The “Military Option" for Countering Iran’s Nuclear Program
ACA Briefing Series:
"Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle"
DATE/TIME: Tuesday, June 7, 2011, 9:00 am-10:30 am
LOCATION: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Root Room, 1779 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
- Thomas R. Pickering, Career Ambassador, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and U.S. Representative to the United Nations
- Jeffrey White, Defense Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and former career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency
- Alireza Nader, International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation, lead author of: The Next Supreme Leader: Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran (2011)
- Greg Thielmann (Moderator), ACA Senior Fellow
It is commonly said by U.S. officials and Members of Congress that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and that the “military option” for preventing acquisition “should not be removed from the table.” Given Iran’s continued progress in developing the nuclear infrastructure and material that could be used in developing and producing nuclear weapons, it is appropriate to consider carefully what exercising the military option would involve and what would be the full range of possible consequences.
This panel discussion (on the 30th anniversary of Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor) will provide informed perspectives on the consequences of any U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran designed to destroy Iran’s actual or potential nuclear weapons capabilities.
This ACA policy briefing is the last in a four-part series: "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle." (Transcripts of the three previous briefings are available online at http://www.armscontrol.org/events )
Transcript by Federal News Service
GREG THIELMANN: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for attending the Arms Control Association’s fourth panel discussion on “Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle.” My name is Greg Thielmann. I’m a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and will be the panel’s moderator. ACA is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting public understanding and support for effective arms control policies.
Today’s session will be on the record and transcribed. We ask that you silence your electronic devices as a courtesy. And I’m doing that myself. We began this series last November with an elaboration on the status of Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. We then took a look at diplomatic pathways to a solution which was fortuitously or not just one day before the Istanbul round.
The next section included an in-depth discussion on the impact and limitations of sanctions. And today we examine the option of using or threatening to use force to physically prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Let me clarify at the outset that when we talk about using the military option, we are not discussing the use of force in response to aggression or following authorization of the use by the U.N. Security Council, nor are we talking about preemptive or preemption in response to an imminent threat of attack.
We are talking about a preventive attack by Israel and/or the United States to deprive Iran of the ability to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. U.S. military leaders and senior defense officials have been warning for some time about the downside of such an action, very conspicuously in the case of former CENTCOM commander, Admiral Fallon, but also quite clearly in the public remarks of Vice Admiral Cosgriff, former 5th Fleet commander in the Persian Gulf.
It is no secret that outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, and outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have also expressed strong reservations about resort to the military option.
And in recent weeks, we’ve learned that Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad – Israel’s foreign intelligence service – believes that an Israel air force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be, in his words, “the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” a view which is reportedly shared by Israel’s last military Chief of Staff and the just retired Director of Internal Security.
So while leaving all options on the table has become standard political trope in the United States with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, I would argue that military strikes are already effectively off the table, reduced now to a threat which is both empty and counterproductive. Nonetheless, Iran continues to produce and stockpile low enriched uranium in spite of U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions.
Diplomatic efforts have so far been ineffectual and U.S. officials and politicians continue to proclaim that an Iran with nuclear weapons is, quote, “unacceptable,” unquote. Many thus conclude that sooner or later, military force will be our only recourse.
As GW University Professor Marc Lynch recently wrote, “the debate over whether to use military force remains a crucial undercurrent in all strategy discussions about Iran’s nuclear program”; hence, the timeliness of today’s effort to probe more deeply into the consequences of a military attack.
In 2007, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security wrote an article on Iran’s nuclear program for Arms Control Today, which included an excursion on the military attack option. He noted then that such a scenario was built on a false promise because it offers no assurance that an Iranian nuclear weapons program would be substantially or irreversibly set back.
Nearly four years later, Iran has made further progress enriching uranium and expanding its nuclear infrastructure and the military option’s promise is even more false. Experts differ on how long an aerial assault would set Iran back from a couple of years to as much as five years. There is little doubt, however, that Iran would retain its human capital and production base following an aerial attack and it would be able to reconstitute its nuclear program.
So today’s consideration of consequences will start with the realistic assumption that the benefit would be temporary, not long-lasting. In this context, it is worth noting – worth reflecting on Iraq’s reaction to Israel’s successful raid on the Osirak reactor 30 years ago to this day.
Saddam’s nuclear bomb program was indeed delayed but Iraq’s determination to succeed was strengthened, its commitment of personnel and resources skyrocketed and its success at hiding the activities from the IAEA and Western intelligence collections increased.
Of course, 2011 is a far cry from 1981 and Iran is not Iraq. Our experts will be able to elaborate fully on these differences. Now, you will notice short versions of our speaker biographies in the back of the program handout. So I will not take time for elaborate introductions.
Ambassador Thomas Pickering will lead off this morning by sharing his views on how other countries feel about the military option and how they might react to it being exercised. Because the Ambassador will have to leave early for another commitment, we’ll break for questions after his presentation.
Then we will turn to Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute and former career analyst at DIA, to acquaint us with some of the military aspects which must be considered in planning an attack on Iran.
Our third speaker, RAND policy analyst and author, Alireza Nader, will help us understand how Iran might react to an attack. And then finally we will open the floor to a second round of questions. So, Ambassador Pickering, the floor is yours.
THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you very much. Perhaps I could address you all from the high table here and do so informally. I think that I come, as many of you know, as a cantankerous opponent of the idea that military force at present and perhaps for the longer term has much to offer us with respect to a solution to the problem. And so I give my prejudice out on the table as a matter of opening the conversation.
Secondly, I think that while there are a number of options, none of them seem to be particularly good. The one that looks like it might have the chance of having the most success is the one which has the highest risk for that return, which is a land invasion. I can’t imagine even at St. Elizabeth’s there is anybody around advocating – (laughter) – this at the moment and that’s St. Elizabeth before it becomes Coast Guard headquarters.
I think it is also very important to know that the liabilities in an attack run beyond purely an in-and-out strike against a known target, as we’ve seen. I won’t go into that in detail – others will – other than to say that I agree with the presenters’ and our chairman’s very effective and I think well-informed presentation of the problem initially, that it is difficult to foresee what the target set might actually be because of the problem of less than totally perfect intelligence.
On the other hand, it does seem to me that as we look at this particular option, it has to be taken in the context of the fact that other actions including one that has been politely issued the label sabotage have had some significant effect for the moment and bought us some additional time.
By way of continued introduction but before I get to the question at hand, it seems to me something of a tragedy that we are not using this time effectively to open the diplomatic door but rather depending upon sanctions and containment but without even using what effect they may have created to do that.
And I see three obstacles in the way of opening the diplomatic door. One, they are all summed up on the basis of, at least in one case, no preconditions for discussions.
One of them has to do with what I hope would be the future willingness of the United States to have a very broad dialogue with Iran, including Afghanistan and Iraq, but other issues on the agenda of both sides, something that now seems to be semi-preconditioned by the notion that we have to concentrate on, focus on or have exclusive conversations depending upon the time of day and the person who says it on the nuclear question, not that I have anything wrong with the nuclear question.
I think we have to be smart about this and open the door to the wider Iranian interest here. I think the second is much more dicey and more difficult because in a sense it runs up against the issue that I think I characterized politely as sabotage and that’s the question of can we persuade the Iranians that our objective with respect to them and their future is not regime change.
In effect, my own view is that regime change is the personal and private preserve of the people of Iran and it should not be something that foreigners intervene, interfere or try to manage or engineer. And things that look like regime change are things that appear to Iran to be regime change and I think we have to find a way, as difficult as that is, to put regime change on the side if we’re going to get to conversations of any meaning on the nuclear question.
I think the third question has to do with an article that I joined with others in writing three years ago which basically said that our principle objective in any conversation has to be to get the widest access for verification and monitoring of the Iran program, which is where the difficulty lies, and that we should be willing to trade enrichment for civil purposes under multinational authority or ownership or at least under intensive IAEA inspection in return for getting that particular benefit.
