Why the U.S. Blew a Chance To Reconcile With Iran

The CIA and Pentagon feared their budgets and staffs would be slashed with the end of the Cold War, and needed a new antagonist.


In the late 1980s the U.S. government had an opportunity to change its relationship with Iran from hostile to nonadversarial. It had been hostile since 1979, when the Islamic revolution overthrew the brutal U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Iranians held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.

The relationship deteriorated further when the Reagan administration helped Iraq after it attacked Iran and as the Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on the Iranians. During the war, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing the more than 200 people aboard. (On the other side, the Reagan administration sold arms to Iranians in an attempt to free American hostages in Lebanon and to finance aid to the Contras in Central America.)

Despite all this, reports Gareth Porter in his important new book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, change was in the air in 1989.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died and was succeeded by the president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Then Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the parliament, was elected president. His "victory brought to power a pragmatic conservative who was openly committed to integrating Iran into the global economic system," Porter writes.

Meanwhile in the United States, George H.W. Bush had become president. Bush, Porter writes, "recognized the opportunity [for a new relationship] and pledged in his inaugural address … that Iran's 'assistance' in the liberation of U.S. hostages being held by a militant group in Lebanon would be 'long remembered,' adding, 'Goodwill begets goodwill.'"

The Bush administration took steps toward normalization, and Iran went to work on freeing the hostages. On December 4, 1991, the last American was freed.

"Reciprocal gestures" from the Americans, such as lifting some economic sanctions and removing Iran from the terrorist list, got a close look.

Then suddenly, in April 1992, the administration changed course.

Why? According to Porter, people in the administration have since said that intelligence reports indicated Iran was planning to engage in terrorism, rearm, and procure nuclear weapons. The source for this information was Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. "But," Porter writes, "Scowcroft cited no intelligence of an actual terrorist attack by Iran, except for the claim of an Iranian assassination of someone who was not identified somewhere in Connecticut. And that claim was apparently either a mistake or a deliberate ruse by someone seeking to justify the refusal to make any reciprocal gesture to Iran, because no such assassination was ever registered in the FBI's central database of incidents relevant to its work."

This would foreshadow a pattern of attributing, without evidence, violence almost anywhere in the world to Iran or an Iran-backed group. As for the claim about nuclear weapons, Porter's book demonstrates that while Iran wanted a civilian nuclear industry, including the ability to enrich uranium, it never sought a nuclear weapon—and the U.S. government knew it.

What, then, accounts for the change from conciliation to continued antagonism? Porter partly implicates Robert Gates, who became CIA director just as interest in a new relationship was vanishing. "One explanation for his hostility to Iran," Porter writes, "was that he blamed then president Rafsanjani for having revealed the 1986 secret visit of NSC [National Security Council] staff to Iran in connection with the Iran-Contra plan—an episode that almost cost Gates his career.… Gates was nominated for CIA director in 1987, but he withdrew his name after it became clear that he would not be confirmed because of questions raised by other witnesses about his veracity."

But Porter also provides ample evidence that the main reason for the about-face was fear at the CIA and Pentagon that their budgets and staffs would be slashed with the end of the Cold War. The "CIA had a very large institutional interest at stake in treating Iran as a new, high-priority threat to US interests…," Porter writes. "The CIA leadership had begun the search for substitutes for the Soviet threat as early as 1988."

Would these government agencies really manufacture a threat merely to protect themselves from budget cutters in the wake of the Cold War? Anyone who knows anything about bureaucracies knows the answer to that question.

This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. “a pragmatic conservative who was openly committed to integrating Iran into the global economic system”

    Oh fer @#$% sake. Yeah, he wanted money – all that corruption and sponsoring Hezboallah et al costs a lot.

    1. Why do you hate free trade?

  2. “Would these government agencies really manufacture a threat merely to protect themselves from budget cutters in the wake of the Cold War? Anyone who knows anything about bureaucracies knows the answer to that question.”

    Yeah, now US citizens are cast as the new threat.

    1. Especially if they’re of Middle Eastern descent. Doesn’t matter if they’re an atheist who’s openly gay, in fact someone like Peter King or Tom Tancredo would view the two latter descriptors as additional red flags.

  3. Reconcile? That’s for gaybortion homo fagmarriage types!

    War! That’s the real straight man way! Long, sleek hard bombs and missiles that thrust thrust thrust into the air with a hot, splattering payload! Men in tight uniforms with powerful guns! Boots on the ground, strutting into Tehran!

