Is the 'Military Option' on Iran Off the Table?
By Ray McGovern
July 23, 2015 "Information
- If, as seems likely, President Barack Obama retains enough
support to complete the
nuclear deal with Iran, it will be largely because enough
members of the House and Senate are persuaded by his argument that
the only other real option is war.
the rhetorical gauntlet the president threw down at his press
conference last week. Equally significant, Mr. Obama omitted the
until-now obligatory warning that "all options, including the
military one, remain on the table."
Since then, Israeli media have been pressing hard
to restore the military option to its accustomed place "on the
table." Flying to Israel Sunday night for a
handholding mission with top Israeli officials, U.S. Defense
Secretary Ashton Carter tried to make his reception in Tel Aviv less
frosty, telling accompanying journalists that the nuclear deal with
Iran "does nothing to prevent the military option." The context,
however, seemed to be one in which Iran was caught cheating on the
That this kind of rhetoric, even when it is not
from the president, is still poison to Tehran was clear in the
immediate reaction by Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif,
who insisted Monday: "Applying force ... is not an option but an
unwise and dangerous temptation."
Looking for changes in official public statements
was my bread and butter during a long tenure as a Kremlinologist. So
on Wednesday, as I watched Mr. Obama defend the deal with Iran, I
leaned way forward at each juncture — and there were several — where
the timeworn warning about all options being "on the table" would
have been de rigueur. He avoided saying it.
"All options on the table?" The open-ended nature
of this Bush/Cheney-esque bully-type warning is at odds with Western
international understandings spanning more than three and half
centuries — from the treaties of Westphalia (1648), to the
Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) to the post-World War II Nuremberg
Tribunal to the UN Charter (1945). Try raising that with
Establishment Washington, though, and be prepared to be dismissed as
"picky-picky," or as quaint and as obsolete as the Geneva
Conventions. Undergirding all this is the chauvinism reflected in
President Obama's repeated reminders that the U.S. "is the sole
indispensable country in the world."
But in the wake of last week's accord with Iran in
Vienna, it is possible now to hope that the "military option" is
finally off the table — in reality, if not in occasional rhetorical
palliatives for Israel.
Most Americans have no idea of how close we came
to making war on Iran in 2008, the last year of the Bush/Cheney
administration. Nor do they know of the essential role played by
courageous managers of intelligence who, for the first time on the
Iran nuclear issue, supervised a strictly evidence-based,
from-the-bottom-up National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that
concluded in November 2007 that Iran had stopped working on a
nuclear weapon at the end of 2003 and had not resumed that work.
That key judgment issued unanimously and "with high confidence" by
all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies played a huge role in
strengthening the hand of Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, and other reasonable national security leaders in
dissuading President Bush from following Vice President Cheney's
prompting to launch a war that would have made the war in Iraq look
like a volleyball match between the Quaker School and Ursuline
The juggernaut toward war with Iran was already
rolling downhill. Recall that then-CENTCOM commander Adm. William
Fallon was abruptly cashiered after saying "we're not going to do
Iran on my watch." And Mr. Cheney later admitted churlishly that Mr.
Bush had been a big disappointment in giving in to intelligence and
military officials on Iran.
In Mr. Bush's memoir "Decision Points," he
complains bitterly that the NIE "tied my hands on the military side.
... After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military
to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence
community said had no active nuclear weapons program?"
The wider lesson here is that, with managers with
integrity, analysts freed to follow the evidence wherever it leads,
and all manner of technical means of intelligence collection
available, unnecessary wars can be prevented and arms control
agreements can be effectively monitored. Thus, we could assure
President Richard Nixon and his successors that we could "verify"
should they decide to place a modicum of trust in Kremlin leaders.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has stressed
both the need and the ability to verify the just concluded nuclear
deal with Iran. For me, it is a source of vicarious pride that there
remains such a high premium on my former colleagues in collection
and analysis performing their monitoring duties as the sine qua non
for such deals.
Ray McGovern served as a CIA analyst from the
administration of John Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush. He was
chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, chaired NIEs, and
prepared and briefed The President's Daily Brief for Presidents
Nixon, Ford and Reagan. His email is
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