And if we were to put that on the table as an opening position rather than as everybody in this says, the best fallback anybody has thought about, we would likely get further in diplomatic negotiations.
Now, having gone through all of that, let me just say that I think there are two sets of problems that other countries see with the attack option on Iran, if I can put it that way. One of those has been outlined already and is will we, in effect, achieve any measure of effectiveness consistent with the high degree of risk that we undertake.
And the question there is a very difficult one to answer but most of the opinion lies on the side that we will not, that there are uncertainties about the target list, there are uncertainties about what will be required actually to achieve an objective over a long period of time, which should be in my view more than a setback in the space of years. We’ve already demonstrated we can do that at least at this time for the moment by other methods.
I think the second set of questions, which is more important and more significant in the eyes of most people around the world – most countries who look at it – is sort of a calibration of Iranian reactions. And the Iranian reactions can run a wide gamut and many have written about them. Let me just focus for a minute on those that I think are the highlights which are widely shared.
By the way, I think that while no one has taken a poll, aside from Israel, I don’t believe there are any countries waiting in line to join us in this kind of exercise. So I think we have to proceed in the conversation about other countries and their reaction and the reaction to the potential Iranian reactions on the basis of a significant note of skepticism that this will be universally applauded.
In addition, I believe that it will be uncertain as to whether we could get either an interpretation of such action as fitting under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter of Self-Defense or that we could, in fact, achieve UN Security Council support.
And increasingly but not perfectly, if you examine carefully the question of the use of force, we’re increasingly moving into an international state where the only two legitimate methods of using force fall into the purview of those two options – Article 51 or Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
And I think that we need to keep that in mind. I think the gamut of Iranian reactions and therefore the gamut of the reactions of other people to the idea is a very broad one.
I begin with the one that is among the least appetizing which is that from the Iranian perspective and the perspective of many in the Muslim world and many around the world, an unprovoked attack on a state which is heretofore at least in principle seeming to comply with its NPT obligations, if not in particular details, is something which could well drive them to make the final decision on creating a nuclear weapon and proceed to do so.
And that obviously is something that we are seeking to avoid by an attack and we wouldn’t want to have the results of an attack reinforce the notion that that’s the direction in which they’re prepared to go. I think that secondly we have what I would call the active reactions in terms of reaching out to try to punish or castigate or indeed deal with the effects of the attack on Iran.
At the most latent end of that would be a strong sense, I think, in the Muslim world even though Iran is not held in universal esteem and certainly not by the Sunni population of the world. Nevertheless, there would be a strong tendency, even if we were to find an effective way to cast the context for such an attack as one of extreme danger to the world.
There would be a strong, I think, and significant Islamic response against an attack, something that would not obviously suit either the United States or Israel or in fact our Western allies and friends or indeed most of the rest of the world. And one could anticipate certainly but not necessarily have a certainty of this that there would be some violence against U.S. installations and activities and certainly U.S. people.
So it would raise really serious consequences for us in that regard. Secondly, Iran has a highly developed and very well-organized capacity to create trouble. It has relations with terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
It has a well-known capacity as long as Syria remains in place the way it is and we see some uncertainty about that but no definitive, I think, indication that Syria will disappear from the horizon – that working with and through Syria it could directly attack certainly Israel, perhaps other areas in the Middle East in a way of a large buildup of apparently reserves and rocket forces, particularly in Hezbollah, with the capacity to attack Israel.
I think that while many distinguish between an American attack and an Israeli attack, I think the bulk of the world will assume that an Israeli attack is American-sponsored and supported.
And the bulk of the rest of the world would retaliate or try to retaliate against Israel for a purely American attack – some of the same thinking that has been going on with respect to this part of the world and with respect to Iraq – perhaps maybe another false analogy – but I don’t think so – since the 1990s, the early 1990s and that’s important.
So I think those kinds of questions are there – the broader capacity of Iran and others to use unconventional methods of attack in places as far afield as Germany or Southeast Asia is certainly not absent from the scene. Whether this would drive Iran and al-Qaida or Iran and the Taliban closer together is an open question.
But it is well-known that Iran at least has enjoyed the opportunity to try to manipulate its – put it this way – non-relationships with al-Qaida and with the Taliban in the direction of building its own strength, and even under conditions of relatively benign non-relations between the U.S. and Iran, it could in my view likely move ahead and try to do that further.
I think that the other question that might well come up in this particular issue obviously could involve many other aspects of putting pressure back. Some of the issue for the United States will be how to avoid mission creep in an attack.
If it is unsuccessful to begin with, and likely that to be the case, and if it requires a full-scale operation against Iran including the necessary prerequisite of taking out wide areas of defense arrangements inside Iran, how will the rest of the would respond to what is essentially a third or a fourth air war in the region.
One that, as we look at the Libyan question is now producing significant frustration, that in fact the objective for the Libyan operation, which I take it to be whether it is couched in terms of protection of people in Libya is clearly going to be decided by the rest of the world on the basis of whether Gaddafi is there or not at the end of the day.
That particular set of activities, if translated to Iran, in my view is designed to produce many of the same frustrating reactions. Why did you enter into a set of military activities that is producing no results, that requires that it be more broadly expanded and at the same time holds less promise?
So while this is a kind of secondary or tertiary reaction to the question, it’s important. The effect of that is likely to be, as I think Iraq, to some extent Afghanistan and maybe in a growing way Libya will be – is that we have magnificent military forces but they’re engaged in ways that they don’t seem to be able to achieve in the timeframes that we set the objectives we would like to see on the scene.
That means in effect that we are beginning to run down, what I think is still very significant as a former American diplomat, the value of having great military potential in the minds of people you have to deal with in the diplomatic sphere, as is the value of having great economic potential, is that for good or ill it reinforces your negotiating potential.
And having a situation in which the use of force proves itself increasingly ineffective to meet modern-day problems is in itself therefore a kind of undermining – a self-initiated undermining of the long-term capacity to benefit from these kinds of advantages, whether the financial crisis at its height or now and whether after Iraq and Afghanistan and potentially our semi-involvement in Libya produces the same result or not, I cannot say.
But Iran and a military activity by the United States might well move us in that direction. So these are all there. One is only limited by its imagination, the ramifications of each of these. I’ve tried to hit the highlights in a condensed way rather than necessarily bore you with excruciating detail.
But I think that with a little imagination – and I suspect this room is full of it – one could see how various of these particular pieces of the puzzle could play out. Let me end here, if I can, because others have important things to say. And thank you for your time and attention. (Applause.)
MR. THIELMANN: We should have about 20 minutes for questions. Let me ask one to start off and then we’ll turn to the floor. And let me ask us to give priority to members of the press, if they have questions at the outset.
One question that occurs to me, Ambassador Pickering, is related to Afghanistan. We now have over 100,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, an enormously long and elaborate logistics tale going through a northern route, through Russia and mostly through Pakistan. So that raises the issue of if an attack on Iran occurred, how would Moscow react, how would Islamabad react.
MR. PICKERING: Well, I think that the first question, of course, is how would Iran react, and Afghanistan. I didn’t go into it in detail but I think it’s self-evidently obvious that they have some capacity to be difficult there.
I also think that Moscow would react in general, not necessarily specifically with respect to Afghanistan. Even though, as we all know, Moscow continues to have an interest in Afghanistan and one reads in the paper only in the last few days that we are setting up jointly a repair base for Russian helicopters in Afghanistan, something that quite a move forward since the early 1990s.
It seems to me, however, that they would not be pleased or happy with that. I don’t know what they could do once the activity takes place and in the long run I think that their interest is not to make Afghanistan worse than it is. They, like everyone else, have deep concerns about an Afghan problem that I think they believe is not being well-handled at the moment and it is only one of the many problems of Afghanistan and that’s drug trade.
