Why a War With Iran Would Be Insane

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

George Kenney

Unfortunately, sometimes our elected leaders choose not to listen to professional analysts like Tom Fingar.

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 régime 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 régime 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 régime 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.

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.
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