U.S. Intelligence on Iran Faulted

Intelligence agencies are facing large gaps in their intelligence on Iran, according to a newly released House Intelligence report. Robert Siegel speaks with Vali Nasr, fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, who says that the performance of the Hezbollah guerillas in the recent crisis in Lebanon shows that the West has been underestimating Iran's power.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A House Intelligence Committee report faults U.S. intelligence on Iran. Too cautious about Iran's weapons program. Too inconclusive about Iran's role in southern Iraq. That's the criticism. Is it just politics or are there differing analyses? The stories about these complaints remind many people of the arguments over intelligence about Iraq three or four years ago.

We're going to ask an Iran watcher what he makes of it. Vali Nasr is professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Welcome back to the program, Professor Nasr.

Professor VALI NASR (Naval Postgraduate School): Thank you.

SIEGEL: What do you think if the criticism that U.S. intelligence is too weak in its complaints about Iran?

Professor NASR: Well, Lebanon clearly created many surprises. Because the quality and amount of weapons and bunkers that Iran had provided Hezbollah and in good measure account for Hezbollah's performance took Israel and the West by surprise. And it's suggested that there was great gaps in understanding of Iran's not only military capabilities, but its reach across the region.

SIEGEL: If in fact we are in for an argument in Washington about what to do about Iran and one dimension of that argument is what we know Iran is up to in the region, how good is U.S. intelligence about Iran today?

Professor NASR: I think U.S. intelligence has major gaps in it. It's probably much better when it's collecting signals or looking from the satellite down at missile sites. But it's understanding of human intelligence within Iran is rather weak and then this is something that U.S. intelligence has been lacking.

SIEGEL: When you read of complaints on Capitol Hill, in this case from I guess Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and the Republican staff, complaints about U.S. intelligence on Iran, do you get the sense that political anxiety is being played out in terms of intelligence or that there really are concerns about the way intelligence is gathered and what people have seen of that intelligence that makes them fault the intelligence per se?

Professor NASR: I think both. I think there is a clear understanding that, for a long time, we downplayed Iran's regional capabilities. But at the same time during the past month, Iran's profile as the “main problem” for the United States in the region has been raised dramatically.

It's been pointed out by everybody up to the president that Iran is essentially the main backer of Hezbollah now. There are reports that Iran is the main backer of the Iraqi Shiite militias and there is the nuclear issue, which makes Iran a main foreign policy concern for the U.S. in the region.

So there is a political context, also, for analysis of intelligence about Iran as well as we're going from a period of downplaying Iran's ability to influence Iraq and Lebanon now to seeing Iran as the main problem in Iraq and Lebanon.

SIEGEL: Of course, we hear people say that Iran looks to one side and says the U.S. eliminated its rival the Taliban, and on the other side the U.S. eliminated its rival the Iraqi Baathists of Saddam Hussein. One could say that the United States has done a great deal to make Iran a greater regional power than it was.

Professor NASR: The United States helped unleash Iran's regional ambitions. The fact that the Taliban fell and the Saddam regime fell and Iran found itself with elbow room, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at the same time the U.S. found itself bogged down in Iraq definitely helped Iran to exploit the new circumstances in order to assert itself.

And I think Lebanon was a watershed war in that regard because it confirmed Iran's ability to play a regional role and it also showed the U.S. and Israel's limitations in being able to constrain Iranian influence.

SIEGEL: That's Vali Nasr, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, and author of the Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. NASR: Thank you.

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