By Ray McGovern and Elizabeth Murray
President Obama needs to put an abrupt halt to the game of Persian Roulette about to spin out of control in the Persian Gulf. If we were still on active duty at the CIA, this is what we would tell him:
This informal memorandum addresses the escalating game of chicken playing out in the waters off Iran and the more general issue of what can be done to put the exaggerated threat from Iran in some kind of perspective.
In keeping with the informality of this memo and our ethos of speaking truth to power, we may at times be rather blunt. If we bring you up short, consider it a measure of the seriousness with which we view the unfolding of yet another tragic mistake.
The stakes are quite high, and as former intelligence analysts with no axes to grind, we want to make sure you understand how fragile and volatile the situation in the Gulf has become.
We know you are briefed regularly on the play by play, and we will not attempt to replicate that. Your repeated use of the bromide that “everything is on the table,” however, gives us pause and makes us wonder whether you and your advisers fully recognize the implications, if hostilities with Iran spin out of control.
You have the power to stop the madness, and we give you some recommendations on how to lessen the likelihood of a war that would be to the advantage of no one but the arms merchants.
If your advisers have persuaded you that hostilities with Iran would bring benefit to Israel, they are badly mistaken. In our view, war with Iran is just as likely in the longer term to bring the destruction of Israel, as well as vast areas of Iran — not even to mention the disastrous consequences for the world economy, of which you must be aware.
Incendiary (but false) claims about how near Iran is to having a nuclear weapon are coming “fast and furious,” (and are as irresponsible as that ill-fated project of giving weapons to Mexican drug dealers).
In our view, the endless string of such claims now threaten to migrate from rhetoric to armed clashes to attempted “regime change,” as was the case nine years ago on Iraq. You know, we hope, that influential — but myopic — forces abound who are willing to take great risk because they believe such events would redound to the benefit of Israel. We make reference, of course, to the reckless Likud government in Israel and its equally reckless single-issue supporters here at home.
Judging by recent performance, your foreign policy and military advisers, including the top generals now in place, appear unable to act as sensible counterweights to those who think that, by beginning hostilities with Iran, they will help Israel do away with a key regional rival.
You are not stuck with such advisers. You’re the President; you deserve better. You need some people close to you who know a lot more about the outside world.
You may wish to think also about how the recent remarks of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, during an interview with the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe, reflect on the chairman’s acumen in the strategic matters in which he has been immersed for decades.
In the interview with Jaffe, Dempsey referred to his 20-year involvement with Iraq (where he made his mark) and, according to Jaffe, Dempsey acknowledged that “he and his Army did not fully understand the nature of the conflict they were fighting.”
Jaffe quotes a particularly telling lament by Dempsey: “People say, ‘For God’s sakes, you were a two-star general. How could you say you didn’t understand?’ … I don’t know how I can say it, but I lived it. And I mean it.”
Suffice it to say that there are serious questions as to how much Gen. Dempsey understands about Iran and whether his meteoric rise to Chairman of the JCS is due more to the crisp salute with which he greets any idea voiced by those above him.
Discussing last week the possibility of military action against Iran, Dempsey said, “The options we are developing are evolving to a point that they would be executable, if necessary.” He added that his “biggest worry is that (Iranians) will miscalculate our resolve.”
That’s not our biggest worry. Rather it is that Dempsey and you will miscalculate Iran’s resolve. We haven’t a clue as to what, if anything, the Chairman is telling you on that key issue. Our distinct impression, however, is that you cannot look to him for the kind of stand-up advice you got from his predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen.
The consummate military professional, Mullen pointed to the military and strategic realities — and the immense costs — associated with a war with Iran, which in turn buttressed those who successfully withstood pressure from President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for war with Iran.
Dempsey = No Mullen
During the Bush administration, Mullen argued strongly that there would be no way a “preventive war” against Iran would be worth the horrendous cost. He did all he could to scuttle the idea.
Mullen was among those senior officials who forced Bush and Cheney to publish the unclassified Key Judgments of the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program — the NIE that judged “with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
As Bush and Vice President Cheney have since acknowledged, that drove an iron rod through the wheels of the juggernaut then rolling off to war with Iran. And, as you know, that judgment still stands despite Herculean efforts to fudge it.
In his memoir, Decision Points, Bush, complains bitterly that, rather than being relieved by the surprising news that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in late 2003, he was angry that the news “tied my hands on the military side.”
In January 2008, Bush flew to Israel to commiserate with senior Israeli officials who were similarly bitter at the abrupt removal of a casus belli. Tellingly, in his book Bush added this lament:
“But after the NIE, how could I possible explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”
Israel’s Last Chance, Until Now
The new estimate on Iran did not stop the Israelis from trying. And in mid-2008, they seemed to be contemplating one more try at provoking hostilities with Iran before Bush and Cheney left office.
