Yesterday afternoon, as guests balanced buffet lunches on their knees, one of America’s top intelligence official made some provocative and fascinating comments about the current US-Iranian impasse.

What he said was like a thumb in the eye to neoconservatives and assorted other sabre-rattlers.

The official was Thomas Fingar, director of the National Intelligence Council and deputy director for analysis at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In effect, Fingar is the nation’s top intelligence analyst. Previously, he headed the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, one of the few (very few) US intelligence agencies to have mostly gotten Iraq right in 2002, when the CIA and Pentagon agencies were hyperventilating about the threat of Iraqi WMDs. More recently, Fingar oversaw the production of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that famously concluded that Iran had likely halted the development of nuclear weapons in 2003.

In his presentation yesterday, at the Center for National Policy, Fingar opened a window onto the thinking of the US intelligence community on Iran. It was decidedly unwarlike.

First, Fingar insisted that the United States has to take Iran’s legitimate security concerns into account. “Iran,” he said, “like the classic ‘even paranoids have enemies’ idea, lives in a tough neighborhood. It has reason to feel insecure.” Part of the reason for Iran’s insecurity, he said, was the fact that the United States has armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Recognizing that Iran has real security needs is a good starting point” for US policy, he said. “We are part of the reason why Iran feels insecure.”

The answer, he added, is to talk to Iran. “It argues for engagement,” he said. “From bilateral to multilateral to using international institutions.”

In regard to Iran’s current round of missile tests — Tehran conducted a second round today — Fingar was calm. The tests, he suggested, were more defense-minded warnings that a signal of planned aggression. “Iran has kind of a hedgehog strategy,” he said. “It’s ‘Mess with me and you get stuck.’ They’re saying, ‘I have the capacity to inflict pain.'”

Fingar explicitly tied the issue of Iran to energy supplies. “Iran,” he said, “is located in a part of the world where energy supplies are.” In his talk, Fingar referred several times to “competition for energy” as source of future instability and conflict. I asked him to elaborate. He said that such competition could include everything from “the workings of the market, that is, you compete by price, and who has the most money” to more political and strategic competition. Sometimes, he said, it’s a question of affinity and friendship, where like-minded countries favor each other in the energy supply-and-demand relationship. But he also worried about efforts at “sewing up access to resources in a quasi-colonial sense.” That, of course, could apply to the American occupation of Iraq, but Fingar didn’t go there.

He also said that state-owned oil companies pose a challenge for American policy. Though he didn’t specify exactly what he meant, he seemed to suggest that because major consuming countries such as China and major producing countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have state-owned oil industries, they are able to combine economic and state political power to strike oil bargains. (It seems clear that the current government of Iraq, still dependent on if not controlled by the United States, has deliberately blocked access to Iraqi oil so far to Chinese, Russian and other oil companies while favoring the American, British, French and Dutch oil firms that controlled Iraqi oil back in the good old days of imperialism.)

When I asked Fingar about America’s traditional role of serving as the protector of the Persian Gulf — an unbroken succession of US administrations has proclaimed the Gulf to be an American ‘lake” — he implied that that arrangement was fine with the rest of the world until now. “The world has benefited, including the rising powers, from the role that the United States has played.” Still, he said, in rather Delphic terms, “The chickens are coming home to roost.” He mused, “Are there alternatives? What are the downsides?” Indeed, that is a central problem for American strategy in the coming decades. An effort by the United States to maintain its hegemonic control of the Gulf will likely face determined resistance from much of the world, especially from the rising powers of Asia that need the Gulf’s oil. And Iran, sitting the middle of that, is not unaware of the issue. During my visit to Iran in March, a top Iranian official told me bluntly that Iran sees itself as the chief obstacle to America’s ability to consolidate control of the Persian Gulf and its oil, and he said that the United States sees it in exactly the same way.