Why a War With Iran Would Be Insane

The former deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis talks about our options.

George Kenney

Jonathan Landay and an Afghan soldier at the Afghan National Army base in the Jalez Valley in Wardak Province.

Tom Fingar is sentimental enough to suppose that if you give intelligence analysts free rein to organize facts and logic, they’ll produce superior judgments. From 2005 to 2008, Fingar served as Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and, concurrently,Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. From 1986 to 2005 he held a variety of positions at the State Department, including Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). At the State Department, Fingar was renowned for fiercely defending the independence of analysts. 

'[The Iranians] buy the Syrians and they rent Hezbollah, but they're alone out there. So they have both legitimate and inflated security concerns.'

Politicians, all too often, tend to believe their own naïve predictions, as in the invasion of Iraq and its unfortunate, prolonged aftermath. From the onset of the Global War on Terror,” neoconservatives and their allies have been hoping to make Iraq a stepping stone to war with Iran. But war with Iran entails far graver geopolitical consequences, especially regarding nuclear proliferation.

Despite being overlooked in public debate, these consequences are of interest to the intelligence community, which long ago formed a consensus that war with Iran is a no-win scenario.

It is disheartening, then, to read in the popular press the current to-and-fro between the pro-war crowd and liberal activists who cry wolf at the slightest sign that war with Iran may be under consideration. Anti-war liberals should, instead, propose feasible alternatives to the armed conflict that war supporters wish to portray as inevitable. Here, Fingar, an international studies fellow at Stanford University, explores a few of them.

How should we make sense of Iranian intentions?

I’m not sure that the Iranians have clear objectives they wish to achieve. Iran is alone in a tough neighborhood – a Shia country in a Sunni neighborhood, Persians in an Arab neighborhood. They buy the Syrians and they rent Hezbollah, but they’re alone out there. So they have both legitimate and inflated security concerns. Their long history and the 1979 revolution lead them to an unwillingness to accept second-class status on any dimension. And that comes through clearly on the nuclear issue.

How bad would it be if they got a nuclear bomb?

If they get a bomb, that’s a problem. I don’t know – and I don’t think anyone knows outside of Iran – whether and when they made decisions to go for [nuclear] breakout capability, when they made a decision to actually go for a device, or what criteria they would apply in deciding to go for a bomb as opposed to a capability. But Iran was serious and remains serious about having at a minimum the breakout capability and the ability to get a weapon.

Gen. Bill Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, once told me half-jokingly that the best thing would be for us to just give Iran the bomb, on the theory that then the conventional rules of deterrence would begin to apply. If he were right, then the most dangerous phase would be between breakout capability and acquisition.

That’s arguably the most dangerous time, when everybody knows you’ve got a breakout capability, but you don’t yet have a deterrent. So if you’re going to go get it, go get it now, before the capability is there. 

What’s problematic is that the Middle East, seemingly prepared to live with the very high probability that Israel has had nuclear weapons for a long time, has made clear that Iran getting a weapon is a worse problem than Israel. Whether that’s because they think the Ayatollahs are crazy, or have more dangerous objectives than Israel, or whether they think the Americans and Europeans have more influence with Israel and Israel would pay more attention to them than Tehran would pay to anybody, I don’t know. But Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are usually cited as states that could not live with a bomb in Iran. 

I wonder sometimes if Israel’s preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear capability may be a pretext – conscious or unconscious – intended to deflect international attention from the Palestinian situation.

I don’t share that cynicism. I think the Israelis have real reason to be concerned about Iranian rhetoric and behavior. For them, it really is a matter of survival; they have to worst case” it. I think they see this as a genuine and serious threat and not as a way to deflect from their own mistreatment of the Palestinian population.

But isn’t it reasonable to suppose that if the Iranians unilaterally launched a nuclear attack on Israel, that would be the end of Iran? Wouldn’t they know that?

Yes, but it would also be the end of Israel. Israel isn’t like a continental power that loses a couple of cities.

What would be the effect of Iranian breakout capacity, or even bomb development, on other players, say, Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the precise nature of the Saudis’ arrangement with the Pakistanis on weapons programs, which the Saudis have helped to fund directly or indirectly–

Are you suggesting there’s a Saudi flag painted on a bomb somewhere in Pakistan?

Could be. Metaphorically, there could be one in a warehouse that they’ve already got earmarked for them. One can speculate. There’s lots of ground for saying the nature of the relationship over so many years is such that it would be foolish to assume that there’s no reason for concern about that. 

Wouldn’t the fallout of a pre-emptive attack by the United States and/​or Israel on Iran to stop their nuclear activities be considerable?

Yes, it would be. There are two things you can say with a high degree of certainty. The first is, since we don’t know where all the facilities are, the likelihood of getting them all is small. The second is, even if we got them all, or the Israelis got them all, that virtually guarantees that Iran is going to try to reconstitute the program and be even more secretive about where it hides it. 

Everybody, as far as I know, is in basic agreement that at most, an attack would delay acquisition by a few years, because they know how to do it. And an attack would transform the actions of an unpopular regime into a nationalist issue on which the Iranian reformers are going to be lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with the theocracy. 

I’m thinking that even though Iran and Pakistan are Shia and Sunni respectively, Pakistanis would react in unpredictable ways to what they might see as an attack on an Islamic state.

I agree. And given the nature of their internal problems, there would be cries for Muslim unity. Any government is going to be hard pressed to ignore that. There is an element of the unpredictability of a pretty capable military with nuclear weapons, with an unstable relationship with India. It is important for Afghanistan and whatever comes out of that. And it is important for pipelines moving oil and gas out of Central Asia. 

Former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr argues that the United States should be pushing harder to present itself as an inoffensive entity – that the more we try to threaten or sanction Iran, the more we bolster the last remaining argument the regime has to elicit support from power centers and the people.

I understand the argument. But I’ve become a little less sympathetic to it, in light of the Obama administration’s sincere effort to talk, and the inability to accomplish anything with that. 

I’m not a fan of sanctions. I think sanctions are more feel-good than effective. But the international community and the United States are getting better at targeting pieces of the military than we were in the past. At a minimum, it makes things more difficult for elements in the regime that are most problematic; the Revolutionary Guard, for example. But doing things to make somebody who’s already insecure and paranoid feel more insecure and paranoid is not likely to get them to throw in the towel.

What is needed is the right combination of support for fair, open politics and elections; freedom of assembly and speech; the rights that are supposedly guaranteed in the Iranian constitution. 

But I don’t like the thinking: Despite your bad behavior, noncompliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency, noncompliance with the Security Council, we’re going to welcome you back into the fold with normal relations.” I’m not sympathetic to that. 

This exchange was adapted from a podcast interview at Elec​tricPol​i​tics​.com.

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George Kenney, a former career U.S. foreign service officer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. policy toward the Yugoslav conflict. He is now a writer in Washington, and host and producer of the podcast Electric Politics.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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