This time, with Bush’s (but not Cheney’s) support, Mullen flew to Israel to tell Israeli leaders to disabuse themselves of the notion that U.S. military support would be knee-jerk automatic if they somehow provoked open hostilities with Iran.
According to the Israeli press, Mullen went so far as to warn the Israelis not to even think about another incident at sea like the deliberate Israeli attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, which left 34 American crew killed and more than 170 wounded.
Never before had a senior U.S. official braced Israel so blatantly about the Liberty incident, which was covered up by the Johnson administration, the Congress, and Mullen’s Navy itself. The lesson the Israelis had taken away from the Liberty incident was that they could get away with murder, literally, and walk free because of political realities in the United States. Not this time, said Mullen. He could not have raised a more neuralgic issue.
As long as he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen kept worrying, often publicly, over what he termed “the unintended consequences of any sort of military action against Iran.”
We assume that before he retired last fall he shared that concern with you, just as we tried to warn your predecessor of “the unintended consequences” that could flow from an attack on Iraq.
The Israelis, for their part, would not relent. In February of this year, Mullen returned with sweaty palms from a visit to Israel. On arrival there, he had warned publicly that an attack on Iran would be “a big, big, big problem for all of us.”
When Mullen got back to Washington, he lacked the confident tone he had after reading the Israelis the riot act in mid-2008. It became quickly clear that Mullen feared that, this time, Israel’s leaders did not seem to take his warnings seriously.
Lest he leave a trace of ambiguity regarding his professional view, upon his return Mullen drove it home at a Pentagon press conference on Feb. 22, 2011: “For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of itself, decisive.”
In 2008, right after Mullen was able, in late June, to get the Israelis to put aside, for the nonce, their pre-emptive plans vis-à-vis Iran, he moved to put a structure in place that could short-circuit military escalation. Specifically, he thought through ways to prevent unintended (or, for that matter, deliberately provoked) incidents in the crowded Persian Gulf that could lead to wider hostilities.
In a widely unnoticed remark, Adm. Mullen conceded to the press that Iran could shut down the Strait of Hormuz, but quickly added de rigueur assurance that the U.S. could open it up again (whereas the Admiral knows better than virtually anyone that this would be no easy task).
Mullen sent up an interesting trial balloon at a July 2, 2008, press conference, when he suggested that military-to-military dialogue could “add to a better understanding” between the U.S. and Iran. But nothing more was heard of this overture, probably because Cheney ordered him to drop it. We think it is high time to give this excellent idea new life. (See below under Recommendations.)
The dangers in and around the Strait of Hormuz were still on Mullen’s mind as he prepared to retire on Sept. 30, 2011. Ten days before, he told the Armed Force Press Service of his deep concern over the fact that the United States and Iran have had no formal communications since 1979:
“Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union. … We are not talking to Iran. So we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations.”
Playing with fire: With the macho game of chicken currently under way between Iranian and U.S. naval forces in the area of the Strait of Hormuz, the potential for an incident has increased markedly.
An accident, or provocation, could spiral out of control quickly, with all sides — Iran, the U.S. and Israel making hurried decisions with, you guessed it, “unintended consequences.”
… or Intended Consequences?
With your campaign for the presidency in full swing during the summer of 2008, you may have missed a troubling disclosure in July by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
He reported that Bush administration officials had held a meeting in the Vice President’s office in the wake of the January 2008 incident between Iranian patrol boats and U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz. The reported purpose of the meeting was to discuss ways to provoke war with Iran.
HERSH: There were a dozen ideas proffered about how to trigger a war. The one that interested me the most was why don’t we build in our shipyard four or five boats that look like Iranian PT boats. Put Navy seals on them with a lot of arms. And next time one of our boats goes to the Straits of Hormuz, start a shoot-up. Might cost some lives.
And it was rejected because you can’t have Americans killing Americans. That’s the kind of — that’s the level of stuff we’re talking about. Provocation.
Silly? Maybe. But potentially very lethal. Because one of the things they learned in the [January] incident was the American public, if you get the right incident, the American public will support bang-bang-kiss-kiss. You know, we’re into it.
Look, is it high school? Yeah. Are we playing high school with you know 5,000 nuclear warheads in our arsenal? Yeah we are. We’re playing, you know, who’s the first guy to run off the highway with us and Iran.
… and Now Iran’s Responsibility for 9/11!
