Iran and Iraq: history repeating?

The Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus derives lessons for handling Iran’s nuclear program from a declassified CIA report on its misreading of Saddam Hussein and his nuclear program — the WMD elements of which were destroyed in 1995:

Has Iran’s original deceptions and subsequent intransigence led the United States and others to disregard Tehran’s claim that it only wants to make fuel for its research reactors and power plants?

The CIA report cautions that U.S. analysts should have viewed Saddam’s late WMD disclosures through “an Iraqi prism.” They would have seen the that Iraqis wanted to protect “their reputation, their security, their overall technological capabilities and their status needed to be preserved,” according to the report.

The lesson for today is not to accept Iran’s current defiance of the U.N. Security Council as proof that Tehran wants a bomb. The CIA report notes that in Iraq’s case, “deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread.”

Pincus also discusses the policy of regime change as it pertained to Iraq and does now to Iran:

The CIA report also showed that some U.S. and U.N. actions led Iraq’s leaders to believe the goal was to change the ruling regime rather than just halt Tehran’s WMD program. Two steps were noted: one was when U.N. inspectors began to look into Iraq’s security apparatus and concealment apparatus; the other was when the U.S. Congress in 1998 approved the Iraq Liberation Act, which provided funds to Iraqi exile groups.

The Obama administration halted the Bush policy of regime change for Iran, but many Republicans still favor it. Some Iranian officials see a pattern in IAEA inspectors seeking to add additional sites for visits that can only end with regime change. They also weigh presidential and congressional campaign statements for signs that regime change is still a U.S. goal.

How, we are left to wonder, does Iran’s belief that the US’s Iran policy is centered around regime change affect Iran’s dealings with the West and its handling of its nuclear program? If Iran is wrong, or the US decides to take a different path, what would it take for Iran to accept that, and, would that change Iran’s behaviour in the end? Pincus’s astute observations highlight serious uncertainty in this regard:

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeated on Aug. 30 assurances that Iran wants only to pursue peaceful uses of atomic energy and is not seeking a nuclear weapon. As early as 2006, he issued a religious fatwa that said the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam.

Some present and former U.S. officials believe that this tie to Islamic law provides Khamenei with a means to strike a deal with the West to limit enrichment to low levels. However, the broader reaction is that Iran could forget about Islamic law if domestic or foreign events lead to a decision to build a bomb.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.