Ex-CIA Director Hayden: Iran looking to outlast Donald Trump

Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said he saw the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia as critical, but with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman as less so.

Iranians shout slogans during a protest in Tehran, Iran, against President Donald Trump, May 11, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/TASNIM NEWS AGENCY)
Iranians shout slogans during a protest in Tehran, Iran, against President Donald Trump, May 11, 2018
Iran’s approach to the current nuclear standoff appears to be trying to outlast the Trump administration, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden told The Jerusalem Post in an interview late Monday.
“The Iranians are well-served by what they are doing now – steady as you go. You got MbS [Mohammed bin Salman] doing everything they need him to do to distract, divert and divide. The US is pulling back from support for the war in Yemen. The Europeans are still unhappy with America for leaving the [2015 Iran nuclear] deal,” he said.
Hayden added that “America is giving concessions to eight countries” from its secondary sanctions “to allow them more time to replace Iranian oil.”
Michael Hayden's official CIA portrait (CIA/Wikimedia Commons)
Michael Hayden's official CIA portrait (CIA/Wikimedia Commons)
To avoid the current situation in which “Iran is well-served that it is not portrayed as the troublemaker,” Hayden would not have “ripped up the deal” as Trump did – though he also viewed the deal as having significant holes.
Yet overall, “we are two years away from a presidential election,” Hayden summarized. “Iran can hold out until 2020 to see what happens.”
Hayden was director of the NSA and then CIA director from 1999-2009, and a four-star US Air Force general.
Many experts on the Islamic Republic and economics have said that even though Tehran is hurting badly, with the continued support that Iran has from Asian countries, the regime can survive the increased pressure.
In that light, Hayden was asked whether he believed Iran would stay in the deal and endure the economic pains for an additional two years without direct retaliation, or whether it might lose patience and start moving again more directly toward a nuclear weapon.
He said, “the real answer is I don’t know. There are a lot of variables. In the immediate future, they are advantaged by looking like the victim and not giving the US or Europe an excuse to pull away from issues which are already dividing us.”
Does that mean that he believes that Tehran’s end-game is to patiently leverage its image as “the victim” since the US left the deal, and to make its move toward the nuclear threshold with nearly full global legitimacy around the end of the deal in 2025?
He said the West will actually be less cornered at that point. Nearer the end of the deal, “we will pick up cards to play. We will have some advantages because there are genuine shared concerns” from Europe and globally about “what happens as the deal expires.”
But then he brought the discussion back to the present standoff.
Namely, Hayden outlined, how hard and for how long will the US need to sustain these sanctions without Iran more overtly violating the nuclear deal in such a way that would garner global public opinion to fully support the sanctions push?
Again, the former CIA director returned to his argument that, “we destabilized an equilibrium” that officials like those in his position, as well as his Israeli counterparts in Mossad and the defense establishment, believed should have been kept in place despite its imperfections.
Hayden next switched gears to the conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria, including Israeli criticism that the Trump administration has not sufficiently defended Jerusalem’s interests there.
Reviewing the issue, he said, “I am not in the government. I don’t get the detailed briefing. But in broad strokes, I don’t understand why we take apart relations” with allies over the nuclear deal while our “American intelligence guys are telling the government that Iran is not cheating.”
Being included in the nuclear deal meant we “knew more about Iran’s program than we would otherwise know... To rip that up at the same time as seeming indifferent to Iranian expansion of the Shia arch in Syria” was bewildering to Hayden.
He stated that it was important for the US to stay involved in Syria “so as not to give a gift to” the Islamic Republic to establish a foothold there, along with Russia.
Questioned about how Russia’s transferring the S-300 antiaircraft missile system to Syria has impacted the fault line between Israel, Iran, Syria and Russia, he expressed serious concern.
“Operationally, it makes things more difficult,” and painted a picture of new unintended strikes on Russian batteries or other security assets in the chaos of an Israeli air strike whose intended target might have been the Iranians.
Most importantly, he said that the Russians moving of the S-300 has “reduced everyone’s margin for error. You can go through a stop sign without speeding or actually stopping, but you are working on a different set of probabilities in each case. This has reduced the margin for error and increased the probability of an outcome which nobody wants.”
Next, the discussion moved on to Israel’s failed intelligence operation in Gaza last week, along with recent media reports that between 2010 and 2013, Iran and China succeeded in killing possibly dozens of CIA assets and agents and severely compromising the CIA’s spying network.
Hayden was asked from the general vantage point of CIA director – he was not director during the incidents in question and said he had no specific inside information about them - about evaluating the value of certain operations after major failures and about how to rebuild networks and morale.
Responding, he said that, “you must go through lessons learned in order to be better” because of failed operations, but that the bottom line was that intelligence was a risky business in which lives have always been lost to achieve major national interests.
His primary example was stating that the US never would have successfully killed al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden if it had not taken numerous risks along the way, which sometimes risked and cost lives.
He said, “if you are not willing to risk Khost, you are not going to get to Abbottabad” – referring to an incident where seven CIA officers tracking Bin Laden were killed as well as the final operation in which he was killed.
Returning to the crisis in US-Saudi relations over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and increased criticism in the US of President Trump’s continued refusal to confront MbS himself, Hayden said he understood the dilemma, but that Trump could distinguish between relations with MbS and with his country.
“My personal view is that relations with the kingdom are critical, but that relations with this king-to-be are not. We have a right to tell our friends in Saudi Arabia that they get to pick their crown prince, but that we get to respond to what he does.”
Concluding, he suggested that if MbS remained able to take such actions going forward, that Saudi-American relations would need to continue, but might need to be different and more limited in certain areas.