After Iran Rhetoric, Military Leaders Call War ‘Unnecessary’ and ‘Dangerous’

March 5, 2012

In the midst of a week of intense private talk and heated public rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus points out a voice that is not being heard:  “It’s hard to find a high-ranking U.S. military officer who thinks war with Iran is a good idea.” Today a number of leading military and intelligence thinkers wrote President Obama to stress that calls for a military strike are “unnecessary” and “dangerous.” The path forward: use the international unity and pressure on Iran created by Washington’s efforts to open a diplomatic path for Iran to step back from the nuclear brink – and for the world to gain transparency and confidence in that outcome.

Best way to stop proliferation is to create the conditions for Iran to choose a different path. In his speech to AIPAC yesterday, President Obama stated, “A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests.  But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States… When I took office, the efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters.  Iran had gone from zero centrifuges spinning to thousands, without facing broad pushback from the world.  In the region, Iran was ascendant — increasingly popular, and extending its reach.  In other words, the Iranian leadership was united and on the move, and the international community was divided about how to go forward. And so from my very first months in office, we put forward a very clear choice to the Iranian regime:  a path that would allow them to rejoin the community of nations if they meet their international obligations, or a path that leads to an escalating series of consequences if they don’t.  In fact, our policy of engagement — quickly rebuffed by the Iranian regime — allowed us to rally the international community as never before, to expose Iran’s intransigence, and to apply pressure that goes far beyond anything that the United States could do on our own. Because of our efforts, Iran is under greater pressure than ever before.”

Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering, two senior diplomats who dealt with our most hardened adversaries during the Cold War, explain that the best way to prevent the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon is to create an environment for them to choose not to: “History teaches that engagement and diplomacy pay dividends that military threats do not… Deploying diplomats with a strategy while maintaining some pressure on Iran will lower Tehran’s urgency to build a bomb and reduce the danger of conflict. The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action. Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost.” [Barack Obama, 3/4/12. William Luers and Thomas Pickering, 12/30/11]

Those who would lead military action say diplomatic options have not been exhausted, force “unnecessary” and “dangerous.” As columnist Doyle McManus writes today: “It’s hard to find a high-ranking U.S. military officer who thinks war with Iran is a good idea.” Today high-level former national security officials, including a Bush administration National Intelligence Council chairman, a former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, Colin Powell’s chief of staff and five retired generals wrote to President Obama: “The U.S. military is the most formidable military force on earth. But not every challenge has a military solution… Preventing a nuclear armed Iran is rightfully your priority and your red line. Fortunately, diplomacy has not been exhausted and peaceful solutions are still possible. Military action at this stage is not only unnecessary, it is dangerous – for the United States and for Israel. We urge you to resist the pressure for a war of choice with Iran.” As Obama said yesterday, “I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues; the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world.  Already, there is too much loose talk of war.  Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.  For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.” [LA Times, 3/4/12. Barack Obama, 3/4/12. Letter from former military and intelligence officials, 3/5/12]

Security experts: attack will likely produce the very thing it is meant to prevent. Colin Kahl, who recently left the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and is currently with Georgetown University and the Center for New American Security, discusses the case study of Iraq’s nuclear program and the determination to pursue the weapon following the 1981 Osirak strike by Israel. He writes, “By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As [Emory University’s Dan] Reiter notes, ‘the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.’ Iraq’s nuclear efforts also went underground. Hussein allowed the IAEA to verify Osirak’s destruction, but then he shifted from a plutonium strategy to a more dispersed and ambitious uranium-enrichment strategy. This approach relied on undeclared sites, away from the prying eyes of inspectors, and aimed to develop local technology and expertise to reduce the reliance on foreign suppliers of sensitive technologies. When inspectors finally gained access after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they were shocked by the extent of Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure and how close Hussein had gotten to a bomb. Ultimately, Israel’s 1981 raid didn’t end Iraq’s drive to develop nuclear weapons.” Today USA Today’s editorial board echoed the concern that overheated rhetoric means that “war is drawing close with so little public discussion of the consequences.” [Colin Kahl, 3/2/12. USA Today, 3/5/12]

What We’re Reading

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Rivals of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lead in election returns, signaling the consolidation of power by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The UN claims that as many as 2,000 people fleeing the violence in Syria are heading towards the Lebanese border.

African Union and Somali government forces captured a major base of the militant group al Shabab outside of Mogadishu.

A series of explosions at an ammunition depot killed 123 people and wounded about 2,000 more in Congo.

China announced an 11.2 percent increase in military spending.

European Union leaders agreed that Serbia should become a candidate for European Union membership.

Top Pentagon officials are considering putting elite special operations troops under CIA control in Afghanistan after 2014.

A plea bargain for a former Maryland man marks the seventh terrorism conviction by a military commission, all but one of which have resulted in lower sentences than those routinely handed out by U.S. civilian courts on similar charges.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Mexico and Honduras amid a regional debate over the war on drugs.

Commentary of the Day

Major General (Ret) Paul Eaton, Brigadier General (Ret) Mark Kimmitt and Christine Fair discuss how the U.S. can deal with the fallout following the burning of Qurans in Afghanistan.

Andrew Weiss dispels five myths about Vladimir Putin.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens chronicles North Korea’s illicit trade activities from drugs, to elephant ivory, to counterfeit $100 bills.

Othon Anastasakis asks if Greece’s democracy has withered during the financial crisis.

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