    Goddamn! It is hot in here or is it just me?


  4. Is this subbing for the Mourning Lynx?

  5. PressTV regurgitation again. The “brutal” shah, yeah right, much worse than the ensuing theocracy.

    1. Yeah, the refugees my family hobnobbed with in the 70’s in Turkey were all kicking up a fuss about nothing.

      If I were to give deliver electrical shocks on your genitals or rape your daughter in front of you, you’d take it like a man, right Old Man? You wouldn’t bitch and moan about brutality like a whiny cry baby.

    2. What evidence do you have that suggests the information came from PressTV? And no just because it might sound remotely similar to something from PressTV doesn’t mean it is, because both Ahmadinejad and the most culturally liberal, pro-America, anti-Ahmadinejad Iranian would both sound the same to you because neither want sanctions or bombs dropped on them.

  6. To “reconcile” with the government of Iran, it would be necessary for the government of Iran to be one we could trust to keep its promises and honor its commitments. Sadly, no radical Islamic government has yet proven this to be the case. Instead they take an adolescent pleasure in asserting that, as followers of The Prophet, they have no duty to tell the truth to unbelievers.

    Since world opinion in general and the Intellectual West in particular insist on blunting all efforts to explain to such regimes why diplomatic intercourse is preferable to the alternatives, this situation seems unlikely to change.

    1. Yep. They love suckers like Reason writers.

    2. No to reconcile with the government Iran is to lift all trade barriers. They can do what they want inside of their own borders just like with Singapore (the Christian version of Iran), but if Americans want to do business or anything else over there, there should be nothing preventing them from doing so or going anywhere else in the world for that matter. If they break a law in a another country or if anything else bad happens to them then that’s their responsibility not that of the American taxpayer who hasn’t left U.S. soil.

  7. That huge military budget is also why we enter into conflicts every once in a while, even if there is no compelling evidence for doing so…i.e. Iraq.

    When a third of the federal budget is devoted to all things military including new state of the art weaponry, there is need to every so often show it all off…to show the American people what all their hard earned dollars are buying them. And there is nothing better to demonstrate it with than an armed conflict with a country that gets overwhelmed on the battlefield.

    “We had to do it to protect ourselves, and look how well we perform. Its because of our monetary budget in the military.”

    1. Yea, attacking Iran based on the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Al Quds Force are responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks around the globe, that they train and provide weapons and financial support to other terrorist organizations, that they were directly involved in the planning of and provided logistical support to the 9/11 terrorists, and that they were and are actively engaged in killing Coalition military personnel, including Americans, in Iraq and Afghanistan, would just be showing off.

      1. Hmmmm…I thought I mentioned Iraq and not Iran.

        But OK, your support for just one more misbegotten war in the Mideast is well noted. They never cost us anything.

        1. You used Iraq as an example. I used Iran. Some people just need killin’.

          1. So help me out with this…a war with Iran. It cost close to $2T to go to war with Iraq, and Iran would cost much more.

            And where do you suppose that money is going to come from? Raising taxes? No, I’m sure that won’t do. How about out of Social Security and Medicare? Yeah, you go before the American people and tell them those are going to get cut in order to invade Iran.

            Guess we just put it on the credit card like GW. Yeah, that just worked out so well.

            1. It cost $2 trillion in the case of Iraq because we stayed there for close to 10 years trying to reconstruct a nation we had totally destroyed. The key is to destroy a nation and then leave them to wallow in their own misery.

  8. “no compelling evidence for doing so…i.e. Iraq.”


    In the first place, Saddam never even came sort of close to meeting the terms of surrender from the Gulf War. That alone created the reasonable presumption that he was up to something. It also undermined any negotiation we might undertake in the region; why would anyone take our diplomacy seriously if we weren’t enforcing the surrender terms of our last military effort in the Middle East? Thirdly, although seldom gets noticed because it interferes with the “we had no reason to enter Iraq” narrative, we did find WMDs in Iraq (old chemical shells, but he wasn’t supposed to have ANY), we did find weapons systems he wasn’t supposed to have, he was hiding things in defiance of both us and the U.N..

    Now, do we get into military adventures that are none of our goddamned business? Arguably. But the war in Iraq isn’t one of those arguments. There were and are a number of things wrong with the war, but we went in for sound reasons that mostly proved out and the narrative that we didn’t is pernicious hogwash.

    1. don’t you know some people in America follow two rules
      1. America is always wrong
      2. America is still wrong when its wright because of rule no.1.

