"This really sounds very much like the lead-up to military action in Iraq: Very strong statements from the vice president; two secretaries of state -- both Colin Powell earlier and now Condoleezza Rice -- citing dissident information to prove the existence of a weapons program; a lack of confidence in [the UN's] ability to detect whether the Iranians are proceeding with a nuclear weapons program. All that's very -- you know, it's very, very similar," Kay said.
The war in Iraq was initially justified in order to eliminate Saddam Hussein's suspected illegal weapons program, and it was Kay's job after the war to find that program. After it became clear Iraq had no illegal weapons, Kay resigned.
Kay said this time in Iran, the Bush administration must avoid the mistakes it made in Iraq.
In an article this week in "The Washington Post," he wrote that, among other things, Washington must be skeptical of the claims of dissidents and expatriates about any Iranian nuclear-weapon programs. He also said U.S. officials must refrain from any "overheated rhetoric" on Iran. Kay added the United States should encourage -- not disparage -- the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, which he called the best agency for detecting secret weapons programs.
Kay told RFE/RL that the United States must be especially careful about its intelligence on Iran. He said the intelligence on Iraq was based on faulty assumptions -- assumptions which eventually led the United States to war.
"It was really a weak analysis effort, and a tendency to 'go with the flow' is actually a good way to describe it, the flow being, at that point, about 10 years of analysis on Iraq without reexamining [the] premises. One expected better of the people who were actually sourced with the primary information, but it turns out they weren't doing any different than we were," Kay said.
Kay said the Bush administration seems to be protecting itself on its reasons for opposing the Iranian regime. He said in addition to criticizing Iran's suspected nuclear program, members of the administration are also calling attention to the country's poor human rights record. Recently, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a point of describing Iran's rights record as "loathsome."
Kay said this appears to be an effort to establish an additional reason for possible military action in case no evidence of a nuclear weapons program ever turns up.
"I think the [Bush] administration is being a little more careful about stressing the multiple bases on which it opposes the [Iranian] regime. The problem is, just like in the case of Iraq, [that for] most other governments of the world, WMD is [a] concern. [But on the issues of] human rights, democratic institutions - [governments] do not view [these] as serious enough to cause the use of military force or even sanctions to bring about a change," Kay said.
Kay said these "multiple bases" for dealing with Iran may not persuade other countries, or the UN Security Council, to support any U.S. decision to take military action against Iran.
"To the extent that they [in the Bush administration] want a multinational coalition behind them and want to use the UN forum to legitimize any action, they'll have to hype the WMD argument, which, you know, has problems of proof. For most governments the evidence will remain murky. So it's going to be very much the same bind they were in in the case of Iraq," Kay said.
Kay wrote in "The Washington Post" that there should be no doubt about Iran's wish to have nuclear weapons or doubt that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a grave danger to the world. But Kay said the Bush administration has not demonstrated that it is capable of properly evaluating Iran's nuclear program and dealing with it short of a military strike.