Victor Comras & Larry Johnson Debate the New NIE & Iran
By Andrew Cochran
Several of the CTB Contributing Experts and I periodically participate in an email discussion on CT issues, hosted by Philip "Rick" Henika, with others including former CIA and State Department official Larry Johnson. Today, after Rick sent Larry Johnson's analysis of the new NIE on the Iranian nuclear situation as posted on his "No Quarter" website, Victor Comras engaged Larry in an e-mail debate on the NIE and the broader question of the threat posed by Iran. The two have graciously agreed to let me post the full text of their debate, beginning with the text of Larry's No Quarter post. I edited only for punctuation errors and rare misspellings.
Now we know why some in the Bush Administration-Dick Cheney’s folks in particular-fought like hell to keep the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program under wraps. IRAN HALTED ITS NUCLEAR PROGRAM IN 2003. Here’s what CNN is reporting:
Iran halted work toward a nuclear weapon under international scrutiny in 2003 and is unlikely to be able to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb until 2010 to 2015, a U.S. intelligence report says. A declassified summary of the latest National Intelligence Estimate found with “high confidence” that the Islamic republic halted an effort to develop nuclear weapons in the fall of 2003.
This report was ready to go in December of 2006 but Cheney and his allies pushed back hard to stop it. They knew, as they know today, that this headline does not help them in their rush to start a new war. Damn it all!!! How dare those pesky Iranians prove malleable to diplomatic initiatives and pressure. You mean we can solve things without starting a war and killing civilians?
Boy there are going to be some grumpy neo-cons. This is probably part of the war on Christmas. This kind of news will make it very difficult for the agitators for war with Iran to hoist a glass of eggnog and toast bombing ragheads in Tehran.
Don’t be surprised to hear about how the intelligence community is now filled with partisans intent on undermining the Bush Administration. They’ll sound an awful lot like Hugo Chavez, who also is whining about the vagaries of democracy and insisting he only lost the referendum in Venezuela-which would have allowed him to become President for life-because of a nefarious CIA plot.
There are some unsung heroes in the National Intelligence Council who insisted on the integrity of the product. In the face of enormous political pressure to tailor information and pull punches that undermine Bush Administration talking points, the intelligence professionals did their job. They told the truth based on the facts in hand.
Now we need to wait and see-will the Bush Administration and the Congress take no for an answer?
It seems to me that we are all missing the real questions here:
At what point did the Iranians halt their Nuclear Weapon program? How advanced are they? How close are they to Nuclear weapon capability if and when they recommence? Is uranium enrichment the last remaining component needed? Did they put their NW program on hold to await sufficient enriched fuel? What other explanations for putting enrichment on such a fast track? At what point in the NW development program do we consider them so close that intervention is necessary? How far are they from that point? Can we tolerate them having enriched fuel on hand? Can we tolerate them having Nuclear weapon fuel enrichment capability? These are just some of the questions that need answers before we can truly pronounce on how best to secure our national security interests.
Read More »
Iranians with a nuke is not a threat to us. At least not as long as our extensive nuclear arsenal is intact and available for use. I find it amazing we can live under the threat of Soviet nukes for 40 plus years without collapsing into a puddle of sweat, but mention Iran and we go all wobbly. Iran is seeking parity in the region. The key for us is finding those steps or gestures that will reassure both Israel and Iran that they have nothing to fear from each other. As long as that fuse is lit there is the potential for gross miscalculation by either side.
"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masksherebecause of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Neville Chamberlain, 1938.
Larry, I disagree with you on this one.
Global leadership comes with being the Global Leader. I do not agree that we can tolerate a Nuclear armed Iran in any case. Rather, I agree with France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that a nuclear armed Iran would make military action inevitable.
I do not believe that Iran's nuclear program is directed at achieving the same basic balance of terror that underscored US-USSR relations. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and US interests in the Gulf and worldwide are all potential targets of a Nuclear Armed Iran.
I do believe that using nuclear weapons is scarily consistent with Iran's current leadership's fanatical religious ideology (although such ideology is not shared by all of Iran's top leaders). We cannot rely on deterrence only as a strategy for dealing with Iran.
I also believe that it is incumbent on us to take the steps necessary now to head off such a situation, and that our best hope for doing so is well targeted and effective economic sanctions that put sufficient pressure on Iran's leadership to suspend enrichment.
Do you seriously believe Iran contemplates, somehow, someway, attacking us in the United States with nukes? If they had ICBMs, not to mention megaton warheads and a stated intent to attack us, then I would share your concern. But we have spent as much time threatening Iran, perhaps more so, than they have us. If Iran was conducting military operations in Canada and Mexico along the lines of what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, do you believe we would act with the restraint Iran has so far?
The heart of the matter remains the relationship, or lack thereof, between Israel and Iran. Israel has nukes, Iran doesn't. Israel has a record of launching military strikes against other countries. Iran doesn't. Now, I understand why Israel did what she did, but let's not kid ourselves create Iran as a modern version of Nazi Germany intent on Lebensraum. Even under the "religious fanatics", Iran has never invaded a neighbor. Iraq did (with our encouragement and support). So I have trouble buying the Hitler analogy.
Iran has been a consistent sponsor of terrorism and has used terrorist attacks to great effect to strengthen its political position in the region. But that said, Iran, even with the mullahs, has not demonstrated a crazy commitment to escalate without regard to its own future. To the contrary, Iran has been very savvy from what I have seen of avoiding trip wires that might elicit a large military strike by us.
