Iran Is Not Iraq, But It Could Be

In June, the Central Intelligence Agency quietly declassified a 2006 report on the war in Iraq. In 16 pages, the agency tries to explain why American analysts so badly misjudged Iraq’s intentions and capabilities, and why the U.S. went to war in 2003 despite the fact that Iraq had decided to dismantle its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs eight years earlier, in 1995.

The document, though heavily redacted, makes for fascinating reading, not only because of what it says about the past, but because some of it feels strangely familiar, too familiar. At some points, you could substitute the word “Iran” for “Iraq” and not skip a beat.

But of course, comparisons require caution. Iran is not Iraq. Let’s briefly consider each.

Saddam Hussein’s chemical, biological, and nuclear programs came under intensifying international scrutiny after Iraq’s invasion of and subsequent expulsion from Kuwait in 1990.

Adopting a worst-case mindset can lead policymakers to take actions that precipitate the very thing they are trying to avoid.

International inspectors found strong evidence that Iraq was violating the rules, and for its part, Iraq responded with a vigorous policy of “deny and deceive.” If inspectors did catch on to something, Baghdad would deny it and then destroy the evidence that it had existed. Not surprisingly, the relationship between Iraq and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) was adversarial and defined by mistrust.

But unknown to the outside world, the situation changed dramatically in 1995, when Saddam’s son-in-law and overseer of the special weapons programs briefly defected. In the wake of the defection, Saddam decided to shut it all down and to destroy all evidence, so that no one could prove the existence of illicit weapons programs.

And here is the irony. When Saddam got rid of all the evidence, he got rid of anything that could verify that the program had, in fact, been destroyed. In addition, having destroyed the evidence, Baghdad now had to submit false reports that were seen for what they were – lies. As a consequence, analysts continued to believe that Iraq had an active WMD program when… it did not.

As the CIA report points out:

“Ironically, even at key junctures when the regime attempted to partially or fully comply with U.N resolutions its suspicious behavior and destruction of authenticating documentation only reinforced the perception that Iraq was being deceptive.”

Two other dynamics are noteworthy.

First, because of Iraq’s pre-1995 deceitful behavior, the CIA document points out that when officials considered, “inconclusive or uncertain data, analysts made judgments with the conviction that Iraq could successfully conceal damaging data.” In other words, the analysts’ assumptions generated the most pessimistic, worst case conclusions.

The second point concerns Iraq’s perception of events. The country had come “clean,” but since no one was willing to believe it, Baghdad began to suspect that this was not about WMD programs, but rather part of a larger political strategy to isolate the regime. Iraqi officials began to suspect that the West would never provide sanctions relief, no matter what they did.

Ultimately, the fundamental misperceptions and miscalculations by both sides resulted in a costly, decade long war.

So now consider the case of contemporary Iran. Compared to the Iraqi story, there are both important differences and worrying similarities.

According to the director of National Intelligence, America’s highest intelligence official, Iran had a “structured” nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, but then the Supreme Leader put a halt to the program. (Analysts continue to suspect other weapons related activities have persisted past 2003, but not a full blown program with political approval.)


Unlike the Iraqi story, U.S. intelligence has high confidence that Iran did indeed halt its program. In addition, early in Iran’s nuclear dossier, Tehran did own up to having violated the rules. For example, they admitted to having received materials, including weapons designs, from foreign suppliers like A. Q. Khan, who is known as the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

But there are also worrisome similarities.

First, recent Iranian efforts to cover up past weapons activities at the Parchin military facility certainly have the look and feel of a government hiding past activities that have been discontinued. In covering up the past, however, Iran actions draw suspicion from the outside world.

Second, the relationship between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) looks to be as distrustful and adversarial as it was between Iraq and UNSCOM. Iran can employ a discursive and maddening style of bargaining that does not instill a sense of confidence in those on the other side of the table.

For its part, Iran cannot help but wonder whether the West’s true intentions have more to do with regime change than dismantling a weapons program. They suspect that the investigation process will never end, but simply result in moving the goal posts and continued sanctions.

Third, much of the public discourse on Iran seems to assume the worst: that Iran would make a dash for the bomb and risk everything in order to build a single weapon. No country in the nuclear age has behaved that way, and it does not make a lot of sense from the proliferator’s standpoint. Yet for some strange reason, that is the potential scenario most analysts cite. Adopting a worst-case mindset can lead policymakers to take actions that precipitate the very thing they are trying to avoid.

Finally, I worry that Iran will miscalculate, just as Saddam did. Saddam simply did not believe the U.S. would invade, and he paid for that error.

It is not inconceivable to me that Iran would kick out the IAEA inspectors or withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for its own political reasons, having nothing to do with any weapons ambitions. If they were to do so, however, the outside world would understandably assume that they had decided to go for the bomb, and war might soon follow.

Iran is not Iraq, but the potential for errors on all sides suggests that if we are not careful, it could be.


James Walsh was one of more than 30 foreign policy experts to sign a new report entitled, “The Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran.”

Walsh explains that:

“its purpose is to lay out — in as objective a fashion as possible — the potential benefits and costs of pursuing the military option in Iran. And also to consider first order questions about objectives, means, and exit strategy.”

Read the full report here.
A New York Times editorial about the report can be found here.

This program aired on September 24, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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