In Dispute With Iran, Path to Iraq Is in Spotlight





WASHINGTON — To many Americans, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s February 2003 speech to the United Nations on Iraq’s unconventional weapons was powerfully persuasive. It was a dazzling performance, featuring satellite images and intercepts of Iraqi communications, delivered by one of the most trusted figures in public life.

Then a long and costly war began, and the country discovered that the assertions that Iraq possessed illicit weapons had been completely unfounded.

Now the United States’ confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program is heating up, with the disclosure last week that the Iranian government is building a second uranium enrichment complex it had not previously acknowledged.

The question is inevitable: Is the uproar over the secret plant near Qum another rush to judgment, based on ambiguous evidence, spurred on by a desire to appear tough toward a loathed regime? In other words, is the United States repeating the mistakes of 2002?

Antiwar activists, with a fool-me-once skepticism, watch the dispute over the Qum plant with an alarmed sense of déjà vu. And some specialists on arms control and Iran are asking for more evidence and warning against hasty conclusions.

But while the similarities between 2002, when the faulty intelligence estimates were produced, and 2009 are unmistakable, the differences are profound.

his time, by all accounts, there is no White House-led march toward war. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said that military action would merely delay Iranian nuclear weapons for one to three years, and there is no evidence that President Obama wants to add a third war to his responsibilities.

This time, too, the dispute over facts is narrower. Iran has admitted the existence of nuclear enrichment facilities, and on Tuesday it acknowledged that it was building the plant underground, next to a military base, for its protection. Still, Iran disputes claims that the plant is part of a weapons program.

American intelligence officials say that they learned a traumatic lesson from the Iraqi weapons debacle, and that assessments of Iran’s nuclear program are hedged and not influenced by political or policy considerations.

“We’d let the country down, and we wanted to make sure it would never happen again,” said Thomas Fingar, who before the Iraq war led the State Department’s intelligence bureau, which dissented from the inaccurate claims about Iraq’s nuclear program. Dissent from majority views in intelligence assessments is now encouraged, and assumptions are spelled out, said Mr. Fingar, who is now at Stanford University.

“Now, it’s much more of a transparent tussle of ideas,” he said...



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