But beyond that, obviously they’re deeply concerned about the penetration of Islamic fundamentalism into Central Asia, which they still see as if not their backyard, perhaps close to being their front garden and in many ways don’t want that infested by further Islamic radicalism or Islamic radicalism that might displace their friends who are in power there, whether it is like the Arab Spring or whether it is a more violent movement to replace those people.
They’ve been very concerned. Certainly the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan is but one of a number of organizations which from time to time takes refuge in Afghanistan. And if it were supported by an Iran in response to an attack on Iran, could prove to be difficult for Russia.
China has been very concerned over a long period of time about the Uighur problem, whether in fact anybody would train more Uighurs and unleash them against China purely as a result of an American attack on Iran is much more conjectural.
But I think that they might dislike the notion that there was further Islamic solidarity, that the U.S. was losing perhaps strength in its ability to deal with these difficult problems in places like Iran and Iraq and Libya and so on. So I think all of that mounts up.
A lot of it is highly conjectural. I don’t think it’s necessarily all straightforward. And you have to pile some assumptions on other assumptions in order to get the bleakest of all possible views. And I don’t want to do that.
MR. THIELMANN: (Chuckles.) Okay, thank you. Questions from the floor? Avner?
Q: Ambassador Pickering, I’m Avner Cohen from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Your thought about – your thought about the use of the options of attack as a primarily, but obviously not explicitly, a bluffing strategy – that is to say, keeping it on the table even though if you know that probably under almost any certainty you’re not going to use it as opposed to saying ahead of we’re not going to use it under any circumstances.
I believe that Israel today is using it primarily just to keep it on the table, to push not so much to deter Iran but rather to make some pressure on others in terms of pressuring Iran. What do you think of that kind of strategy?
MR. PICKERING: Well, I think that if you believe that diplomacy ought to be tried – I don’t know that diplomacy has the sovereign answer to this and if in my earlier remarks I tended to imply that, I’ll resile from that very quickly. I think you have to try diplomacy and therefore diplomacy needs all the friends it can get.
And those friends including the potential of military force and given the level of paranoia in Tehran, not all of which we are alone capable of dismissing, one could assume that even if in fact people all over the United States said that military force wasn’t a very good option, I’m not sure they would necessarily believe it is totally off the table.
So it has some – may be difficult to calculate, certainly not a preponderant of influence but it has some influence. So I don’t necessarily think it’s wise to take it off the table and even if we were to try, I’m not sure we would succeed, given the uncertainties of the relationships we have with Tehran and their degree of suspicion and concern. And so my view is, okay, you play cards with the hands that you’ve got and there’s no use running around tearing up even deuces if you have them.
MR. THIELMANN: Anne Penketh?
Q: Thank you. Anne Penketh from BASIC – British American Security Information Council. Ambassador, among the three obstacles, you didn’t mention a fourth towards opening the diplomatic door which is the domestic situation in Iran. I’m wondering how you think the power struggle in Iran plays into that. It seems to me the administration is just waiting until this is resolved one way or the other.
MR. PICKERING: Well, it’s like waiting for Godot. We’ve been waiting for 40 years and maybe there is hope. (Laughter.) But I guess it was Albert Einstein said that continuing to do the same thing and expecting a definite result is the definition of insanity. (Laughter.)
So my hope is that, as I said earlier, regime change is the province of the people of Iran. And if that can happen, that’s nothing that we can do to stop it. But we ought to be very careful having the kind of sublime notion that we can manipulate it or operate it or make it go or somehow make it succeed. I think we need to be very careful about that.
I think in part because regime change may be an inevitable long-term possibility in Iran but the dealing with the nuclear question is not necessarily in my view susceptible to total long-term thinking. And so it has to come a little bit ahead of it and that’s the way in which I would order or juggle my priorities. It’s an interesting point.
We’ve seen signs that the Green Movement, which came after June 12th two years ago was making progress. But we’ve also seen the fact that very repressive measures in Tehran pushed it back. It seems to be contained at the moment. The Arab Spring doesn’t seem to have ignited in hearts of the people of Iran the notion that they can follow the same procedures and achieve something like the same results that were achieved in Cairo.
I don’t exclude it but I don’t see necessarily it part of the ongoing wave of change in the Arab world at the moment. One could only hope. But I think it’s in the nature of hope at the moment rather than something that one could count upon to change the process.
The second question is then who takes over. We have not seen, although we may like to believe, that Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi or others like them have abandoned the notion at least that the minimal requirement for Iranian aspirations in the nuclear area is to be able to enrich and that seems to be one of the problems at the present time in terms of the objectives of our policy.
I, as I said earlier, would be prepared to see enrichment under tight control provided we had the opportunity to have assurance and build the strongest possible firewall that other elements of a nuclear program leading toward a military result were not present in Iran and we should have hopefully as our negotiating objective the greatest – make the greatest possible effort to achieve that outcome.
MR. THIELMANN: On this side, go ahead, Andrew.
Q: Andrew Pierre, United States Institute of Peace. You put a lot of emphasis, let’s say, on diplomacy and trying diplomacy a bit more than we have. I think the history, briefly stated, is that the Europeans took the lead maybe five, six years ago now. We were out of it for a long time. We got into it. We’ve tried various measures including a reactor – reprocessing arrangements and so on.
You mentioned the – I think you sort of put a pitch in for direct U.S. contacts with Iran. The Iranians seem to be saying we want to discuss everything on the table, not just the nuclear issue. As the experienced diplomat that you are, do you see some real possibility if we can get our act together, along with the Europeans and the Russians, of making any headway with Iran or are we just – we just have to wait and wait this out and wait for regime change or some type of change in Tehran itself?
MR. PICKERING: Andrew, it’s a very good question and a fundamentally important one. I think at the moment, for me, until we have exhausted the diplomatic route – and I don’t feel we have- it is not possible to say it won’t work. Some Iranians – not all Iranians – have said in fact that some of the formulas that I have put forward would be useful in creating an engagement.
I think that that has to be tested. Until it’s tested, we’re caught up in the position that we are in a sense increasing the pressure in the pressure cooker but we haven’t opened the valve we want to see the process go through, if I can put it that way. (Chuckles.)
And so I would argue that. I think that in the end, if that fails, at least we will know where we stand and we then have to face the prospects that we haven’t discussed yet which are on the table is the use of force then the only option left, do we have, in a sense, a live-with-deterrent option – not that I favor it, and everybody that I know who is deeply concerned about nonproliferation hates the idea of talking about it because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and that’s the last thing in the world we want to encourage people to do.
Q: Could I follow-up on that?
MR. THIELMANN: Let’s try to get other people. The second row?
Q: My name is Carl Osgood. I’m with Executive Intelligence Review. Ambassador, last week there was an article in Haaretz warning that with Secretary Gates retiring at the end of this month and Admiral Mullen retiring at the end of September that during this period of transition at the Department of Defense is a greater risk of an Israeli strike against Iran, which of course would drag – the view being that that would of course drag the U.S. into it as well. I wonder what your view of that risk during this period is.
MR. PICKERING: Having spent four years as ambassador to Israel, I know the capacity of the Israeli press to explore every – (laughter) – possible fault and crack, particularly because it sells papers. I don’t think the thesis that we are changing leadership in the U.S. military establishment, both civil and military, suddenly means that we have opened this huge possibility for Israeli adventurism or whatever else you want to call it.
My own sense is that the Israeli attitude two, three, four years ago was, we have to go in the next six months. The Israeli attitude now has calmed down a little bit and it sees time. I also see many in Israel who comment on this particular issue and Israel is a wonderful place because you can have every conceivable comment on every problem.
But responsible people are commenting that the military option may not be as good. We ought to see whether we in fact can through other methods achieve the same results, certainty if we have bought ourselves time and I think we have bought ourselves a little time.
MR. THIELMANN: Let’s try the back. Very back row?
Q: Thanks. Hi, Ambassador. Tad Daley is my name from IPPNW. You know, the topic of this event is the military option. I would like to know if you would say a few words about the nuclear option and while that may seem far-fetched, I’d like to just remind you of two factoids.
