WASHINGTON – Israel should be allowed to buy bunker-buster bombs – with certain restrictions – to deter Iran, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden told The Jerusalem Post.
“I’ve talked about that thought...I can imagine circumstances where the US might want to take steps to convince Iran of its seriousness,” he said in a recent interview in his Washington office, in which he did not reject the idea out of hand when questioned. “Allowing Israel to purchase them [bunker-busters] in gradations, training on them, but keeping them here” in the US.
In a worst-case scenario – to prevent Iran bringing out a nuclear weapon – giving Israel bunker-buster bombs could allow it to take out underground aspects of the program and perhaps deter Iran from trying to break out with such a weapon.
Hayden’s statement on the issue displayed significant nuance.
On one hand, his qualified support of selling Israel the game-changing weapons – which can destroy even deep underground bunkers and which the US has refused to sell Israel to date – is a substantial statement.
It is an acknowledgment by one of the US’s top former intelligence officials, one who has sized up the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, post-nuclear deal, and who thinks that at some point the US may want Israel to have an ability it thought too risky to provide until now.
On the other hand, the former CIA director still wanted to maintain a check on Israeli use, by not yet physically delivering the weapons to Israel.
He explained that Israel might otherwise “be more aggressive and pull us into something we do not want to be pulled into.” His plan would maintain US control over the weapon’s use, even as it would signal the reality to Iran of a potential Israeli air strike.
By no means does this forward thinking mean Hayden has no opinion about US President Donald Trump’s approach in decertifying the Iran nuclear deal or other decisions of his that affect the Middle East.
To help visualize Trump’s decertification strategy, Hayden drew a diagram of three boxes summarizing three Iran-related threats, labeling them “nuclear now,” “nuclear tomorrow” and “all else.”
The former spy chief said that Trump’s decertification might risk “making a big deal about the nuclear now, but missing the boat about the other two things.”
In other words, if Trump were not so stuck on the “nuclear now,” then “maybe Europe might be more serious about nuclear tomorrow,” and the West could avoid “freeing up Iran about everything else” – particularly its terrorism across the Middle East.
Hayden’s perspective on the Iran nuclear agreement is highly nuanced.
“Leave it there. It is what you’ve got.
I was never a fan of the deal, but we’ve got the deal. It has had some positive effects. But there are a whole bunch of other things Iran is doing that we have quite legitimate concerns about.
I do criticize Obama for not pushing back harder about other issues,” he said.
Hayden was concerned that Trump would completely scrap the accord, but said it appeared, ultimately, that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with US armed forces chief Gen.
Joseph Dunford Jr., convinced him to “leave the nuclear deal alone” and pass the issue on to Congress.
“But the president wanted to make a speech – so he made a speech,” said Hayden, a glimmer in his eye in his typical satirical manner.
One risk of Trump’s decertification that he noted: “The president may set in motion events giving more control to Congress, Europe or even Iran, which might lead to dynamics where US interests are in a less good place.”
Connecting some of his comments to Mattis, Hayden said another longer- term risk if Trump or Congress were to completely scrap the deal is that it would hurt the ability of the US to reach complex deals in the future.
“The word of the US must mean something. If Iran is not in material breach... and Iran is not in material breach... I agree with [ex-IDF intelligence chief] Amos Yadlin that the deal is so good, why would the Iranians cheat?... then we should stay in the deal,” while simultaneously trying to raise global pressure on Iran’s ballistic missile and terrorist activities in parallel.
Hayden complimented Trump, saying it was “quite remarkable that he got [US Sen.] Tom Cotton’s agreement not to do anything dramatic for a while” in Congress so that the accord is not in immediate danger.
He also reiterated his support for pressuring Iran on a variety of nuclear and nonnuclear issues, as well as strengthening the nuclear inspections regime to have more “anytime, anywhere” authority, including the inspection of Iranian military facilities to which the International Atomic Energy Agency has had little access.
Hayden responded to comments made to the Post by former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, in which he said that as soon as the deal expires – or even before – Iran can simply get Pyongyang to transfer its ICBM-ready nuclear technology, thereby giving Iran the wherewithal to leap forward in its nuclear abilities.
Hayden said, “This is all true, but it is not a prima facie case to walk out of the deal. I get Bolton’s argument, but he is very skilled at painting the darkest picture.”
Regarding Syria, Hayden said the victory over ISIS in Raqqa was good, but that Hezbollah-Iranian-Alawite- Russian forces were piggybacking on wins by the US and its allies “to fill space in east Syria, and we seem to be indifferent to that.”
Echoing warnings by top Israeli officials about Trump’s Syria policy, he said the US administration’s indifference seemed to be “allowing not just a Shi’a arc metaphorically, but also physically on the ground [to develop from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon],” adding, “This is very important.”
Hayden elaborated: “As Raqqa falls, two American-trained armies are fighting each other in Kirkuk [the Kurds against the Shi’ites]. One of them has a very strong Iranian mobile presence. Not that this is easy [to deal with]. There are no good options. But I do not see an adequate sense of concern about those developments. We are defeating ISIS, but leaving Iran, Russia and friends in a much stronger position.”
Honing in on the intelligence community debate about whether new cyber and data mining tools or traditional human spying is more important in the new technology age, he said, “there are different intelligence inputs. All of it is important. The best intelligence is almost always produced by a combination of all of them.”
He added, “I am fearful we will become captives to big data, rather than its masters. Somethings that are important cannot be counted. I recommend to the intelligence community to master big data, but do not forget that history, culture and context really matter.”
Regarding US and Israeli intelligence cooperation, he said, “different countries have different strengths in the enterprise. The US technology is very strong. Our Israeli friends have other strengths, that in combination, make us better off.”
Wanting to show respect to a fellow CIA director, Hayden did not want to make many comments about debates relating to current CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s running of the CIA.
However, he did say that, “the agency kind of exhaled when Pompeo was selected. One element they are very happy about is that he has secured a seat at the table for the agency in Trump administration deliberations.”