Trump's Iran stance has 'disturbing and eerie similarities' to Iraq war run-up, former top intelligence analyst claims

Washington 'cherry picking' intelligence, says former top spy

Warren Strobel
Thursday 10 May 2018 10:02
President Donald Trump states if Iran restarts their nuclear program there will be severe consequences

Donald Trump’s Iran policy has “disturbing and eerie similarities” to the way the US behaved in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, a former top CIA operative in the Middle East has said.

Washington was “cherry picking” intelligence in a fashion reminiscent of how George W Bush‘s administration engineered the 2003 invasion, Paul Pillar said, after Mr Trump announced he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Mr Pillar, the top US intelligence analyst for the Middle East between 2001 and 2005, said there were ”disturbing and eerie similarities” in the misuse of intelligence then and now, and added: “The basic thing that is going on is a highly tendentious, cherry-picked, ‘we know what the conclusion is’”, use of secret information.

Sectarian and ethnic fractures still persist in Iraq 15 years after the US-led invasion, and some 5,000 American troops are still in the country. More than 4,400 US service personnel have died in the conflict, and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians.

Mr Trump charged on Tuesday that the JCPOA deal, negotiated over 13 years and signed under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, did not address Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 or its role in the wars in Yemen and Syria.

The president made no mention of assessments by the US intelligence community and the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, which has nuclear inspectors in Iran, that Tehran was complying with the 2015 deal.

Instead, he cited a cache of Iranian documents made public by Israel on 30 April that he said showed Iran’s leaders lied when they denied ever pursuing a nuclear weapons project.

While the documents’ authenticity has not been challenged by Western governments and intelligence experts, critics said they added little to previous assessments that concluded that Iran mothballed its effort to develop nuclear weapons in 2003. Iran called Israel’s allegations “childish and ridiculous”.

On Wednesday Boris Johnson said that the UK had “worked alongside France and Germany to find a way forward that would have addressed the president’s concerns and allowed the US to stay in the JCPOA, but without reopening the terms of the agreement”.

“We still believe that would have been the better course,” the foreign secretary added, before calling on Mr Trump to now put forward “concrete proposals” on how to deal with the problems he had detailed.

Beginning shortly after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush and top aides made the case for invading Iraq by citing intelligence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda and was secretly developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Both claims were proved false. Mr Bush and his aides had exaggerated the available intelligence, relied on dubious claims from Iraqi exiles and ignored contradictory information. On some points, the CIA and its sister intelligence agencies were found to have been wrong.

This week US officials, as well as analysts in Washington and the Middle East, cautioned that there were key differences between Mr Bush’s Iraq policy and Mr Trump’s approach to Iran.

While Mr Trump’s move on Tuesday ratcheted up regional tensions and widened a rift with US allies in Europe, no one is predicting an American invasion of Iran.

“The question is are we facing the same scenario that happened in Iraq with regards to the weapons of mass destruction, and will the region be dragged to war?” said Faysal Abdul Sater, a Lebanese analyst close to the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah.

“In my view, the situation is different, even if the degree of hostility has increased” between Gulf countries and Israel on one hand and Iran on the other, Mr Sater said.

“As for a direct attack on Iran, it is unlikely because it would lead by necessity to a comprehensive war that none of the parties could bear.”

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies think tank, said the war in Iraq resulted partly from a perception that economic sanctions on Hussein, imposed after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, were rapidly losing effectiveness.

“I think the opposite is true now,” Mr Dubowitz said, noting that Mr Trump appeared to favour increasing economic pressure on Iran, not military action.

Despite the different tools, two US officials familiar with Iran policy said they believed Mr Trump’s ultimate goal in Iran was similar to the Bush administration’s in Iraq – replacing an anti-American government with a friendly one.

But if the Bush administration’s belief that grateful Iraqis would greet invading US troops with flowers was fanciful, it is “at least equally naive” to believe that “democracy will take root in Iran” if the Islamic Republic collapses, one of the officials said.

Neither Mr Trump nor his hawkish new national security adviser, John Bolton, has publicly called in recent days for the overthrow of Iran’s theocracy.

Two current and one former US official said America’s intelligence agencies were not being pressured to provide evidence to support the White House’s policy but instead were being ignored.

Retired General Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, called it “remarkable” that Mr Trump made no mention of US intelligence assessments in his speech announcing withdrawal from the Iran deal.

Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, told Congress in February that the Iran deal had extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon and enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities.

“It’s not that they’re being leaned on to provide justifications,” Gen Hayden said of US intelligence analysts. Mr Trump “neither needs nor wants justification”.


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