One is Seymour Hersh in the spring of 2006 had this piece in The New Yorker that said, in the bowels of the Pentagon they are contemplating the possibility of a nuclear strike on Iran to take out their nascent nuclear capabilities.
And both President Bush and Secretary Rice were asked very directly about it by the media on more than one occasion and each time they said, all options are on the table. Four years later is the release of the nuclear posture review and it had this new element in it which said, we promise never to attack any non-nuclear weapon state with nuclear weapons as long as they’re in compliance with the NPT.
And in the press conference announcing the NPR, Secretary Gates made it very explicit and said, we have consciously left Iran and North Korea out of that pledge. I’m not so much asking you to tell me the likelihood that you think we’re going to attack them with nuclear weapons but – although welcome your views on that.
But I’m more interested in what do you think is the wisdom of explicitly stating that one of our options for dealing with states like Iran and North Korea is to attack them with nuclear weapons.
MR. PICKERING: Well you know, my own view is that nuclear threats in this day and age are perilous things that they may well drive people to believe that, as many seem to do, the only insurance policy you have against somebody else’s nuclear threats is your own nuclear arsenal. That’s one thing.
The second is I’m not an expert in the utility aspects of various approaches to military attack. But my feeling is that if you’re not sure of the target set a bigger hole in the ground in the wrong place doesn’t really make a lot of difference. So you have to be careful about that.
I think that we all know Natanz is deep but I’m not sure yet, given Israeli interest in conventional methods of attacking or conventional weapons but the capability I guess of winkling out the centrifuge halls at places like Natanz if we necessarily are drawn into the question of the need to use the nuclear because it has utilitarian aspects.
Then we go back to my earlier discussion on threats and keeping threats on the table and I take it that at least some of this may well be we don’t want to deny ourselves the capacity to have the biggest threat on the block play a role, even if it doesn’t seem utilitarian and it seems to be counterproductive with respect to nonproliferation interests, at least at one level.
And I think that’s just my description of where we are and I think we’re there in a confused way. And I’m not sure that taking what appears to be at least the latent we won’t take it off the table is necessarily going to resolve the problem either.
I think we’re stuck with where we are. I think the change in that particular issue, unless it can buy us something pretty directly, is not something that I would spend a lot of time talking further about. It’s been quiet for a long time. I think probably that’s where it ought to stay.
MR. THIELMANN: I might add that digging nuclear holes in the ground tends to create a lot of fallout which doesn’t seem to respect national boundaries but maybe Jeff can comment on that later. Barbara?
Q: Thanks. Barbara Slavin from The Atlantic Council. Ambassador Pickering, give us your best sense of how likely any kind of attack against Iran within the next two years, within the rest of the Obama presidency is. I mean, given what Greg said, to my mind given what’s going on in the rest of the Middle East, I would rate it at zero. But I just wondered where you would put it. Thanks.
MR. PICKERING: It seems to me as close to zero as one can get it, for which I’m deeply happy at the moment. I don’t know that there’s, you know, any way to go around that. One could envisage things that happen that might increase the probability or the possibility. At the moment I think those are in the realm of glorious imagination.
MR. THIELMANN: I think we have time for just one quick question. Sir?
Q: Allen Keiswetter from Middle East Institute. Mr. Ambassador, if I understood correctly, you see an attack on the Iranians as possibly encouraging proliferation when the other people who are more militant seem to see it as a deterrent. Could you explain the logic, please?
MR. PICKERING: When I think that with respect to Iran, the logic that an attack might unleash those folks in Iran who are reported to be in favor of building nuclear weapons and give them the argument that they have been seeking that nuclear weapons are really the only guarantee that we have, that even big bad people like the United States in their view won’t attack us, is a palpable argument.
I also see unfortunately – and Allen, you know this area much better than most people in this room – that once Iran goes in that direction, we’re going to have a lot of trouble holding horses in a number of countries in the region, only in that view limited by your imagination, who would then move in the same direction.
And we will, as matter of fact, then have to do some things which I think Secretary Clinton has wisely begun to do, is to reinforce our support for our friends and allies to make clear that we are prepared to come to their assistance in the light of any new emerging threats in the region to do what we can to assure that we have a deterrent capacity.
There is always the loophole in deterrence that the weapon would be passed – or a weapon would be passed to some organization against which, because it has not territory and no population and no infrastructure, deterrence is less effective or maybe not effective.
My own view is that quite frankly people don’t hand out nuclear weapons once they achieve them like cotton candy and certainly not to – not among the loyal Shia – to Sunni organizations. And so we need to be careful about believing that that would happen as a kind of absolute premise of the problem.
I wish I could say that I thought it would never happen but I think the value of making sure that we have the capacity to understand were God-forbid we or anybody ever attacked to do the forensics and know where it came from and hold those people responsible would be a very important part of creating the deterrent that I think is necessary, particularly in handing out weapons or facilitating other people to make weapons. But we know in fact that that’s not necessarily an iron-bound, iron-clad prohibition.
MR. THIELMANN: Okay. I think we better let Ambassadors Pickering go now. But let’s thank him for his participation. (Applause.) And our next speaker will be Jeff White. You can either come to the podium, Jeff, or stay where you are. Whatever your choice.
JEFFREY WHITE: I think I’ll sit here. I apologize if my voice sounds a little funny. I’m fighting a sinus infection with drugs and lack of sleep. So I’m going to do my best here to address this pretty interesting topic. You know, Greg asked me to look at a number of military-related issues. So I’m going to kind of work through them in my discussion.
And the first issue in my mind is, you know, what kind of attack are we actually talking about in military terms. The word attack is thrown out a lot. Without getting into specifics about what an attack on Iran’s nuclear program would mean in terms of the actual military operations that would have to be conducted.
Greg asked me to assume that included in the attack would be air defense sites, the Iranian strategic missiles, the command and control system, naval and air facilities and of course the nuclear facilities. If you make that assumption and we’re talking about an air campaign of days, maybe weeks, potentially at the upper end of necessity to achieve the goals, you know, may be longer than just a few weeks.
So this would be under these assumptions a very big event. You could make an argument that maybe we would go for a very limited surgical attack on just nuclear facilities employing self-aircraft, employing cruise missiles and just try and take out that capability. But I think that’s less likely than if we make the decision to do it then it’s going to be a big attack.
If in this kind of operation or air campaign you’re going to see a strike and supporting aircraft and cruise missiles would have to be allocated to each of the target systems. That means you couldn’t employ all – all the weapons couldn’t go against just the nuclear facilities. All these places would have to be struck. The operations would have to be phased. You could not hit all the targets all at the same time and that adds to the dimension of time.
And also it adds a complication in the sense that if you phase the attack, you can allow the Iranians to react to the attack and take measures to mitigate the consequences. You’d have to plan for personal recovery, downed pilots and these could be large operations in their own right with their own – you know, in and of themselves with their own risks and potential for complicating the situation.
You would have to provide for air defense for the ships that were involved and the carrier strike groups and any airfields that we were using that were within range of Iranian capabilities. And we’d have to collect intelligence to assess what was going on to figure out whether we were being effective and look at the Iranian reaction.
So all these pieces of the attack require lots of assets, careful phasing and each one of them has their own complications or potential complication. I think also that the start conditions would be very important and it’s hard to know what they would actually be. You know, would this be an out-of-the-blue attack, sort of the classic bolt-from-the-blue scenario in which we achieved, you know, some substantial measure of surprise against the Iranians?
Or would it be, you know, occurring after a period of tension when the Iranians were able to observe our movement of ships for preparations and therefore the Iranians would have a chance to begin again to set their own measures in place to mitigate the attach or to retaliate in the event of an attack?
Also important – and the Ambassador mentioned this – would be what allies if any would we have. You know, who’s going to war with us? You know, the Brits, you know, they go with us everywhere, right? You know, would they go with us, you know, in this situation? You know, it’s an open question. You know, my guess is we would probably want them to and they would be useful definitely to have involved. But that would be a political think that would have to be, you know, taken care of.
