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US Documents Help Contextualize Iraqi Records on Iranian Nuclear Program

February 25, 2014
Excerpt from the CIA's March 1995 Weapons Proliferation threat.

Excerpt from the CIA’s March 1995 Weapons Proliferation threat.

Iran’s nuclear weapons program has been the subject of concern for the US from its inception. However, a recent unclassified extract in the CIA’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, entitled Iraqi Human Intelligence Collection on Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program, 1980–2003,” gives a glimpse of the Iraqi perspective on Tehran’s program. While illuminating both intelligence methods under Saddam Hussein’s regime and Iraq’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the Iraqi records contain significant inaccuracies and ambiguities. Luckily, declassified US documents from the Digital National Security Archive’s (DNSA) Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) collection help to contextualize some of them.

The Iraqi records analyzed in the Studies in Intelligence article contain some interesting insights into Iraq’s intelligence methods and capabilities during the Hussein regime. For example, at the outset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Iraq had just three analysts collecting Iranian intelligence, only one of which spoke Farsi. However, by the end of the war in 1988, Iraq had assigned more than 2,500 analysts to the task. The majority of these analysts gathered their intelligence through human sources, predominately high-ranking Iranian officials whose motives were often uncorroborated. One Iraqi general even noted that when recruiting an Iranian air force officer as an informant, the Iraqi general simply “provided him with money, took pictures, did some recordings, and told him our future information needs.” The fact that Iraqi analysts routinely used Iranian sources whose motives were not verified is especially curious, considering Saddam’s well-known anti-Persian sentiments. Saddam even went so far as to promote his uncle’s book, entitled “Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies,” begging the question what would motivate any Iranian source to betray his country to Saddam’s regime?

The Iraqi records also reveal that in addition to regular use of uncorroborated sources, the responsibilities of Iraq’s five intelligence agencies routinely overlapped, leading to extensive inter and intra-agency competition that was prioritized above trade-craft, encouraging rushed, incomplete, and blatantly incorrect reporting.

Despite collection and bureaucratic problems, Iraqi analysts correctly noted that by the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran was paying increased attention to its nuclear program, and courting nations including North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, for nuclear technology. A March 1995 CIA report of unknown classification from the DNSA’s WMD collection supports this finding, noting that Iran was aggressively pursuing its nuclear ambitions and had “turned to Asia as its principal source of special weapons and weapons technology.”

Both Iraqi (left) and CIA analysts (right) believed Iran was working the most closely with Asian countries to acquire nuclear capabilities.

Both Iraqi (left) and CIA analysts (right) believed Iran was working the most closely with Asian countries to acquire nuclear capabilities.

When crafting reports, Iraqi analysts contended with the daunting task of presenting Hussein -who flippantly rewarded or punished subordinates- with the intelligence he wanted, which led to intentionally ambiguous or one-sided reporting. The caution many Iraqi analysts took in their intelligence reports is exemplified by the claim that Iran “had three motives for acquiring a nuclear weapons capability: to prevent American interference in the region, to challenge Israel, and to protect the religious integrity and demonstrate the strength of Islam.” While this is partly true, it neglects the obvious: that Iran was also seeking the ultimate defense in the aftermath of its eight-year war with Iraq.

A January 3, 2003, Congressional Research Service (CRS) report from the same DNSA WMD collection, “Iran: Arms and Weapons of Mass Destruction Suppliers,” supports the argument that the devastating effects of the Iran-Iraq War -in addition to a desire to keep the US at bay- motivated Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, noting that “Iran attributed its loss in that war partly to Iraq’s superior WMD capabilities,” arguing that possible fears of dangers from its neighbors led to “virtually all” of Iran’s WMD developments. The CRS report states that Iran turned to the Soviet Union in particular because the recent conflict with Iraq “left Iran’s conventional arsenal devastated, and the need for rearmament provided Iran and the Soviet Union an opportunity to pursue mutual interests…Iran, partly because of U.S. efforts during the Iran-Iraq war to shut off worldwide arms sales to Iran, lacked a wide choice of willing suppliers, and the Soviet Union saw arms sales to Iran as one way to broaden its influence in the Gulf.”

A 2003 CRS report cites the Iran-Iraq War as the impetus for Iran fast-tracking its nuclear weapons program.

A 2003 CRS report cites the Iran-Iraq War as the impetus for Iran fast-tracking its nuclear weapons program.

The Anonymous author of the Studies in Intelligence article, a Georgetown graduate student at the time of writing the article, notes that Iraqi intelligence reports were “often inflated,” and events were regularly cited as “top secret” despite being open source intelligence at the time. It’s worth noting that while this is a problematic practice, it’s certainly not one Iraq practiced alone. A June 5, 2008, Senate Intelligence Committee report argued that the Bush administration repeatedly exaggerated “what they knew about Iraq’s weapons and its ties to terrorist groups.” Portions of “Iraqi Human Intelligence Collection on Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program, 1980–2003” are still classified, even though the article itself is based on documents ostensibly open to the public (some of which can be accessed online here, or in person at the Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University).

While both US and Iraqi accounts of Iran’s nuclear programs reflect a certain amount of ambiguity and bias, the declassified US documents help contextualize and verify the fascinating Iraqi records, which are available to researchers at the Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. For more of the declassified record on both Iraq and Iran’s nuclear programs, or the Iran-Iraq War, please visit the National Security Archive.

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