Much of the intelligence on Iran's nuclear facilities provided to UN inspectors by US spy agencies has turned out to be unfounded, diplomatic sources in Vienna said today.Some doubt? What's the chance of some hypothetical scientist being allowed to keep all that information on a laptop which can be pinched by some liberty-loving second storey man, then given to another freedom-loving Iranian who then "walks in" on U.S. spooks and hands the whole thing over? And moreover, freedom-loving Iranians who are said to belong to "an Iranian opposition group" - which in BushSpeak means the utterly nutterly Mujahedeen e-Kalqh. All Iran's nuclear secrets just there for the asking, like Hagrid being handed a dragon's egg by a stranger down the pub - and not a word of farsi on the whole thing so no translation is required.
The claims, reminiscent of the intelligence fiasco surrounding the Iraq war, coincided with a sharp increase in international tension as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was defying a UN security council ultimatum to freeze its nuclear programme.
That report, delivered to the security council by the IAEA director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, sets the stage for a fierce international debate on the imposition of stricter sanctions on Iran and raises the possibility that the US could resort to military action against Iranian nuclear sites.
At the heart of the debate are accusations - spearheaded by the US - that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
However, most of the tip-offs about supposed secret weapons sites provided by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies have led to dead ends when investigated by IAEA inspectors, according to informed sources in Vienna.
"Most of it has turned out to be incorrect," a diplomat at the IAEA with detailed knowledge of the agency's investigations said.
"They gave us a paper with a list of sites. [The inspectors] did some follow-up, they went to some military sites, but there was no sign of [banned nuclear] activities.
"Now [the inspectors] don't go in blindly. Only if it passes a credibility test."
One particularly contentious issue was records of plans to build a nuclear warhead, which the CIA said it found on a stolen laptop computer supplied by an informant inside Iran.
In July 2005, US intelligence officials showed printed versions of the material to IAEA officials, who judged it to be sufficiently specific to confront Iran.
Tehran rejected the material as forged, and there are still reservations within the IAEA about its authenticity, according to officials with knowledge of the internal debate in the agency.
"First of all, if you have a clandestine programme, you don't put it on laptops which can walk away," one official said. "The data is all in English which may be reasonable for some of the technical matters, but at some point you'd have thought there would be at least some notes in Farsi. So there is some doubt over the provenance of the computer."
Nor is this the first time the dubious nature of much of the "intelligence" on Iran's nuclear program has been exposed by the IAEA. You would think people would have caught on by now.
With this admission from the IAEA and the fiasco of the recent Baghdad briefing, it really is a case of deja vu all over again.