U.S. Intel on Iran: Is It Iraq Again?

Political pressure and sober intelligence analysis don't mix well. Paul R. Pillar, who served as the CIA's National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, took that as a clear lesson from the Iraq war. So when a House intelligence committee issued a sharply worded report on Iran last week, Pillar had concerns. Authors of the study—"Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States"—chastised U.S. spy agencies for "major gaps in our knowledge of Iranian nuclear, biological and chemical programs," and insisted that intelligence analysts must "not shy away from provocative conclusions."

The report was immediately controversial. The New York Times said it "seems intended to signal the intelligence community that the Republican leadership wants scarier assessments that would justify a more confrontational approach to Tehran." Pillar, who retired from the CIA a year ago, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet at the offices of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, where he's on the faculty. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The new intelligence committee report criticizes U.S. spy agencies for not providing enough evidence about Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs and ties to terrorism. Does this have echoes of Iraq and what you call the "politicization of intelligence"? Is it happening again?

Paul R. Pillar: I see worrisome signs of it happening again. When you have pressures coming from one place on the political spectrum—which seem to be pressures to come up with evidence to support a conclusion that is already there—I take that as a worrisome sign of the same sort of thing. The bright side here is that the unhappiness of Iraq is still fresh enough in all of our minds … we will all be on our guard.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra told The Washington Post that he and his committee wanted to avoid another "slam dunk"—a reference to George Tenet's infamous assessment of the case for Iraqi WMD programs. Is that a fair concern?

Of course. It should be a concern for everyone. To recall the context of "slam dunk," and not to justify it—George himself has said those were the two dumbest words he ever uttered—it was in the context of a policy train that was already moving and an administration that was working hard to make a public case to support the policy.

Is the underlying criticism correct—that U.S. intelligence on Iran is poor?

I'll translate by saying, "Do we have major gaps in our understanding and in our knowledge of Iran's nuclear and weapons programs?" Yes, absolutely. How much of that can be filled or corrected through better or more strenuous intelligence efforts? That's much less certain. It's a very hard target. The Director of National Intelligence has identified it as a hard target. He has put a special issue manager in charge of it, for the express purpose of trying to enhance and better coordinate and improve intelligence efforts throughout the community. I should add that my personal judgment is that Iran is pursuing acquisition of nuclear weapons. That's still an inference; I can't point to any smoking gun. But I also believe it's not an irreversible path. Depending on what incentives policymakers in Tehran see, and depending on the political evolution inside Iran, that could change in the future. History has had a lot of other instances of countries [such as South Africa and non-Russian Soviet republics] that have backed away from nuclear weapons programs.

The report states that analysts must "not shy away from provocative conclusions or bury disagreements in consensus assessments." Are you aware of significant disagreements over U.S. intelligence on Iran ?

The short answer to that is, no. And I believe that what was publicly reported as the consensus view of the intelligence community—that yes, Iran has a program, but they're probably still several years away from acquiring a weapon—is widely and broadly held within the community.

There seem to be people who draw a distinction between the timeframe for acquiring a weapon and the timeframe for Iran being able to complete the nuclear fuel cycle, which will mean they have the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon. How close are they to completing that nuclear fuel cycle?

Well, obviously they're closer to that than to a weapon, but I hasten to add: people talk about that in terms of points of no return. And I think that's a ridiculous concept. There is no point of no return.

It's Israeli officials who talk …

Who talk about the point of no return. That's right. And I think that's a ridiculous concept. There's no reason any country—Iran or anyone else who has such a program—can't turn back or won't turn back with the right incentives.

There are different opinions on whether or not Israel has the capacity to eliminate or severely derail Iran 's nuclear program with air strikes. What do you think?

Any attempt to incapacitate or derail the Iranian nuclear program—be it by Israel or the United States or anyone else—would in my judgment almost certainly fall short. Some damage would be inflicted, there would be some retarding, but given the high probability that the program is so dispersed and so hardened … it would not be disabling. And then of course it would have all the other negative effects.

Just to clarify that point, there are some who say that Israel could strike one blow, but one blow would not do nearly enough, and that the United States has the capacity to strike multiple blows. Is that correct?

The U.S. has the capacity to strike more often, and it would make at least a marginally greater dent in the program. But even that would not be completely disabling.

The report also seems to criticize spy agencies for not providing enough evidence about the connections between Iran and Hizbullah. Is that fair?

That issue has been a high priority for intelligence collection and analysis for over 20 years, ever since Hizbullah was formed. When you hear that statement … it's an objection to substantive conclusions, based on the voluminous work of the intelligence community, that Hizbullah is not simply a puppet of Tehran. It never has been, and as it has grown and strengthened and enhanced its political role over the years, it's become even less beholden to its Iranian sponsor. Make no mistake, there's still a strong alliance between the two. Hizbullah would do some things at Tehran's behest, or would be encouraged to take action if the Iranians wanted them to do it. But Hizbullah is much more than just a puppet of Iran.

Would Iran likely provide Hizbullah with a sea-skimming missile, like the one that struck an Israeli warship in the recent conflict, without ensuring that it had some say in how and when the missile would be used?

I couldn't make a judgment on that. We could never expect the kind of intelligence on something quite so specific as particular weapons systems and the conditions associated with them.

Would sanctions be effective against Iran ?

The principles by which sanctions work or don't work apply just as much to Iran as to other countries. One of the main ones is that they need to be as widespread—as multilateral—in their application as possible. What we've had for quite a number of years now are unilateral U.S. sanctions, which haven't made much difference.

How reliable are Iranian exile groups, like the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), and do they collect intelligence themselves or do they get it from state agencies that want to launder information?

One always has to ask, with any such source, what are the motivations for the information they provide, and what axe is being ground? That said, it is relevant that the MEK has been the source of some revelations that turned out to be true with regard to the Iranian nuclear program … One cannot dismiss such groups as a source of information even though you do have to check everything out. It's also a statement of how big our intelligence gaps are on the Iranian nuclear program that the revelation of a major [nuclear] facility would come first from a group like the MEK. I mean, it's almost embarrassing.