Intelligence Community’s Assessment of Iran on Eve of 2003 Invasion

In an analysis that may still be pertinent on the eve of the long-awaited U.S.-Iranian talks next week on stabilizing Iraq, the U.S. intelligence community concluded just before Washington’s invasion more than four years ago that Tehran was prepared to cooperate with occupation authorities so long as its interests were given due regard.

“The more that Iranian leaders – reformists and hardliners alike – perceived that Washington’s aims in Iraq did not challenge Tehran’s interests or threaten Iran directly, the better the chance they would cooperate in the post-war period – or at least not actively undermine US goals,” the National Intelligence Council (NIC) concluded.

That assessment, contained within a January 2003 report prepared by the NIC and widely distributed to senior officials throughout the Bush administration, was contained within a larger study, entitled “Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq”, a partially redacted version of which was released Friday as part of a 226-page report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

While most of the media coverage of on the Committee report has focused on the intelligence community’s anticipation of many of the problems that have come to pass in Iraq and the broader region over the four years since the invasion, the NIC’s assessment of Iran’s likely reaction has received much less attention than it deserves, particularly in light of next week’s meetings in Baghdad, the first official, publicly announced bilateral talks between Washington and Tehran in 27 years.

It’s important to note that the Iran section of the study appears to be the most heavily redacted of any in the 38-page analysis; at one point, two entire pages relevant to Iran are blanked out. The redaction may be due precisely to the continuing relevance of the study’s analysis. In any event, the following constitutes the most relevant excerpts:

“Iranian leaders would try to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq to preserve Iranian security and demonstration that Iran is an important regional actor. The degree to which Iran would pursue policies that either support or undermine US goals in Iraq would depend on how Tehran viewed specific threats to its interests and the potential US reaction….

“The more that Iranian leaders – reformists and hardliners alike – perceived that Washington’s aims in Iraq did not challenge Tehran’s interests or threaten Iran directly, the better the chance they would cooperate in the post-war period – or at least not actively undermine US goals.

“– Guaranteeing a role in the negotiations on the fate of post-Saddam Iraq – as it had at the Bonn conference for Afghanistan – might persuade some Iranian officials to pursue an overt and constructive means to influence reconstruction in Iraq. Giving Iran a say in this process also could give Tehran a stake in its success.

[2 redacted points follow]

“– The establishment – when possible – of a mechanism for US and Iranian officials to communicate on the ground in Iraq could facilitate dialogue, …[redacted passage]

“Some elements in the Iranian government could decide to try to counter aggressively the US presence in Iraq or challenge US goals following the fall of Saddam by attempting to use contacts in the Kurdish and Shia communities to sow dissent against the US presence and complicate the formation of a new, pro-US government.

“– Elements in the regime also could employ their own operatives against US personnel, although this approach would be hard to conceal…”

“…A prolonged US military presence in a post-Saddam Iraq would further increase Tehran’s perception that the United States is a threat.

“– The longer US forces remain in Iraq, Tehran would become increasingly convinced that the United States was bent on encircling Iran and that Iran could become a target of US military operations…

“Iran’s suspicions of US intentions, however, would not preclude attempts to engage Washington more closely to enhance Iran’s sense of regional security…”

“…The country where regime change in Iraq would have the best chance to tip the political balance in favor of reform is Iran as both reformers and hardliners would probe for advantages.

“– A quick and decisive Coalition victory in Iraq most likely would strengthen the hand of reformers favoring engagement and democracy-building at home as the most effective way to forestall a US attack.

“– A prolonged and destructive war in Iraq probably would intensify the Iranian political divide. Hardliners could use the pretext of a potential US invasion to crack down and impose a state of emergency, tightening theocratic rule.”

While the study does not explicitly address Iran’s nuclear program, it does reach a conclusion about the likely impact of a US invasion and the elimination of Iraq’s presumed WMD capabilities on the interest of regional states in acquiring or enhancing their own WMD capabilities. Contrary to the view of administration hawks at the time that a convincing show of force would persuade Iraq neighbors – foremost, presumably, Iran – to abandon their nuclear or other WMD ambitions, the study finds that:

“States …would be driven to acquire WMD capabilities or accelerate programs already in train with the hope of developing deterrent capabilities before the programs could be destroyed preemptively.”

“The elimination of Iraq’s WMD capabilities would not cause other regional states to abandon either their existing WMD programs or their desire to develop such programs. For many of the Arab countries of the Middle East, Iran, and South Asia, WMD programs would continue to be viewed as necessary and integral components of an overall national security posture for several reasons, including to survive in a dangerous neighborhood, enhance regional prestige, compensate for conventional military deficiencies, and deter threats from superior adversaries, particularly Israel.”

Iran is also addressed in a section on “State Sponsors of Terrorism” which argues, among other things, that:

“Tehran’s longstanding view of Israel as a threat to Iranian interests, as well as continued ideological opposition to Israel’s existence among many of Iran’s clergy, would not change as a result of Saddam’s ouster, leading Iran to sustain its funding of Hizballah and the Palestinian Jihad. In addition, some Iranian leaders might continue this support in order to preserve their ability to influence events in the Levant and the peace process and also maintain a contingency capability to attack US interests through surrogates.”

What is remarkable about the study’s conclusions regarding both WMD and Iran’s continued support for Hizballah and Palestinian Jihad is that they do not appear to have anticipated Iran’s sweeping proposal conveyed on or about May 4, 2003, by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to the State Department and separately to Karl Rove via then-Rep. Bob Ney to address in bilateral talks with the U.S. both Iran’s nuclear program and its support for its clients in Lebanon and Palestine, as well as other outstanding issues of concern to both countries.

Of course, whether or not that offer was extended in good faith will never be known because the administration ignored it and, some ten days later, abruptly cut off secret bilateral — and, by all accounts, productive — talks with Tehran that had been going on since November 2001 when the two countries cooperated in ousting the Taliban and in subsequently creating and supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai. Those talks were led by Washington’s current UN ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad – who urged Bush to authorize their resumption while he was serving as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006 – and its current ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. Crocker will now be leading the U.S. delegation in talks with its Iranian counterparts which are supposed to get underway in Baghdad Monday.

Given the degree to which Washington has both challenged Iran’s interests and threatened it directly in the nearly four and a half years since the NIC was drafted, it somehow seems less likely that Tehran’s leaders will be as inclined to cooperate with – or at least not undermine – Washington’s efforts in Iraq as they might have been in, say, May, 2003. On the other hand, the mere fact that they are prepared to hold the first openly acknowledged bilateral talks with the U.S. in 27 years offers at least some grounds for hope.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.