Interview: Planning for the unthinkable - a nuclear Iran

Interview Planning for

American military analyst Kenneth Pollack has begun to plan for the unthinkable - a nuclear Iran. It isn't that he believes that the West should give up its plan to halt Iran's drive for nuclear power through economic sanctions, it's just that he thinks those measures are unlikely to succeed. "At the end of the day if you want to stop [Iran's nuclear] program, you have to think about invading Iran, and I do not know of any one who wants to invade Iran," said Pollack, who is a former CIA military analyst and the past director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council. "We have to think harder about containing Iran. We do not have good military options," Pollack, who now directs the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, told the Jerusalem Post in Jerusalem this week on the side-lines of the Saban Forum. A nuclear Iran "would be very dangerous," he said, and added, "I would like to see us exhaust all reasonable alternatives. My fear is that at this point in time, it is going to be very hard to convince the regime" to abandon its nuclear pursuits. Pollack says this not because containment is the safest or the best option, but simply because he believes that it's inevitable. As a junior analyst, Pollack made waves at age 24, when he predicted that Iraq would invade Kuwait, at a time when most people were skeptical of Saddam Hussein's military intentions. In 2002, his book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq was credited with helping persuade Americans of the necessity for invading Iraq. Two years later, however, he took a radically different tone with Iran, in his book, The Persian Puzzle, when he said that diplomacy, not force, was the right path. He had US blunders during the Iraq war in mind while he wrote the second book, Pollack said, but the difference had more to do with Iran itself than any past history in Iraq. Iran is a very different country and it has a very different leadership, he said. Iraq's former president "was a reckless decision maker" who did things that were suicidal. "That is not the kind of person who understands deterrence logic," said Pollack. Iran is also much larger than Iraq, and a much larger military endeavor would be needed to invade it, he said. "It might even mean reinstituting the draft," Pollack added. America, he said, has the military power to crush Iran, but is unlikely to use it. Israel, in contrast, could decide to attack Iran, but it does not have the capability to destroy it's nuclear program. The situation with Iran today is not comparable to 1981, when Israeli fighter jets successfully attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, thereby preventing the country from producing nuclear weapons. At the time of the attack, the US intelligence community was certain it knew what the program looked like, said Pollack. When inspectors came to survey the rubble at Osirak, he said, they found four other massive nuclear facilities that no one knew existed. Now, he said, the West knows that Iran learned from Osirak the importance of hiding its facilities, so that the scope and size of the program is unknown. But it is believed to be large enough so that Israel, which at best has 125 fighter planes that could reach Iran, could not eliminate it in one strike, he said. Pollack added that given the distance, much greater than with Iraq, Israeli jets would need to carry fuel with them, thereby limiting the available space for munitions. "When you are flying long distances, the number of bombs and the size of the bombs that you can carry gets diminished. It is an inverse relationship between the distance from Israel and the amount of damage that each aircraft can do," said Pollack. Each potential nuclear site is large, and multiple jets would be needed to attack just one site. In some cases, where the sites could be dug into mountains, it could take anywhere from 20 to 40 planes. At best, what Israel could hope for is to set the program back by a number of years, Pollack assessed. But in so doing, Israel would have to assume that Iran would retaliate through its allies Hamas and Hizbullah, which are armed and stationed on Israel's borders. A strike intended to strengthen the opposition could actually undermine the best chance for long-term regime change, said Pollack. After all, an attack could "cause people to rally around the government" led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Similarly, he said, when it comes to sanctions, one must be careful about unduly harming civilians, such as by blocking Iran's ability to important refined petroleum. "We need to think about sanctions in a different way," he said. The severe trade and financial restrictions, which the UN imposed against Iraq from 1990 and until 2003, were 10 times as harsh as anything that is now being thought of for Iran, said Pollack. And they did not work. Pollack said that under former president Bill Clinton he was in charge of the public diplomacy campaign to show people that the Iraqi sanctions were not harming civilians. "We came up with so many smart ways to get the message out that no one would die, and that it was all because Saddam was taking the money and using it to build palaces," said Pollack. None of that held water when Iraqis complained that children were dying as a result of the sanctions, said Pollack. Crippling sanctions very quickly become unsustainable, he added. "Most of the time the people blame the country sanctioning them," he said, and the "international community tires of those kind of sanctions very quickly." His preference, Pollack said, would be for sanctions that halt investment in Iranian companies, much like the kind of divestment that helped bring about change in South Africa. "No one died and no one starved, but it convinced the country's leadership that South Africa did not have a future," Pollack said. But these days, he said, he has been looking at options for containment, on the assumption that Iran would in fact be able to develop a nuclear capacity. It could mean strengthening a more formal network of military alliances, or it could mean putting pressure on Iran's government through insurgent groups. Containment has worked in the past, with countries like the former Soviet Union, he said. But the US and the West understood the Russians in ways that the West does not understand Iran. And a nuclear Iran, he acknowledged, would end the hope of stopping a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. To illustrate his point, he said that the Americans have been talking with Saudi Arabia for several years about what to do if the sanctions failed and Iran developed nuclear weapons. The Saudis response, said Pollack, has been, "That's terrific. We're glad to hear it. And we are still going to get nuclear weapons."