Colin Kahl, who until recently served as the Pentagon's top Middle East policy official, is just out with an exhaustive and authoritative report on the Iranian nuclear challenge. The report, written with Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine and published by the Center for a New American Security (where Kahl is a senior fellow), argues fairly persuasively that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities -- an attack they seem to believe is highly plausible, if I'm reading them correctly -- would have a great many negative ramifications.
Their conclusions are well thought-out and argued (even the ones with which I disagree). The authors believe, among other things, that:
1) The Iranian threat is serious but not imminent;
2) Iran's leaders are rational enough to believe that they would neither use a nuclear weapon or give one to terrorists (I'm not so sure they're right on the first point, but pretty sure they're right on the second -- makes no sense to give your most prized weapon to unstable, and possibly semi-independent actors);
3) An Israeli-Iranian nuclear rivalry creates the risk of an inadvertent nuclear exchange (they downplay this risk somewhat, but not too much; I tend to think that inadvertent escalation to nuclear exchange is the prime reason to keep the bomb out of Iran's hands);
4) Containment of a nuclear Iran is not a great option for the U.S. (I'm with them on that).
On the one hand, the report represents mainstream American defense thinking on this question. On the other hand, it is not at all mindless and reflexive, unlike much of what I read on this subject these days.
I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about the report with Kahl, who is now at Georgetown University. What follows is our exchange, which is long, but seriously, read the whole damn thing -- it's important. I should also note that Kahl is the same guy who spent the past two years working assiduously from inside the Pentagon to strengthen and deepen America's security relationship with Israel. Or, to put it another way, his opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program is not motivated by animus toward Israel, but by a concern that Israel stands to do something precipitous that could bring harm to itself, and accelerate Iran's drive toward a bomb.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You argue that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would almost certainly be disastrous for Israel. In a previous conversation (on Twitter), you suggested that Israel's only real choice is to trust that the United States will prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Israeli leaders point have pointed out to me that the United States wanted neither Pakistan nor North Korea to cross the nuclear threshold, but they did anyway. Why is this situation different? If you were an Israeli leader (or a Saudi, or Emirati, leader) would you trust the United States to use all elements of its national power to stop Iran from going nuclear?
Colin Kahl: Good question. I think there are several reasons Israel should trust the United States on the issue.
First, this administration has been pretty clear where it stands. Obama has consistently said that an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable. He clearly prefers a diplomatic solution, believes a negotiated settlement is possible and the most sustainable outcome, and thinks there is time to pursue this course. Force should be a last resort, and there is still a window of opportunity to find a peaceful way out of this crisis. But Obama has also made clear that all options, including military force, are on the table to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In both his interview with you in March and his AIPAC speech, Obama said he does not favor a policy of nuclear containment. And his Secretary of Defense has stated more than once that Iran's development of a nuclear weapon would represent a "red line" for the United States.
Second, historically Obama is a guy who means what he says, and does what he says. And Obama has consistently matched his words with his deeds on Iran. During the 2008 campaign, he said he was willing to enter into unconditional negotiations to test the Iranian regime's willingness to reach a diplomatic agreement, and that is what he did in 2009. When Iran proved unwilling and incapable of responding, the president said he would work to forge a historic consensus to increase pressure on the regime -- and that too is exactly what he did in 2010-2011, working with the UN, international partners, and with the U.S. Congress to put in place the toughest sanctions Iran has ever faced.
Indeed, much tougher sanctions than the previous, ostensibly more "hawkish" Bush administration was ever able to accomplish. Israel and other partners should trust that he is willing to use all elements of national power to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons because he is already doing it. Sanctions, diplomatic efforts to isolate the Iranian regime, and intelligence activities have all been used and integrated toward that objective.
And, on the military front, when Obama says all options are on the table, he has actually backed that with concrete actions. Even as U.S. forces completed their drawdown from Iraq, he authorized the re-posturing of U.S. forces in the Gulf to ensure they were set to deal with any scenario, defend our partners, and check Iranian aggression in the region. He deployed a second aircraft carrier, improved U.S. air and missile defenses in the region, bolstered the defensive capabilities of Gulf states (including a record-setting arms package to the Saudis), and done more than any previous administration, in terms of security assistance and defense cooperation, for Israel's security. Moreover, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted on more than one occasion that the United States military is prepared and has a viable plan for any Iran contingency, and Secretary Panetta and others have pointed to the unique capabilities the United States military has developed--most notably the Massive Ordinance Penetrator--to ensure the maximum prospects for success should they be called upon. So, when Obama says "all options are on the table," these aren't just words -- the options are viable and the table has been set.
Third, Obama recognizes the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel's security and to the stability of a region that is absolutely vital to U.S. interests. He also believes that if Iran is allowed to cross the nuclear threshold it would do grave damage to the non-proliferation regime -- an issue that he cares passionately about. Because, in Obama's view, it is a vital U.S. interest to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, one does not have to trust that he will take all necessary actions for Israel's sake -- one only has to trust that he will act in the U.S. national interest. He would clearly prefer not to use force -- and has cautioned against cavalier and "loose" talk of war given the costs and uncertainties.
But Obama has shown, repeatedly, that he is willing to use force in the U.S. national interest -- whether unilaterally or as part of a multilateral coalition. Don't take my word on that front -- just ask Osama Bin Laden or Muammar Gaddafi. Again, Obama clearly prefers a diplomatic solution, but no one should question the man's mettle on issues like this.