WASHINGTON — When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Iran of “subversive activity” in Latin America Tuesday, it raised the question whether he is trying to discourage President Barack Obama from abandoning the hard line policy of coercive diplomacy toward Iran he has favored for nearly three decades.
In making a new accusation against Iran, just as Obama is still considering his diplomatic options on Iran, Gates appears to reprising his role in undermining a plan by President George H. W. Bush in early 1992 to announce goodwill gestures to Iran as reciprocity for Iranian help in freeing U.S. hostages from Lebanon.
Bush ultimately abandoned the plan, which had been three years in the making, after Gates, as CIA director, claimed in Congressional appearances that new intelligence showed Iran was seeking weapons of mass destruction and planning terrorist attacks.
In his Senate armed services committee testimony Tuesday, Gates said Iran was “opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere in what is going on.” Gates offered no further explanation for what sounded like a Cold War-era propaganda charge against the Soviet Union.
It was not clear why Gates would make such an accusation on a non-military issue unless he was hoping to throw sand in the diplomatic gears on Iran.
Gates has made no secret of his skepticism about any softening of U.S. policy toward Iran. In response to a question at the National Defense University last September on how he would advise the next president to improve relations with Iran, Gates implicitly rejected what he called “outreach” to Iran as useless.
“[W]e have to look at the history of outreach [to Iran] that was very real, under successive presidents, and did not yield any results,” he said.
In the 1980s, Gates was known at the CIA as a hardliner not only on the Soviet Union but on Iran as well. Former CIA official Graham Fuller recalled in an interview that Gates often repeated in staff meetings, “The only moderate Iranian is one who has run out of bullets.”
Gates’s 1992 sabotage of the Bush plan for reciprocating Iran’s goodwill relied in part on making public charges against Iran which created a more unfavorable political climate in Washington for such a policy.
Bush had referred in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1989, to U.S. hostages being held by militant groups in Lebanon and suggested that “assistance” on the issue would be “long remembered,” adding, “Goodwill begets goodwill.” That was a clear signal to Iran of a willingness to respond positively to Iranian assistance in freeing the hostages.
After Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative, was elected Iranian president in July 1989, Bush asked U.N. Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar to convey a message to Rafsanjani: Bush was ready to improve US-Iran relations if Iran used its influence in Lebanon to free the U.S. hostages. Giandomenico Picco, the U.N. negotiator sent to meet with Rafsanjani, recalled in an interview with Inter Press Service that he repeated Bush’s inaugural pledge to the Iranian president.
In 1991, Rafsanjani used both secret intermediaries and shuttle diplomacy by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akhbar Velayati to ensure the release of hostages held by anti-Western groups in Lebanon. Rafsanjani later told Picco that he had to use considerable Iranian political capital in Lebanon to get the hostages released in the expectation that it would bring a U.S. reciprocal gesture, according to the U.N. negotiator.
In a meeting with Picco six weeks after the last U.S. hostage was released in early December 1991, Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said “it might be possible” to take Iran off the terrorist list, reduce economic sanctions and further compensate Iranians for the July 1988 shoot-down of an Iranian civilian Airbus by the U.S. navy, which had killed all 290 Iranian passengers and crew. Scowcroft believed a decision might be made in early March.
Picco took personal notes of the meeting, from which he quoted in the interview.
On Feb. 25, 1992, Scowcroft again met Picco and told him that the administration was considering allowing the sale of some airplanes and parts and easing other economic sanctions, according to Picco’s notes.
But at a meeting in Washington on Apr. 10, Scowcroft informed Picco that there would be “no goodwill to beget goodwill.”
Scowcroft explained the sudden scuttling of the initiative by citing new intelligence on Iran. He referred to an alleged assassination of an Iranian national in Connecticut by Iranian agents and intelligence reports that Iran would use “Hezbollah types” in Europe and elsewhere to respond to Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah leader Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon in February.
Scowcroft also cited intelligence that Iran had made a policy decision to follow “a different road” from one that would have allowed improved relations with Washington. He said that intelligence related to Iranian “rearmament” and to its nuclear program, according to Picco’s notes.
But the alleged new intelligence on Iran cited by Scowcroft reflected the personal views of Gates, who had become CIA director for the second time in November 1991.
Gates was assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor from 1989 to 1991, and was well aware of the plan to make a gesture to Iran. His response after returning as CIA director was to launch a series of new accusations about the threat from Iran.
In Congressional testimony in January 1992, Gates said Iran’s rearmament effort included “programs in weapons of mass destruction not only to prepare for the potential reemergence of the Iraqi special weapons threat but to solidify Iran’s preeminent position in the gulf and Southeast [sic] Asia.”
Gates testified in February 1992 that Iran was “building up its special weapons capabilities” and the following month, he told Congress that Iran was seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons “capabilities”” and was “probably” going to”promote terrorism.”
But Gates was not accurately reflecting a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that had been completed on Oct. 17, 1991, just before he became director. New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino wrote just two weeks after the NIE was completed that it concluded only that “some” Iranian leaders were calling for a nuclear weapons program, and that the nuclear program was still in its infancy.
Sciolino reported that “some administration officials” believed the NIE “underestimates the scope of Iranian intentions,” suggesting that it had not supported Gates’s personal views on the issue.
The current intelligence reports sent to the White House to strengthen the argument against any gesture to Iran also turned out to be misleading. No allegation of an Iranian role in a murder in Connecticut has ever surfaced. And no terrorist attack by “Hezbollah types” in retaliation for the Israeli assassination is known to have occurred.
That was not even the first time Gates had sought to use intelligence to torpedo an effort to achieve an opening with an adversary. During the Ronald Reagan administration, Gates, as CIA deputy director and then director, had discouraged any warming toward the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, asserting that he would not be able to alter Soviet policy toward the United States. Former Secretary of State George Shultz decried Gates’s politicized intelligence to bolster the case against policy change his 1993 memoirs.