And how about the Gulf states? You know, are they going to be unwilling, you know, participants? Are we going to fly out of Gulf state airfields? Are we going to mount, you know, personal recovery missions from them and so on?
So they would become de facto allies even if they didn’t fly a single, you know, mission. You know, the other issues as well – the political and diplomatic legitimacy of a perceived attack both at home and, you know, abroad, you know, what the economic situation was in the U.S. and around the world.
And all these factors I think could influence the shape and, you know, the size of the attack and the duration of the attack, make it shorter or longer or whatever. So the attack itself is a complicated thing. It’s not just simply, you know – it’s not something you can easily gloss over the complexities of.
For Israel, you know, we’re talking I think about is quite a different attack, right? Israel is not capable of waging an air campaign over Iran. Israel is capable of a limited air operation over Iran, okay?
And that has - you know, that has a number of consequences in and of itself. While I think we could strike – the U.S. could strike all of the targets in the Iranian nuclear structure 20, 25 – whatever it is, wherever we figure out – I know as well as the other targets if we go for the big option – Israel is going to have to be substantially, I think, more selective in what they strike.
So they are going to have to go for the highest value pieces, the key nodes in the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and go for those. They would probably not attack other components of the Iranian military system. Maybe some air defenses and so on just to expedite the missions but probably would have to not go after that.
The bigger the operation the Israelis mount, the more targets that could be hit and probably more importantly the more assured destruction they could achieve in any one place. But the Israelis also have to be concerned about, you know, making sure their force is not discovered on the way in or eliminating the risk of that.
So a large force makes it easier or makes the likelihood of its being discovered greater and also they have to be concerned with the recovery of that force and getting it back to Israel, rearming, being prepared for any kind of retaliation or dealing with the threats from Hamas, Hezbollah or Syria, whatever.
So the Israelis are in a much more constrained operational environment than we would be. The Israelis would also have to provide all the support forces that I’ve talked about for the U.S. There would have to be some kind of intelligence collection. Maybe they’d do that by satellites but they’d also have to be concerned about personal recovery and so on.
So I’m thinking the Israelis would go for this selective set of targets, not the whole system. I don’t think the Israelis would lose any sleep over casualties at the facilities that were struck. I don’t think we would lose any sleep over that either. I’m not sure either we or the Israelis would make casualties, you know, killing scientists or whatever – people at the facilities – you know, per se an objective. I don’t think they would be too concerned about it.
In terms of the levels of destruction, I think it’s unfair to ask the military – any military – to achieve complete destruction of the Iranian nuclear program or to permanently set it back. It’s just not possible. You can’t destroy knowledge and you can’t destroy the basic technology.
So I think in any case, U.S., Israeli attack, we’re talking about a situation where the setback to the program would be measured in, you know, years hopefully – maybe two years, maybe three years, maybe one year in the case of the Israeli attack, whatever. So I think it’s not – it just isn’t a fair, you know, argument to make that we can achieve complete destruction of the program.
I don’t think that’s one the – you know, on the table in any reasonable way. I think we especially – we can take – the targets we hit can be damaged to a very high degree. I think we can achieve high levels of destruction even against buried facilities. When they put them in a mountain, that’s the challenge, right?
You know, I think we’re working on that challenge with the massive ordinance penetrator and things like that. But buying a facility in a mountain does raise some issues and it also raises the issues of nuclear – you know, using a nuclear weapon –a small tactical nuclear weapon against a deeply buried facility would be a military operation, right? It would be a way to get at the mountain – (inaudible).
You can also go after air shafts. You can go after the entrances and so on. I think basically we have the – you know, we have the capability to do a lot of damage to these facilities and how much damage we did would be substantially dependent upon the decisions we made about sustaining the attacks, about restriking, you know, our willingness to persevere and carry the attacks through with some degree of determination and to go back in if we needed to.
So it’s not just a matter of, you know, one time in and out and whether we achieve destruction or not, it’s over. We have the ability to go back. We can restrike – much harder for the Israelis to do that. I think it also depends upon, you know, how fast Iran could get back in the business. It also depends on the Iranian decisions.
You know, a very broad attack by the United States on the types of target sets that we’re talking about here – the Iranians would have to factor that into their decision making about how and when and, you know, whether or not in fact they would rebuild the program. I’m presuming they would not like to be struck like that again or they would see that as, you know, a potentially negative consequence.
So it could influence them. They could in fact work on rebuilding it but they would have to think about the fact that they’d just been hit very hard. The mobile missile problem issue – okay, the Iranians have the strategic mobile missiles and mobile missiles are very difficult target set to work.
This has been true since World War II and the German V weapons programs. But in our experience in Iraq, for example, it took us a long time and we didn’t have a lot of effectiveness against mobile missiles in the first Gulf war.
But, you know, that may have changed over time and we may be a lot better at it. We have broad-area surveillance, lots of reconnaissance systems that we didn’t have then – drones and so on. So we might be able to deal with the mobile missile program, you know, more effectively and therefore limit Iranian ability to retaliate.
But it also depends on a number of factors, you know, how many – you know, how much of our strike effort, our assets, go into the mobile missile problem. This was an issue in the Iraq war – the first Iraq war – because it detracts from other target sets that you want to hit, right? It also depends very substantially on the state of your intelligence collection.
Before the battle begins or before the attacks occur, you have to know where they are, you know, where the garrisons are, where they’ve deployed to, you know, where the launch sites are. Okay, you need good intelligence on that and once the battle is on then you need to be able to follow those around. But all that requires quite a measure of effort.
And if you phase an attack – and mobile missiles aren’t in the first phase of the attack – the first bomb falls in Iran, they’re going to flush the mobile missile out of their normal garrison areas and deploy them to field or to launch sites.
So then you’ve got the issue of finding them. So we have a lot of capability on against the mobile missile issue but we don’t have total capability against it. We could not be 100 percent certain that we could get all those things in the event of a major attack. Also when you’re talking about mobile missiles, you also have to consider the mobile coastal defense batteries that Iran has, okay?
These things would likely flush right away in the event of an attack and would be capable of really doing a lot of damage to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and that would be an issue for the U.S. Navy to gout and find these things and since they’re truck-mounted, you can hide them in a house, do all kinds of things. Again, that would be a challenge that we could simply not wish away, something that we would have to be prepared to deal with.
Another issue is the effectiveness of the antiballistic missile systems. You know, could we stop – could the Israeli’s stop Iran from retaliating effectively with its Shahab-3 or whatever other system it has at the time of the attack. Basically, you know, my judgment is that we would be – we would have a high degree of effectiveness against the Iranian strategic-type missiles – Shahab-3 and so on.
We would shoot down a lot of them. If the Israelis were attacked, they would shoot down a lot of them and we would probably help do that. But again, you could not guarantee that all the Iranian missiles would be shot down. And it’s something that would have to be coped with by our forces or by the Israeli forces. There would be no guarantee.
Another question here is what kind of attrition would occur relative for our forces during a battle. I think in the first Gulf War in 40-some days of combat we lost like 20 aircraft. I think roughly the same, you know, during a similar period or a longer period in Iraqi Freedom. That’s not high rates of attrition. I think attrition for our forces would be small.
You know, on the order of 1 to 2 percent and over a campaign of 30 to 45 days, that’s not very much, certainly not going to, you know, inhibit our ability to carry out the missions. Attrition for the Israelis would probably be somewhat higher. They might lose more because their attacks would be focused on few areas. The Iranians could concentrate their response, you know, on those areas.
But Israel would also be engaging probably in a one-time operation, right, and if they could accept the high rate of attrition in a one-time operation, if the stakes are high enough, if the goals are high enough and I think in this case they would be. So I think you could see the Israelis taking substantially more attrition than we would and still feeling, you know, comfortable with the outcome as long as they struck the targets, of course.
