand up
Much of the intelligence on Iran's nuclear facilities provided to UN inspectors by American spy agencies has turned out to be unfounded, according to diplomatic sources in Vienna.
The claims, reminiscent of the intelligence fiasco surrounding the Iraq war, coincided with a sharp increase in international tension as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was defying a UN security council ultimatum to freeze its nuclear programme.
That report, delivered to the security council by the IAEA director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, sets the stage for a fierce international debate on the imposition of stricter sanctions on Iran, and raises the possibility that the US might resort to military action against Iranian nuclear sites.
At the heart of the debate are accusations, spearheaded by the US, that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. However, most of the tip-offs about supposed secret weapons sites provided by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies have led to dead ends when investigated by IAEA inspectors, according to informed sources in Vienna.
"Most of it has turned out to be incorrect," said a diplomat at the IAEA with detailed knowledge of the agency's investigations. "They gave us a paper with a list of sites. [The inspectors] did some follow-up, they went to some military sites, but there was no sign of [banned nuclear] activities."
"Now [the inspectors] don't go in blindly. Only if it passes a credibility test."
One particularly contentious issue concerned records of plans to build a nuclear warhead, which the CIA said it found on a stolen laptop computer supplied by an informant inside Iran. In July 2005, US intelligence officials showed printed versions of the material to IAEA officials, who judged it to be sufficiently specific to confront Iran.
Tehran rejected the material as forgeries and there are still reservations about its authenticity in the IAEA, according to officials with knowledge of the internal debate inside the agency.
"First of all, if you have a clandestine programme, you don't put it on laptops which can walk away," one official said. "The data is all in English which may be reasonable for some of the technical matters, but at some point you'd have thought there would be at least some notes in Farsi. So there is some doubt over the provenance of the computer."