Gen. Chuck Wald on the Threat From Iran

The Bipartisan Policy Center, an influential centrist think tank in Washington, has been sounding the alarm about Iran's nuclear program longer than most anyone. In a series of reports, three of its heavyweights -- the former Virginia senator Chuck Robb, a Democrat, the once-and-possibly-future Indiana senator Dan Coats, a Republican, and the retired Air Force general Chuck Wald -- have warned that American power in the Gulf, and across the Middle East, will be eclipsed by a rising Iran, should the country be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold. Their position is usefully summarized as follows:

"...They assert that "an Iran emboldened by nuclear weapons" cannot be contained and "clearly might overstep its boundaries, pulling the Middle East and the United States into a treacherous conflict." Another likely scenario is "that Israel would first attack Iranian nuclear facilities triggering retaliatory strikes by Iran and its terrorist proxies," putting the United States in an "extremely difficult position."

...Robb and Wald recommend that "the administration needs to expand its approach and make clear to the Iranian regime and the American people: If diplomatic and economic pressures do not compel Iran to terminate its nuclear program, the U.S. military has the capability and is prepared to launch an effective, targeted strike on Tehran's nuclear and supporting military facilities."

I sat with Wald recently and talked about the way he sees the threat, and what he wants President Obama to do about it. Wald is a former deputy commander of the U.S. European command, and he led the air war during the Afghanistan invasion. Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you think the Iranian government is serious about reaching a compromise with the United States on the nuclear question?

Chuck Wald: How many times does Lucy have to pick the football up? Their continued goal is to weaken any sort of coalition the U.S. builds for sanctions on the issue.
JG: Do you think the Israelis are right to call the Iranian nuclear program a threat to their country's existence, or are they overstating the case?

CW: Do you think the Israelis would put into jeoparty their strategic relationships with the United States because they're seeing ghosts? The Saudis, the Egyptians, are all saying the same thing. The physical evidence is there. If I'm Israel, and I think it's even a 50-50 shot that they're going to get it, well you've got to plan for that.

JG: is there any chance in your mind that Iran is not dead-set on a path toward nuclear weapons?

CW: Why would they spend all this time and defy the world for electrification? They want to be the regional hegemon, they want nuclear power to give them stature.

JG: Do you think Israel could destroy the Iranian program?

CW: For one thing, Israel is not going to have a revisit capability, and they don't have enough airplanes. They don't have the 5000-lb. penetrators or the 30,000 lb. penetrators. If you're talking about shutting down a place, there's got to be the capability to revisit the place. We blew up some pretty deep things in Afghanistan. We put 36 two thousand pounders in at both ends of one cave complex, and it blew up for two days. I watched 18 go in at once from a B2.
JG: Could the Israelis do any damage to the nuclear facilities at all?

CW: Yes. But we could do more. By the way, (Secretary of Defense Robert) Gates says we could put them back three or four years. The Israelis say to that, "Hallelujah."  When they attacked Osirak (the nuclear reactor in Iraq) they thought they were getting a year out of that.
JG: Does Iran pose an existential threat to the United States?

CW: Not currently.

JG: Then is it possible to contain a nuclear Iran?

CW: Containment policies have zero credibility. What do you contain? How do you contain them? They have surrogates. We are theoretically trying to contain them right now. How do you contain Hezbollah and Hamas? Hillary Clinton said, for example, if you use a nuke on Israel we'll come back and destroy you. Israel  said, well, thank you very much. What kind of containment is that?
JG: Why do you believe it is an American interest to prevent Iran from going nuclear?

CW: The world changes if they get it. The Saudis, the Egyptians, would get weapons, for starters. The unease in these places is palpable. They think less of us as a nation already. The whole Middle East changes for the worse if they get weapons.