      1. Oh, I know. I just decline to let them have their own facts. Their opinions are fine. But when they start spouting low grade sewage as accepted fact, and when that sewage spreads, I feel compelled to call a halt.

        But I’m a Crank.

        I persist in the belief that delusion is a poor basis for policy.

    2. Read what I said…”no COMPELLING evidence…”

      Are you suggesting that the 500 rounds found so long after constituted a COMPELLING reason for a war that cost over 4,000 American lives and close to $2T? Please. Old chemical shells? That’s compelling?

      Even worse, all of what we lost in that misbegotten war was justified because there was a reasonable presumption Saddam was up to something? And what would that be? Bombing America? Maybe he would have allowed Iran to fly over Iraq to aid the Assad? I don’t think so…no…that would be the current Iraq administration that we spent so much on allowing into existence.

      You have a shallow set of standards for warfare, my friend.

      1. Saddam not even trying to LOOK like he was complying with the terms of surrender was a compelling reason, unless you don’t want anyone in the area to take our diplomatic initiatives seriously. Diplomacy is credit. Military force is cash. If our military force is considered worthless (and why would anyone take it seriously if we don’t enforce surrender term?), then our Diplomacy is without weight.

        And why people can’t see that baffles me.

        1. You fail to remember that the Iraq War was sold to the American people this way…”Weapons of mass destruction in the form of a mushroom cloud…” And who said that? The President, followed closely by everyone in his cabinet, including Rice.

          Note they didn’t say…”weapons of mass destruction in the form of old chemical canisters.” They would have been laughed out of the room when they suggested going to war over that.

          Surely you’re not suggesting that the cost we paid in that war over what was found as far as wmd’s was worth it.

    3. Who cares what the U.N. says? and Iraq did nothing to the U.S., therefor there was no sound reason at all for going in. Yeah Saddam was a bad guy but so long as he didn’t to U.S. he was not America’s problem, and why did America give weapons (yeah those weapons) to him in the first place?

      1. *so long as he didn’t do anything to the U.S.

      2. Exactly what weapons did the US give to Iraq/Saddam?

        1. Is that the sound of crickets I hear?

        2. Sarin and mustard gas.

    4. Yeah! Dubya was a great President! Pew, Pew, Pew! YEEHAW!

  9. Why do some of these people comment on Reason if they disagree with the writers so much? The ones on the right have FreeRepublic and Stormfront to go to and the lefties have D.U., Daily Kos and a few other backwaters where they would fit in more. I mean I don’t always agree with the writers either but i’m a cosmotarian therefor Reason is the best fit for me, unlike some other people.

    1. Well fuck, let me head right on over to Stormfront, because if I disagree with someone, and lean to the right, I must be a racist, white-supremacist nazi. Fuck you, you cosmotarian fuck.

      1. I never said that disagreeing with someone or leaning to the right made you a racist, white-supremacist nazi, but saying that “some people just need killin'” does. It also makes you look like a sociopath.

  10. This is why rapprochement with Iran is impossible:

    A passage from Winston Churchill’s book, The River War, regarding Islam:

    “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property ? either as a child, a wife, or a concubine ? must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the faith: all know how to die but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith.”

    1. Islam hasn’t kept the US from trading with other predominantly Muslim countries, so who cares about what that fat fuck said?

  11. Darn!

    The government “missed a chance” to get chummy with the Theocratic Totalitarians ruling Iraq. Did we equally “miss the chance” to assassinate Rushdie to gain the momentary applause of those bastards? Cause you know, the most important thing in the world to me is whether totalitarians like me.

    Here’s some news for Richman – I, and many Americans, think the government *isn’t doing it’s job* if it isn’t pissing off totalitarians.

    Richman has been batting a thousand lately with nitwit articles. What is the usual Progressive cooing for totalitarians doing on Reason?

    1. Just because someone doesn’t want the US to bomb someone does not mean they endorse their domestic policies. I don’t agree with Canada’s socialist policies or hate laws but that doesn’t mean I want to bomb them.

      The government’s job is to protect Americans not to be the policemen of the world and Iran has not done anything to America.

      You and the many Americans who do think America’s job is to be the policemen of the world are no different than the Americans who think the government’s job is to take care of everyone from cradle to grave, and that’s not counting the significant overlap between the two.

  12. Gareth Porter? The Gareth Porter? The apologist and propagandist for the Khmer Rouge is now an apologist and propagandist for Theocratic Iran.

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