I think arguing that Iran can't have a nuke is silly for us on several fronts. First, we do not have the means of stopping it without the cooperation of Russia and China. Second, we've been able to live with nuclear states in Israel, Pakistan, India, and South Africa. Third, Iran's primary concern is and has been securing itself from external attacks. Undertaking measures that ensure Iran's internal security (while maintaining our ability to subvert them with capitalism) strikes me as a far more sane strategy rather than bellicose, empty-handed saber rattling.
Thank you for your message.
Let me make it clear that I am not so much concerned about a possible nuclear attack on the United States, as on the implications of a nuclear arm-backed Iran projecting its power and influence in an already unstable region that is now so critical to the perceived interests of so many countries, including those that also possess nuclear weapons.
I also remain less convinced than you that Iran’s current leadership can be counted on to make rationale decisions concerning its national interests, as separate and distinct from its fanatical theology/ideology. I fear that we must take their own religious declarations and writings in this regard seriously.
I also disagree with your assertion that Iran has not exercised, nor does it harbor aggressive attitudes towards its neighbors. Iran exercises tight reign and control over Hizbollah, which has been quite aggressive in Lebanon and against Israel. They retain active surrogates in Iraq, and they retain a deep hatred and rivalry vis a vis the Saudi Royal Family. We must all recognize that we are already at the very cusp of a religious civil war between fundamentalist Shiites and Sunni.
The United States, Europe, Russia and China all continue to have major vested interest in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions. And the Global economy remains very dependent on these areas as principal sources of critical supplies of gas and oil. The US and Europe have particularly exposed crucial interests in these regions that must be protected. The United States also remains solidly committed to the security of Israel - a principle of US foreign policy that I fully support. These interests remain very vulnerable to an aggressive nuclear arm-backed Iran.
I believe that it is clearly in our foreign policy interest to take the steps necessary, in conjunction with other like minded countries in Europe and elsewhere, to dissuade Iran, and its leaders from holding to their present course. Iran’s leadership is not homogeneous, and there are different religious and political currents running through the leadership. Unfortunately, this includes a powerful segment of Mullahs now in key positions of authority that espouse an apocalyptic theology that could well envisage the use of nuclear weapons.
You point out that we have come to live with the fact that several other countries now possess nuclear weapons capability. This represents past international diplomatic failures, and has already increased the risks of nuclear catastrophe considerably. The current situation in Pakistan alone should cause us all sleepless nights. Nevertheless, in my view, the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran, under its present leadership dwarfs these current risks and concerns.
Re Sanctions as a tool. Yes, I believe they can still be effective in either dissuading this regime (for its own survival) to suspend/stop its uranium enrichment, or for deposing this regime. Unfortunately, we have not put together the sanctions appropriate to this objective. I believe that, here, Europe holds the key.
Europe is still Iran’s largest trading partner by far and still exports to Iran much more than it imports from Iran. European banks still remain critical to financing this trade, funding critical infrastructure projects in Iran, and Iran’s oil/gas transactions. European banks are still the principal repository of Iran’s middle class overseas money caches. This commercial class plays a growing critical role in providing urban employment opportunities, and from preventing urban unemployment from plummeting further. In my view this represents Iran’s Achilles Heel. Appropriate European pressure on these pressure points would cause very considerable economic pain to this Iranian urban commercial/middle class. Russia and China would not be able substitute here quick enough to stave off the economic consequences of such European sanctions measures.
Neither Russia or China have an interest in seeing Iran develop nuclear weapons. But, they are well positioned to allow the US and European to do the heavy lifting here. They like being able to enjoy the short term trade benefits from this situation. China is also in this to secure long term energy supply sources. We need to focus our diplomacy on convincing Russia and China that their long term interests are best secured by assuring also that Iran does not develop Nuclear Weapons. Re China, this means also assuring them that they will have assured access to needed energy supplies.
I could go on for a long time re a suggested workable sanctions strategy, but won’t tax you with that here.
Last point - Re Oil -- It’s a two-edged sword - Iran’s government cannot survive without exporting oil which accounts for 80 percent of Iran’s export earnings and 50% of the Government Budget. Even with great windfall oil profits, Iran’s economy is still a basket case. They simply cannot afford a significant cut-off or downturn in these revenues.
All for now, Best regards, Vic
One final point worth noting. You and I agree that Iran wields significant influence over Hezbollah. However, Iran's grip has weakened over the years as Hezbollah has emerged as a substantial political movement with significant military clout of its own. It is far less dependent on Iran than was the case in the 1980s. Iran meddling in Lebanon to secure its own interests is no different in principle from U.S. efforts in pursuit of her interests in various countries in the region. And a significant difference remains between the U.S. and Iran--it is the United States, not Iran, that has committed major military forces--ground and air--to invading countries in the region. We have convenient memory loss of our significant commitment of support to Saddam in the Iran/Iraq war. It is not like the Iranians reflexively hate us for our freedom. We do have a history and our role in Iran puts us more in the category of the wife beating husband rather than the beaten wife. We certainly feel justified in those actions we have pursued but my point is that we should not assume that Iran does not have the same level of moral certainty about the "righteousness" of its actions in pursuit of its national interests, no matter how reprehensible we find those actions to be.
« Close It
December 4, 2007 11:00 PM Link