Okay, I’m getting the hook here, so – (laughter). I think Ali is going to talk more about how the Iranians would respond. So I’ll skip that, although I have views on that. And I’ll just, you know, close out here on the mining threat, right? One of the primary means that Iran would have to respond and cause trouble would be by mining in the Strait of Hormuz and in the Persian Gulf. And this would be a major problem I think.
We have, I think, four mine countermeasures ships in the Gulf now. We have 14 total. Presumably we could move more. A lot of our potential allies or people who would be interested in demining, like the Japanese, have I think 30 mine countermeasures ships. They might help.
But I think what you would see – we would strike Iran mine forces, both the storage areas and the major combatants that would be mine layers, the submarines and so on. But in the Iranian doctrine, this ability to use small boats to mine, right, and they could dump floating mines into the Persian Gulf and let them drift down into the area.
And they have a lot of small boats and they have, you know, well over 2,000 mines of all types – modern technology, old technology and all that. And I think recently we have the experience with the Libyan government effort to mine the harbor in Misrata which even in a pretty half-assed operation, right, it stopped ships going in and out of there for like three days. They were swept and destroyed and all that.
So the mining threat I think is a real one and would have real consequences. I think the mining threat could also be part of an Iranian anti-access and area denial strategy. They would be capable, I think, of putting up a long protracted fight in the Strait of Hormuz and in that area and, you know, basically closing it off to oil transport with fairly significant economic, you know, consequences.
So I’ll just close out. I think there are a lot of issues – important issues – related to an “attack,” in quotes, on Iran and so it would be very complicated, problematic in some ways. I think the desired levels of destruction could be achieved, especially by us. But it would not be an easy operation and it is, I think, in my mind kind of in a last resort category. And with that, I’ll close.
MR. THIELMANN: Thank you very much, Jeff. And Alireza?
ALIREZA NADER: Good morning. I want to just briefly talk about Iran’s potential reaction to a strike on its nuclear facilities. And to do so I think we have to consider the domestic situation in Iran today. The Islamic Republic right now faces more division than it has in the last 30 years of its existence. And the 2009 presidential election, if you remember, laid bare a lot of these divisions where we saw millions of Iranians go out into the streets.
We saw the regime push out certain factions and personalities out of the political system which later coalesced into the Green Movement. Of course, the Green Movement was largely crushed but it still exists. There’s still the angst and frustration that facilitated the Green Movement’s creation.
Today, the biggest struggle in Iran, the biggest political struggle, is between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And I won’t go into too many details on that, although I think it’s a very interesting topic. But suffice it to say is that these internal divisions in Iran really blunt Iran’s ability to project power in the Middle East and it keeps the Iranian regime very preoccupied. It can’t focus its efforts outward.
And this potentially provides U.S. leverage in following more successful strategy toward Iran and pressuring Iran through sanctions, for example. But a military strike on Iran could reverse all of that.
What a military strike could do is unite all Iran’s various factions and personalities around the supreme leader. If you listen to the supreme leader’s speech yesterday on the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, he mentioned the word – (inaudible) – repeatedly.
And this is something he likes because an external enemy helps unite the system. And when we look at the various personalities and factions in Iran, there actually – there’s a lot of disagreement on the nuclear program.
Leaders like former Prime Minister Moussavi, the head of the Green Movement – or one of the ostensible leaders of the Green Movement – and former President Rafsanjani have really criticized Ahmadinejad’s handling of the nuclear program. So the state in Iran is not necessarily unified on the nuclear issue itself.
But a nuclear strike can help to greater unification. And a strike could also allow the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard to go ahead and crush the Green Movement. They haven’t been able to do so. There have been problems in silencing the leadership. They are under house arrest but there are limits in terms of how repressive the Iranian government can be.
And military attacks could facilitate Iran’s strategy of repression. Indeed, I think a military strike on Iran could accelerate the political system toward a militarized system where you have the Revolutionary Guard making all important decisions. We also have to consider the population’s reaction to a military strike. There is a perception that Iranians are very pro-American and in some cases or in some sense they are.
I think they respect U.S. progress, technological knowhow but they don’t necessarily welcome a U.S. or Israeli or Western attack on their homeland. Iranians are a very nationalistic people and like most people in the world they resent outside interference in their country.
RAND actually did a survey on Iranian public opinion which I authored and 87 percent of Iranians said that Iran is entitled to a civilian nuclear program. Forty-three percent actually supported nuclear weaponization. And I realize that doing a survey in Iran is problematic and I discuss that in the survey.
But this – the results from this survey basically match what we know about the Iranian population, that they’re highly nationalistic. If you look at the Iran-Iraq War after the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War helped the revolution, helped preserve the revolution because there was a lot of discord after the revolution and Iraq’s attack on Iran helped unify the country.
And the Iranian government facing a military attack has to respond somehow. It can’t remain quiet because, again, it has to show that it is powerful, that it can maintain its legitimacy. So an attack would lead to some sort of retaliation.
Now, we have to look at what kind of retaliatory options Iran has and I would categorize those into two strategies – overt or major military action or covert and asymmetric action. Overt military action can take different forms. Iran can – (inaudible, cough) – the hundreds of missiles it has created into GCC and U.S. bases – U.S. bases throughout the region and it has threatened to do so in the past.
Now, these missiles are not necessarily very accurate but they are accurate enough to do a lot of damage in the Persian Gulf region. Iran can also interfere with shipping. For the past several years, the Revolutionary Guard have formed this strategy of asymmetric attacks against U.S. and Western forces in the Persian Gulf.
And the idea is not to defeat the U.S. Navy. Iran knows it can’t do that because of U.S. superiority, but to harass the U.S. Navy, to interfere with shipping in the Persian Gulf, to make sure that oil prices go high enough to apply enough pressure on the international community and the United States to stop an attack or even deter an attack. Iran could also activate proxy forces in the region.
I put proxy in quotes because they’re groups are not always proxies. They don’t always follow Iranian instructions to the letter. But they have very solid ties with the Iranian intelligence and the Iranian military. And these groups include Hezbollah in Lebanon which is a very capable military and terrorist force, as we’ve seen. It includes Hamas, Iraqi insurgents and especially Iraqi Shia insurgents, groups like Jaish al-Mahdi and if we look at Iraq today, there’s an increased instability in Iraq. There are signs that Jaish al-Mahdi under Muqtada al-Sadr is reconsidering its freeze. Recently tens of thousands of Jaish al-Mahdi members marched throughout Iraq.
So I think it’s a mistake to assume that Iraq is at this level of stability where we can conduct operations against Iran. Iran has also provided measured support to the Taliban and I say measured because that support has not matched its support to Iraqi insurgents.
Iran has been providing small arms according to reports, has been providing some IEDs for the Taliban. But if there’s an attack against Iran, Iran can step up its support of the Taliban. It won’t be measured any longer. Iran can provide very sophisticated explosively formed projectiles to the Taliban which were used effectively against U.S. troops in Iraq. It can provide advanced surface-to-air missiles.
So Iran has really the capability to broaden the scope of the Afghan conflict and conduct a lot of attacks against U.S. forces. And Iran can also conduct a global terrorist operations by using its own resources – the ministry of intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard. And the list goes on and on. I think covert or asymmetric actions make a lot of sense given Iran’s military doctrine.
Iran likes to keep the fight to its periphery. It doesn’t want the homeland involved in a future conflict. Iran in effect likes others to do its fighting for it. But given the precarious internal situation in Iran, the Iranian government has to show that it’s taking some sort of action. It has to demonstrate to the public that it is retaliating. So it will be interesting to see how Iran would retaliate in the future. It’s hard to tell but those are some of the options that it has.
And lastly, Iran may actually accelerate its nuclear program. If we look at the rationale for Iran in pursuing a nuclear program, you can argue that there isn’t much of an economic rationale at this point for it to do so. I think that the major reason that Iran is pursuing a nuclear program is the preservation of the regime.
