One year ago I told the Senate Armed Services Committee that I had concluded "we were almost all wrong" at the time of the Iraq war about that country's activities with regard to weapons of mass destruction -- and never more wrong than in the assessment that Iraq had a resurgent program on the verge of producing nuclear weapons. I testified about what I saw as the major reasons we got it so wrong, and I urged the establishment of an independent commission to examine this failure and begin the long-overdue process of adjusting our intelligence capabilities to the new national security environment we face. It is an environment dominated by too-easy access to weapons of mass destruction capabilities and to the means of concealing such capabilities from international inspection and national intelligence agencies.
A year later we are still awaiting the independent commission's report. The discussion of intelligence reform has focused on reordering and adding structure on top of an eroded intelligence foundation. And now we hear the drumrolls again, this time announcing an accelerating nuclear weapons program in Iran.
There is an eerie similarity to the events preceding the Iraq war. The International Atomic Energy Agency has announced that while Iran now admits having concealed for 18 years nuclear activities that should have been reported to the IAEA, it is has found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program. Iran says it is now cooperating fully with international inspections, and it denies having anything but a peaceful nuclear energy program.
Vice President Cheney is giving interviews and speeches that paint a stark picture of a soon-to-be-nuclear-armed Iran and declaring that this is something the Bush administration will not tolerate. Iranian exiles are providing the press and governments with a steady stream of new "evidence" concerning Iran's nuclear weapons activities. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has warned that Iran will not be allowed to use the cover of civilian nuclear power to acquire nuclear weapons, but says an attack on Iran is "not on the agenda at this point." U.S. allies, while saying they share the concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, remain determined to pursue diplomacy and say they cannot conceive of any circumstance that would lead them to use military force. And the press is beginning to uncover U.S. moves that seem designed to lay the basis for military action against Iran.
Now is the time to pause and recall what went wrong with the assessment of Iraq's WMD program and try to avoid repeating those mistakes in Iran. Five steps are essential.
First, accept the fact that the past cannot be undone. Iran has, by its own admission, engaged for at least 18 years in clandestine nuclear activities that now give it the basis, if it chooses, to pursue nuclear weapons. That knowledge cannot be eliminated, so it is nonsense to talk about eliminating Iran's nuclear capabilities short of war and occupation. The goal, and one that is reachable, is to craft a set of tools and transparency measures that so tie Iran's nuclear activities to the larger world of peaceful nuclear activities that any attempt to push ahead on the weapons front would be detectable and very disruptive for Iran.
Second, acknowledge that dissidents and exiles have their own agenda -- regime change -- and that before being accepted as truth any "evidence" they might supply concerning Iran's nuclear program must be tested and confirmed by other sources. And those other sources should not be, as they often were in the case of Iraq, simply other exiles, or the same information being recycled among intelligence agencies.
Third, acknowledge what inspections by the IAEA can do, and do not denigrate the agency for what it cannot do. International inspection, when it works, is best at confirming whether a state is complying with its international obligations. It is not equipped to uncover clandestine weapons programs. When Mohamed ElBaradei says his IAEA has found no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, he is speaking honestly as to the limitations of the powers of his inspectors. Rather than ridiculing him and the IAEA, we should acknowledge what they have accomplished in determining that Iran has not lived up to its obligations and concentrate how we can use international inspections to uncover -- more quickly, one hopes -- any future violations.
Fourth, understand that overheated rhetoric from policymakers and senior administration officials, unsupported by evidence that can stand international scrutiny, undermines the ability of the United State to halt Iran's nuclear activities. Having gone to the Security Council on the basis of flawed evidence to "prove" Iraq's WMD activities, it only invites derision to cite unsubstantiated exile reports to "prove" that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Fifth, a National Intelligence Estimate as to Iran's nuclear activities should not be a rushed and cooked document used to justify the threat of military action. Now is the time for serious analysis that genuinely tries to pull together all the evidence and analytical skills of the vast U.S. intelligence community to reach the best possible judgment on the status of that program and the gaps in our knowledge. That assessment should not be led by a team that is trying to prove a case for its boss. Now is the time to reach outside the secret brotherhood and pull in respected outsiders to lead the assessment.
Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran would be a grave danger to the world. That is not what is in doubt. What is in doubt is the ability to the U.S. government to honestly assess Iran's nuclear status and to craft a set of measures that will cope with that threat short of military action by the United States or Israel.
The writer was the first leader of the Iraq Survey Group searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He resigned a year ago.