ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Diplomats are not typically given to candor when they know next to nothing about a country. But yesterday on this program, we heard former ambassador Nicholas Burns admit this about Iran.
Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Former U.S. Ambassador to Greece): We know so little about that country. Thirty years, no business people there, Americans, no journalists there, no diplomats there.
SIEGEL: And virtually, no spies there. Ever since the 1979 Revolution, the CIA has had no permanent presence in Iran.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on how much U.S. intelligence agencies really know about that country.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Generations of Western spies have tried, and mostly failed, to decipher events in Iran. Martin Indyk was among them, working for Australian intelligence 30 years ago.
Indyk, who's since served as a U.S. diplomat, regaled a recent gathering at the Brookings Institution with his efforts to crack Iran back in 1979.
Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel): I was the Iran assessments officer during the Revolution and produced an assessment which said the Shah was finished. And my bosses, under the heavy influence of the CIA, changed the assessment to say that the shah was likely to face a few problems but that, quote, "the sun would never set on a peacock throne."
KELLY: Of course, the sun did set that very year on the throne of the Persian emperor, and since then, Western intelligence on Iran has, if anything, gotten worse.
The CIA was forced to close its station when the U.S. embassy in Tehran shut. For a while, the agency ran a hub out of Frankfurt, Germany, from which CIA officers could travel to meet contacts and try to steal secrets about Iran.
More recently, the agency has based a collection office in Los Angeles to take advantage of the Iranian ex-pat community there, but none of it is a substitute for having CIA staff actually on the ground, says former CIA official Bob Baer.
Mr. BOB BAER (Former Official, Central Intelligence Agency): We know virtually nothing about Iran. It's very easy to get misled when you collect intelligence through occasional sources who travel out rarely that are almost impossible to vet. Your intelligence, by force, is bad.
KELLY: Now, you spent, as I understand it, the better part of your 21 years at the CIA chasing Iranian-backed terrorists. Did you ever make it inside Iran?
Mr. BAER: No, I was never allowed in. I only went to Tehran after I left the CIA.
KELLY: Another former CIA official says the agency does have sources inside the country, Iranians who've agreed to pass on to U.S. intelligence what they see and hear. And recent years have seen the advent of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. Anyone with an Internet connection this week could watch this video, uploaded to YouTube.
(Soundbite of Internet video)
KELLY: The gunshots appear to be coming from Iranian security forces. You can see people running away. But while YouTube and Facebook are helpful for tracking, say, the size of a demonstration, they're next to useless for providing insights into the current political crisis. What the CIA would like to know, for example, is more about the power struggle underway among Iran's leading mullahs or, for that matter, says Bob Baer, the state of Iran's nuclear program.
Mr. BAER: And God knows we've tried every way in the world, but the fact is Iran is still a police state, and it's very difficult to collect on a police state, especially a police state that puts out so much propaganda and disinformation.
KELLY: Baer says disinformation is a major obstacle to working with another possible source of information, Iranian ex-pats and dissidents.
Paul Pillar, the CIA's former top analyst for the Middle East, agrees. Pillar says the CIA always tries to milk exiles for intelligence.
Mr. PAUL PILLAR (Former Middle East Analyst, Central Intelligence Agency): You do so with a couple of very big grains of salt that you have to keep in mind. One is how dated these people's information often is, and the other big thing is what kind of ax they have to grind. You know, we've just had a big set of experiences with Iraqi exiles, and we know how that went.
KELLY: Then again, the challenge for spy agencies could be worse. The Iran target is much easier than, say, North Korea. Bob Baer says North Korea, he adds, now that's an intelligence nightmare.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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