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 be 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
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
"[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
In the 1980s, Gates was known at the CIA as a hard-liner 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' 1992 sabotage of the Bush plan for reciprocating Iran goodwill relied
in part on making public charges against Iran that 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 UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar
to convey a message to Rafsanjani: Bush was ready to improve U.S.-Iran relations
if Iran used its influence in Lebanon to free the U.S. hostages. Giandomenico
Picco, the UN negotiator sent to meet with Rafsanjani, recalled in an interview
with IPS 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 UN 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 April 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
Gates was assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser
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' 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. In his 1993 memoirs,
former Secretary of State George Shultz decried Gates' politicizing of intelligence
to bolster the case against policy change.
(Inter Press Service)