This is a regime that has felt threatened and has been in a state of crisis since its birth in 1979. And the Iranian regime, although the danger of a military attack I think has gone down as some of the previous speakers mentioned, it’s still worried about a potential U.S. invasion and a regime change.
And this is one major reason that it is pursuing a nuclear program and wants to have the options of creating nuclear weapons if need be. And of course it’s pursuing a nuclear program also to enhance its regional image, to project power. I don’t think these goals are necessarily mutually exclusive.
RAND is actually putting out a study today looking at these issues. It’s called “Iran’s Nuclear Future.” It will be on our website but in the report we look at three distinct Iranian nuclear postures – a virtual posture, an ambiguous posture and a declared posture.
And each posture has its own uses for the Iranian regime. And this is a regime that makes decisions on a cost-benefit calculation. There is this assumption that Iran is going forward toward a nuclear bomb, that it wants to create one or two nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
And this is not true. Iran makes decisions based on internal factors and external factors. And one of the internal factors I mentioned is this internal debate in Iran between the various factions, this weighing of Iran’s interests when it comes to the international community. Iran maintains very important ties with countries like China.
So although it is isolated from the United States and from Europe to a certain extent, it can’t risk completely isolating itself from countries like China and Russia. If you look at China today, it’s investing a lot of money in Iran. And the Chinese are doing this under the cover of Iran pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. So if Iran does weaponize, the weaponization, having nuclear weapons basically poses risks to its overall interest.
The Iranian foreign minister actually made a statement the other day saying the creation of nuclear weapons would be a strategic mistake. And I think he really means it. At this point Iran can’t believe that this is a strategic mistake to create nuclear weapons now and not in the future. Again, Iran wants to have this nuclear option. And finally, if there is an attack on Iran, on its nuclear facilities, it will make dealing with Iran in the future much harder.
If Iran accelerates its program, reaches the point where it develops nuclear weapons, we have to ask how will the U.S. deal with Iran then. We have pursued a policy of engagement coupled with sanctions and we are considering containing a potentially nuclear Iran.
But I think that strategy could be imperiled if we strike Iran or if any other country like Israel strikes Iran. And this I think could actually justify the Iranian government’s rationale for pursuing a nuclear capability. If we attack them, they could argue, well, we were right in the first place. Thank you.
MR. THIELMANN: Thank you. I might just follow up with one question concerning the overplay of religious issues on the question Ali raised and I’m recalling Ayatollah Khomeini’s views about WMD at the outset of the war with Iraq. And as I recall, those views evolved partly as a result of the fighting. But is there any kind of parallel there to how the current official position, which is that it’s haram to pursue nuclear weapons could be altered by an attack?
MR. NADER: Right. Well, the theory is that Ayatollah Khomeini opposed nuclear weapons, that he shelved the shah’s nuclear program. That was one of the reasons but also Iran didn’t have the resources or the energy to pursue a nuclear program.
And toward the end of the war, the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard, General Rezaee, who is now the head of the expediency – or the secretary of the expediency counsel, wrote a letter to Khamenei saying, look, we can’t win this war. We’ll need however many tanks, planes and we’ll also need nuclear weapons.
So Iran was at a point where it basically gave up and didn’t pursue nuclear weapons at that time but it accelerated its program after the Iran-Iraq War. Supposedly the current supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa on nuclear weapons saying it’s un-Islamic, I believe, to use nuclear weapons. I haven’t seen any evidence of this fatwa.
People discus it but there isn’t much evidence as far as I know. But he hasn’t issued a fatwa saying we can’t have a virtual nuclear capability. So again, I don’t think religious issues really factor as much into Iranian thinking. I think it looks at – Iran looks at its national interests like a lot of other states. It makes decisions based on those interests rather than being focused on religious issues per se.
MR. THIELMANN: Good. Okay, we’ve got 10 minutes or so for questions from the floor. Yes, sir?
Q: Milton Hoenig. Alireza, could you expand just a little bit on the tensions currently in Iran between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei? I mean, it seems that Ahmadinejad’s position is rather precarious from what you read and also he seems to represent a more liberal viewpoint in the sense of wanting perhaps to open up talks with the P5+1. This goes back to his support of the fuel swap back in October 2009. Is that when it was? And that was vetoed after he had already agreed to it.
MR. NADER: Well, there’s a lot of tension right now between Ahmadinejad and his supporters on one hand and Khamenei and his supporters. And the reason for this is Ahmadinejad has directly challenged a supreme leader. He’s done a lot of things in the last, what, five or six years to challenge Khamenei.
But I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was Ahmadinejad firing the minister of intelligence over Khamenei’s objections and he’s done other things to challenge the supreme leader. He has advocated – he hasn’t advocated this directly but Mashaei, his chief of staff and in-law, has advocated Iranian Islam challenging the clergy in Iran. And the clergy feels very threatened by Ahmadinejad and Mashaei and their brand if Islamic ideology.
So I think matters have come to a head. And Ahmadinejad has tried to groom Mashaei as his successor as president and a lot of figures in the system are not happy with this. So you basically have not just Khamenei but the top echelon of the Revolutionary Guard challenging Ahmadinejad in a very serious way.
And I think Ahmadinejad is a very overconfident in his base of support. I think he’s losing his support within the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij and I don’t think he has as much popular support as he likes to assume he has.
On the nuclear issue, yes, there have been reports that Ahmadinejad advocates engagement with P5+1 and there was this effort to swap Iran’s nuclear material. But we have to look at this in the context of Iranian politics. I think if Iran had found some sort of compromise, it might have looked good for Ahmadinejad at that point.
And if you look at the deal, it was rather a good deal for Iran as a political system because it gave it time. It slowed down the sanctions regime against Iran. But the system wasn’t able to function cohesively. A lot of Ahmadinejad’s allies attacked him for this deal. But again, the nuclear issue and Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 have become a political football in Iran.
So we have to watch out from rhetoric that’s coming from one side or another. If we look at that deal, actually the leaders of the Green Movement were opposed to it. Moussavi criticized it. Rafsanjani criticized it. And they’re supposed to be more amenable to potential compromise with the P5+1. And I think they could be but, again, politics got in the way.
MR. THIELMANN: Yes, sir?
Q: Gerald Epstein at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’m interested in Iran’s choice of retaliatory options if it were to be attacked. Presumably today Iran could close down the Strait of Hormuz. It could unleash terrorism. It could attack all the states. It has no reason to do so. It would not look very good in world opinion if it did.
If the U.S. were to attack it and it’s trying to decide what to do in return, to some extent it’s probably driven by domestic politics – (inaudible) – something. But to some extent, it would, I think, have to decide this is a retaliatory action, we’re going to do it but at some point we’ll cross the line and the rest of the world will say, that’s not retaliation, that’s just like you attacked out of the blue.
Closing the Strait of Hormuz will massively disrupt the world system. People will be upset at the U.S. but the world might not see that as retaliation to the U.S. So how would Iranians think about the types of things they could justify as retaliation or would that enter their mind?
MR. NADER: I think with that option, Iran would lose more than any other player because if you shut down the Strait of Hormuz, that shuts off Iran’s energy exports and that’s very damaging to the Iranian economy. I think that the Iranian government uses that option as a deterrent vis-à-vis the United States.
So it tells us that if you take military action against us, we’ll shut down this strait. This will increase oil prices, et cetera. We can debate how serious Iran is regarding actually taking that option, if it views that only in terms of a deterrent option or in terms of deterrence or if it’s serious about going forth. I think I can make an argument for both cases.
If you look at Iranian military exercises, there’s a huge focus on interfering with shipping in the Persian Gulf. So I think they’re taking it very seriously and they’ve purchased a lot of small boats, sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles, mines. So I think this is a serious threat. Again, who knows how the international community will look at it.