On the chance you missed it, this time your government is getting “incriminating” information from Iranian, not Iraqi, “defectors.” Iranian “defectors” have persuaded Manhattan Federal Judge George Daniels to sign an order accusing Iran and Hezbollah – along with al-Qaeda – of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.
On Dec. 15, in response to a lawsuit brought by family members of 9/11 victims, Daniels claimed that Iran provided material support to al-Qaeda and has assessed Iran $100 billion in damages
Watching the blackening of Iranians on virtually all parts of the U.S. body politic, it is no surprise that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes he holds the high cards, enjoying the strong support of our Congress, our largely pro-Israel media, and our courts as well. He sees himself in the catbird seat — particularly during the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election.
We know that you have said you have to deal with Netanyahu every day. But for those of us who have not had the pleasure, never did his attitude toward Washington come through so clearly as in a video taped nine years ago and shown on Israeli TV.
In it Netanyahu brags about how he deceived President Bill Clinton into believing he (Netanyahu) was helping implement the Oslo accords when he was actually destroying them. The tape displays a contemptuous attitude toward — and wonderment at — a malleable America so easily influenced by Israel.
Netanyahu says it right out: “America is something that can be easily moved. Moved in the right direction. … They won’t get in our way … Eighty percent of the Americans support us. It’s absurd.”
Israeli columnist Gideon Levy has written that the video shows Netanyahu to be “a con artist … who thinks that Washington is in his pocket and that he can pull the wool over its eyes,” adding that such behavior “does not change over the years.”
On Dec. 29, the strongly pro-Israel Washington Times ran an unsigned editorial, “Tehran’s moment of truth: The mullahs are playing with fire in Strait of Hormuz.” After a fulsome paragraph of bragging about how the U.S. Navy capabilities dwarf those of Iran’s, the Washington Times editors inadvertently give the game away:
“A theater-wide response to the strait closure would involve air strikes on military and leadership targets throughout the country, and the crisis could be a useful pretext for international action against Iran’s nuclear program.”
Hopefully, pointing out Israel’s overarching objective will strike you as gratuitous. No doubt your advisers have told you that “regime change” (what we used to call overthrowing a government) is Israel’s ultimate goal. Just so you know.
We hope that, when we assume you wish to thwart Israel and any other party who might want to get the U.S. involved in hostilities with Iran, we are not assuming too much. With that as our premise, we recommend that you:
1- Make public, as soon as possible, a declassified version of the key judgments of the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear development program, with whatever updating is necessary. You know that the Herculean efforts of U.S. intelligence to find evidence of an active nuclear weapons program in Iran have found nothing.
Do not insult Americans with Rumsfeldian nostrums like: “The absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.” Rather, be up-front with the American people. Tell them the truth about the conclusions of our intelligence community.
Bush was helped to launch the aggressive war on Iraq by a deliberately dishonest National Intelligence Estimate on weapons of mass destruction there. Let yourself be fortified by an honest NIE on Iran, and stand up to the inevitable criticism from Israelis and their influential surrogates.
2- Pick up on Adm. Mike Mullen’s suggestion at his press conference on July 2, 2008, that military-to-military dialogue could “add to a better understanding” between the U.S. and Iran. If there were ever a time when our navies need to be able to communicate with each other, it is now.
It was a good idea in 2008; it is an even better idea now. Indeed, it seems likely that a kind of vestigial Cheneyism, as well as pressure from the Likud Lobby, account for the fact that the danger of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation in the crowded Persian Gulf has still not been addressed in direct talks.
Cheney and those of his mini-National Security Staff who actually looked forward to such confrontations are gone from the scene. If the ones who remain persist in thwarting time-tested structural ways of preventing accidents, miscalculation and covert false-flag attacks, please consider suggesting that they retire early.
Order the negotiation of the kind of bilateral “incidents-at-sea” agreement concluded with the Russians in May 1972, which, together with direct communications, played an essential role in heading off escalation neither side wanted, when surface or submarine ships go bump in the night.
3- Get yourself some advisers who know more about the real world than the ones you have now, and make sure they owe allegiance solely to the United States.
4- Issue a formal statement that your administration will not support an Israeli military attack on Iran. Make it clear that even though, after Dec. 31, the U.S. may not be technically responsible for defending Iraqi airspace, you have ordered U.S. Air Force units in the area to down any intruders.
5- Sit back and look toward a New Year with a reasonable prospect of less, not more, tension in the Persian Gulf.
Happy New Year.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served a total of 30 years as an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA intelligence analyst.
Elizabeth Murray served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council before retiring after a 27-year career in the U.S. government, where she specialized in Middle Eastern political and media analysis. She is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).