Analysts: Fear of US Drove Iran’s Nuclear Policy

The George W. Bush administration’s adoption of a policy of threatening to use military force against Iran disregarded a series of official intelligence estimates going back many years that consistently judged Iran’s fear of a U.S. attack to be a major motivating factor in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Two former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials who were directly involved in producing CIA estimates on Iran revealed in separate interviews with IPS that the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on Iran have consistently portrayed its concerns about the military threat posed by the United States as a central consideration in Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.

Paul Pillar, who managed the writing of all NIEs on Iran from 2000 to 2005 as the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, told IPS that all of the NIEs on Iran during that period addressed the Iranian fears of U.S. attack explicitly and related their desire for nuclear weapons to those fears.

"Iranian perceptions of threat, especially from the United States and Israel, were not the only factor," Pillar said, "but were in our judgment part of what drove whatever effort they were making to build nuclear weapons."

Pillar said the dominant view of the intelligence community in the past three years has been that Iran would seek a nuclear weapons capability, but analysts have also considered that a willingness on the part of Washington to reassure Iran on its security fears would have a significant effect on Iranian policy.

Pillar said one of the things analysts have taken into account is Iran’s May 2003 proposal to the Bush administration to negotiate on its nuclear option and its relationship with Hezbollah and other anti-Israel groups as well as its own security concerns.

"It was seen as an indicator of Iran’s willingness to engage," he said.

A second theme in the NIEs, alongside the emphasis on Iranian fears of U.S. military intentions, was Iran’s aspiration to be the "dominant regional superpower" in the Persian Gulf.

However, the estimates suggested that the Iranian regime would not pursue that aspiration through means that would jeopardize the possibility of a relationship with the United States.

Ellen Laipson, now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, managed three or four NIEs on Iran as national intelligence officer for the Near East from 1990 to 1993, and closely followed others as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council from 1997 to 2002.

In an interview with IPS, she said the Iranian fear of an attack by the United States has long been "a standard element" in NIEs on Iran.

Laipson said she was "virtually certain the estimates linked Iran’s threat perceptions to its nuclear program." She added, however, that she was not directly involved in preparation of NIEs that focused exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program, as distinct from overall assessments of Iranian intentions and capabilities.

Laipson said the intelligence analysts had a "fairly consistent understanding" of Iranian perceptions of threat. "We could tell they were afraid of the U.S. both from their behavior and from their public statements," Laipson recalled. The acuteness of those Iranian fears of U.S. attack fluctuated over time, she said, in response to different developments.

The 1991 Gulf War, in which U.S. forces destroyed most of the Iraqi army, caused the Iranians to become much more concerned about U.S. military intentions, according to some scholarly analyses of Iranian thinking, because of the awareness that the same thing could happen to Iran.

The aggressive stance of the Bush administration toward Iran again increased Iranian fears of a U.S. attack. In early 2002, a secret Pentagon report to Congress on its "Nuclear Posture Review" named Iran as one of seven countries against which nuclear weapons might be used "in the event of surprising military developments." The report was obtained by defense analyst William Arkin, who revealed its contents in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 26, 2002.

Five days later, Bush referred to Iran in his State of the Union address as being part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea. "By seeking weapons of mass destruction," he said, "these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

Although it did not refer directly to fears of the United States, a declassified letter from the CIA to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham on April 8, 2002, alluded to the linkage between Iranian perceptions of threats and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The letter stated, "There appears to be broad consensus among Iranians that they live in a highly dangerous region and face serious external threats to their government, prompting us to assess that Tehran will pursue missile and WMD technologies indefinitely as critical means of national security."

The letter then suggested that the external threats were focused largely on the United States, adding that "persistent suspicion of U.S. motives will help preserve the broad consensus among Iran’s political elite and public for the pursuit of missile and WMD technologies as a matter of critical national security."

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the spokesman for the Iranian government stated that, in a "unipolar world," Iran had to have policy that would avoid war with the United States.

That preoccupation with averting a U.S. attack cut both ways: it forced the Iranian leaders to seek a political-diplomatic accommodation with the United States, as illustrated by its cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan after 9/11, and its offer of broad negotiations on all major issues between the two countries in 2003. But when the United States failed to respond to those efforts, it also strengthened the argument for pressing ahead with a nuclear option.

Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told IPS that an analysis that links Iran’s security concerns about the United States to its quest for nuclear weapons would be consistent with the history of other nations’ policies toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

"No nation has ever been coerced into giving up a nuclear program," he said, "but many have been convinced to do so by the disappearance of the threat."

Cirincione cited three former Soviet republics, Argentina and Brazil, South Africa and Libya as examples of countries that decided to give up nuclear weapons only after fundamental international or internal changes eliminated the primary security threat driving their nuclear programs.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.