Bad Intelligence—But in Which Direction?

Since the topic of the day seems to be right-wing anger at insufficiently panicky intelligence assessments on Iran, it might be worth looking at how bad U.S. intelligence on Iran is–and in which direction it’s been wrong.

Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan have helpfully assembled a catalog of intelligence community predictions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program in their excellent book, Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Real and Potential Threat.  Here are just a few assessments:

Late 1991: In congressional reports and CIA assessments, the United States estimates that there is a ‘high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of two to three nuclear weapons.’  A February 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that these two or three nuclear weapons will be operational between February and April 1992.”

February 24, 1993: CIA director James Woolsey says that Iran is still 8 to 10 years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon, but with assistance from abroad it could become a nuclear power earlier.”

January 1995: The director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, John Holum, testifies that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.”

January 5, 1995: U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says that Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb, although ‘how soon…depends how they go about getting it.’”

April 29, 1996: Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres says ‘he believes that in four years, they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons.’”

October 21, 1998: General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, says Iran could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years.  ‘If I were a betting man,’ he said, ‘I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.’”

January 17, 2000: A new CIA assessment on Iran’s nuclear capabilities says that the CIA cannot rule out the possibility that Iran may possess nuclear weapons.  The assessment is based on the CIA’s admission that it cannot monitor Iran’s nuclear activities with any precision and hence cannot exclude the prospect that Iran may have nuclear weapons.”

It goes on for four pages like that, with some realistic predictions sprinkled in for good measure.  But I think we can all agree that we are severely underestimating Iran’s capability.  Just like we have been since 1991, when they were just a year away from a bomb.