If the U.S. or Israel takes action against Iran – preemptive action – and Iran retaliates. There is justification from the perspective of the international community in Iran taking those sort of actions and shutting down the Strait of Hormuz. But again, everybody suffers. Countries like China suffer. So I can’t imagine if they’d be too happy about any sort of conflict in the Persian Gulf.
MR. WHITE: I think – just to add one comment – I think the – you know, an issue here is how the Iranians read the attack. And if it’s a very large-scale U.S. attack, they may have trouble distinguishing, you know, just an attack on – basically on their nuclear program to an attack on the regime.
And if they think it’s, you know, the attack on the regime, that this is a prelude to all-out U.S. war on the regime, then they’re quite likely or could well, let’s say, implement lots of contingency plans, one of which is to close the – you know, close the strait, which as Ali said, they’re completely prepared to do from a military standpoint. They have a lot of retaliatory options, you know, so.
MR. THIELMANN: And I’d only add to that that even now, there are some who argue that we should be doing something to cut off Iran’s oil commerce. So it’s easy for me to imagine if we were engaged in a massive air campaign about Iran, there would be pressure to combine with that some way to cut off Iranian oil.
So from the Iranian perspective, would they tolerate U.S. military action to cut off all of their maritime oil commerce and they would leave the other commerce past the Strait of Hormuz unmolested? That’s hard for me to believe, but Daryl?
Q: Hi. Daryl Kimball with the Arms Control Association. Thanks to both of you for your presentations. Alireza, one question for you if you could clarify, you know, some commentators here in the United States have argued that sanctions are not being effective enough, diplomacy is not being effective enough. They may not even get behind a military option. But then they argue as a last resort.
So therefore we should, in order to solve the nuclear problem, help support the Green Movement and internal regime change. Now, as Ambassador Pickering said earlier, regime change, he argued, should be the purview of the Iranian people.
But just to clarify, I mean, what are the views of those in the opposition, so to speak, regarding the nuclear program as a whole, not about pursuing nuclear weapons per se but the nuclear program and is that a realistic solution either.
And for Mr. White also, you know, you mentioned that theoretically the nuclear weapon strike option is theoretically on the table. But, you know, in all your years of experience, I mean, given how the United States government looks at collateral damage as a political and diplomatic issue, I mean, could you just elaborate a little bit more on this issue?
Because it seems to me that if the conventional military option is for all intents and purposes off the table, given all that you have said, the nuclear option is certainly not a realistic option for the President of the United States looking at this situation. Thanks.
MR. WHITE: Just on the nuclear option, you know, we have pretty low yield nuclear weapons, right, and if the facility’s located out in the, you know, boondocks far enough, collateral damage, you know, could be pretty minimal, right?
My own view is we wouldn’t do it. You know, I certainly can’t imagine the current administration doing it. It’s hard for me to imagine, you know, any set of senior military commanders, you know, wanting to use a nuclear weapon, you know, short of the big one – you know, the big war kind of situation. So I think as a military technical standpoint, the option is there. But I don’t think – I just don’t think we would do it.
MR. NADER: I don’t think it’s too late to dissuade Iran from weaponizing. I wouldn’t argue that sanctions and engagement have been completely ineffective. I mean, Iran is progressing toward some sort of capability by enriching uranium.
But we don’t really know if the leadership in Iran has made up its mind as to develop nuclear weapons. And this is the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, that Iran is developing the knowhow and infrastructure and technology but they haven’t necessarily made a decision to weaponize.
So I think there is still time to dissuade Iran from moving into this other nuclear posture from virtual, if it’s even at virtual now, into an ambiguous or a declared nuclear posture. There is still – I think there is internal debate in Iran. It’s hard to see evidence of it because the Iranian weapons program is not discussed publicly in Iran. But if you look at the various groups and constituents in Iran, they each have their own interest in the political system.
So the Green Movement wants to reform the Iranian political system. The pragmatic conservatives under Rafsanjani want to integrate Iran into the global economy and the nuclear program as pursued by Ahmadinejad and Khamenei has hurt their interests.
When we look at President Khatami’s administration, you can argue that Iran handled the nuclear program very differently, that it developed its capabilities but it also engaged the international community.
Iran’s former national security advisor under Khatami, a cleric by the name of Rohani, even stated in public that engagement is good because it buys us time so we can focus on other aspects of the nuclear program.
Of course, Ahmadinejad has called the nuclear program a train without brakes. And this is dangerous for his political opponents like the Green Movement and Rafsanjani. So I think that is potentially an avenue of exploitation by the United States.
But when I say exploitation I don’t mean regime change necessarily. I think our understanding of Iran is very limited right now – what’s going on in Iran, how the regime is functioning or not functioning, how the people – the Iranian people feel about the regime, whether they support the Green Movement, whether they are ready for an entirely new system.
So I think given the lack of full U.S. understanding and the lack of our capabilities to affect change in Iran and the wider Middle East, frankly, I wouldn’t advocate regime change because, again, that hurts our chances with the Iranian government. Having regime change as an option, having military attacks on the table basically constrains our diplomatic and economic policy toward Iran right now and in the future.
MR. THIELMANN: We probably can take one more question. Miss?
Q: Hi, for Alireza, it’s Laura Rosen. I’m curious what the Iranian reaction has been to Stuxnet, whatever the reality of it is and whoever was behind it.
MR. NADER: Well, they blamed it on the U.S. and Israel and otherwise I think they’re trying to repair the damage and contain it and protect their program from future attacks. But in terms of their willingness, their intent, I don’t think it has slowed down Iran. It may have caused technical problems for them.
But for the Iranian government, I think even a portion of the population, the nuclear program is a point of national pride. The argument that Iran can have the uranium enrichment cycle really resonates in Iran, even among people who oppose the Islamic Republic. I think I would argue that a majority of Iranians view Iran as having the right to developing a nuclear program where it pursues enrichment.
And so I think the Iranian government has been successful in convincing the people through its control of media and the information environment in Iran. So an attack on Natanz is not seen as an attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. That’s what we think in the United States and the West. It is seen as an attack on Iran’s civilian nuclear program.
MR. WHITE: And to add one thing, I think the Stuxnet business probably increased their sense of vulnerability. And my understanding is they were, you know, shocked, taken aback and had, you know, some difficulty coping with it.
And given their dependence on outside, you know, foreign technology and so on, they see that kind of vulnerability and, you know, this might be able to happen to them again. So it did physical damage I think to their program but it also I think increased that sense of vulnerability.
MR. THIELMANN: Thank you very much. I have a couple of wrap-up comments but let’s thank our speakers for their contributions. (Applause.) I’m sure you’re waiting with bated breath for the solution to Iran’s nuclear puzzle at the end of our four discussion panels. I may be disappointing you slightly to say that we don’t have a simple answer to this.
There are a few tentative conclusions that I would offer based on what we’ve heard from experts in these four sessions. First is the somewhat encouraging news that Iran is not an imminent nuclear weapons threat. We would assess that they are years, not months, away from actually acquiring nuclear weapons.
Also it’s not clear that Iran has decided to go beyond building a nuclear infrastructure with a breakout capability or an actual nuclear arsenal and I think that reflects what Alireza was saying. Iran can eventually have nuclear weapons if it wants them badly enough. Only an invasion and occupation could physically prevent it.
A preventive aerial assault by Israel or the U.S. is not a viable option. It would delay but then incentivize Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and it would be an economic and diplomatic disaster of the first order for the United States.
The only realistic solution to the Iran nuclear puzzle is to persuade Tehran to forego nuclear weapons and to accept transparency measures which demonstrate the absence of a weapons program. Sanctions may be necessary to raise the cost of Iran defying the IAEA but they have to be accompanied by a willingness to give Iran something of value in return.
So that kind of sums up where we’re at having gone through in some depth some of the discussions. I would remind you the transcripts from today’s session will be available by the end of this week on the Arms Control Association’s website. And we will be releasing additional analyses based on the insights gained from these sessions and elsewhere in coming weeks. So thank you very much for participating today. (Applause.)
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