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.'”