George Mitchell on the Iran Crisis

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Goldblog just finished interviewing the former Obama Middle East envoy, Sen. George Mitchell, as part of an Atlantic Exchange event here at The Atlantic's glass-enclosed nerve center overlooking the Potomac. (This was event was held in conjunction with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which co-produced the "Is Peace Possible?" feature on I'll post some more of Mitchell's statements tomorrow, but here's an exchange about the most urgent issue of the moment. Mitchell is definitely a non-hawk on the issue of using military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program:

Jeffrey Goldberg: What are the consequences for the Middle East, and for the peace process in particular, of a nuclear-armed Iran? And what do you think the consequences are of a preemptive strike by Israel, or by the United States, to stop Iran--or at least delay Iran -- from developing nuclear weapons?
George Mitchell: To answer the questions in reverse order: While clearly there is no benefit to taking options off the table until you're forced to do so, I don't think anyone who is a proponent of a preemptive strike has so far made a sufficient case to justify it at this time. I think there are too many imponderables in terms of uncertainty about a status that they're in. Second, what the effect would be: Secretary of Defense Gates, who is widely respected, both in and outside the United States, has said very emphatically that we could not assure the full termination of their program--that the best we could do is set it back.

You always have to ask yourself, "What about the second day?" One thing we've found in recent years that is true historically is that it's awfully easy to get into wars, and very hard to get out of them. And you have to ask yourself, "What's going to happen on the second day?" I made the point in my remarks that Iran now possesses rockets, and they've gone from liquid to solid fuel that can reach Israel from Iran. If you think that they are unstable enough to launch a possible first nuclear strike on Israel, you certainly have to believe that they would launch a massive missile attack, if they themselves were attacked, in retaliation. Not nuclear missiles, but a massive missile attack, which could do tremendous damage. So I don't think the case could be made.
If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, not only will it be a hugely destabilizing force in the region, and it will be a setback to the peace process, to directly answer your question, it will make an already difficult task much more difficult, it could destabilize, and cause the disintegration of, the non-proliferation regime that the United States has led for the past 50 years. There are now nine countries with nuclear weapons, and Iran is trying hard to make it 10. But there are many more in number who have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, who have refrained from doing so, in reliance upon American leadership and the non-proliferation agreement. The break in the dam could be Iran getting weapons, because what would Turkey do? What would Egypt do? What would Saudi Arabia do? What would many other countries do?

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