Iran Military Options Open

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

March 9, 2006

TONY JONES: Well, just what will happen if Iran continues on its apparent path and presses ahead with its nuclear program? Well, to discuss the possibilities, I’m joined now by Martin Indyk. He is a former US ambassador to Israel, he served as assistant secretary of state and was Bill Clinton’s Middle East advisor at the National Security Council. He is currently the director of the Saban Centre for Middle Eastern Policy at the Brookings Institution, and is in Sydney in his capacity as board member of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Well, thanks for being here, Martin Indyk.

MARTIN INDYK: Good to be here with you.

TONY JONES: The US frequently says that Iran will not be allowed to build nuclear weapons. John Bolton’s warning of painful consequences just for what it’s done so far. Do you honestly believe that there is a military option on the table along with all the other options?

MARTIN INDYK: Of course there is. It’s not a good option, it’s not a simple option to take out perhaps 37 Iranian hardened facilities that are located in built-up areas. Civilian populations would be affected by that, but I think more important than all of that is the kinds of things that Iran can do in retaliation that could severely complicate America’s other positions in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.

TONY JONES: Yes, let’s talk about that because the Iranian comments today read out, quite carefully read out by the representative of the US, is susceptible to pain and harm, referring back to John Bolton’s comments. What did you make of them?

MARTIN INDYK: Look, the Iranians have been for many years now building up cards that they can play in confrontation with what they refer to as “the great Satan, the United States”. They have seen the United States as a threat to their ambitions in the region and that is why they have, first of all, built a position of influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, which, by the way, also has an international infrastructure of terrorism that’s sitting on the shelf and can be mobilised. They have gone to great pains to take control of a Palestinian card through direct control of Palestine Islamic Jihad – the terrorist organisation that’s been responsible for all the terrorist acts in the last year or so – and also through their relationship with Hamas, which is now going to take over the government in Palestinian areas. They also have a card now that they have built after we toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, particularly in southern Iraq, where they have control over the Moqtada Sadr militia and the Bada brigades, which were trained in Iran before Saddam Hussein was toppled, something that the secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, has referred to today for the first time. But we’ve actually been watching it as the Iranians have built up this sphere of influence in Iraq which they can use, by the way, with Hezbollah people from Lebanon to cause, I think, considerable damage to American forces there if they so choose and can spur this sectarian warfare to a level that would make what we’ve seen in the last few weeks look like a picnic.

TONY JONES: It’s a particularly frightening prospect when you talk about southern Iraq for Australian troops. Because after all, the British mostly control that area but there are Australian troops there in considerable numbers, as well. Would they be vulnerable, particularly vulnerable if Iran does choose to play that card?

MARTIN INDYK: Well look, it’s hard to say – I don’t know exactly where the Australians are deployed and what their situation is. What I think was disturbing was that a couple of weeks ago the Iranian Foreign Minister, I believe for the first time, told the British to get out of southern Iraq. And that kind of language was almost a threat. And the Iranians believe, I think, at the moment that escalation suits their purposes, that the pain and harm that they are talking about is something that we won’t be able to withstand given the situation the United States and its partners – Australia and Britain, in particular – face in Iraq now and across the Middle East, whether it’s Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian areas and so on. So they figure they can afford to escalate this crisis now and we can’t afford to respond.

TONY JONES: What would cause them at this point to start playing those cards and which one do you suspect they would deal first? Would it be the Iraqi card, which is clearly already in play with sectarian violence on the rise?

MARTIN INDYK: I would not be surprised if we saw some bombs going off in Iraq that did some lethal damage beyond even what we’ve seen up to now, as a kind of warning of what they can do. Of course, it won’t be clear who’s exactly responsible, but I think our intelligence people will have a pretty good idea of whose fingerprints are on it. We saw it once before. You may remember the Secretary of Defence called all Iranians out about six months ago. There were bombs going off that were particularly lethal that appeared to have an Iranian signature. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that kind of thing as a shot across our bow.

TONY JONES: Let’s look at how the White House and how, generally, the Administration is playing this because John Bolton is certainly not stepping back. He must be aware they have these cards in their hand because you know about it, they obviously know about it. Why is he taking this particularly hard line, threatening painful consequences now?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I don’t know exactly but I think it was a kind of rhetoric which is not helpful in this situation. He, of course, was before a red meat crowd in the Israel Public Affairs Committee. He got a huge standing ovation for that because Israel and its supporters of the United States are particularly concerned about the Iranian nuclear threat. But I think he was playing to his audience and it’s really, I think, at this time much wiser for the United States to be cooling the rhetoric as Mr Faraday of the International Atomic Energy Agency suggested, because Iran is not about to get a nuclear weapon. I think the most conservative estimates, if we go on the Israeli estimates, they would say that it’s two to three years before they cross the nuclear threshold, that is acquiring the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon, and probably five years before they actually acquire a nuclear weapon. So there is time for the diplomatic game to be played out and on the diplomatic playing field, the United States is actually in a much stronger position than Iran because the international community has now come to the conclusion that Iran should not have control of its nuclear energy program, so as to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. There’s an international consensus. Russia, China, India are all on board with that and so we should be using that, now that we’ve managed to get Iran reported to the Security Council, to maintain its isolation, to seek sanctions that are meaningful that will have some impact on Iran and in that way drive them back to the negotiating table in a more realistic position. By the way, I believe we should be at the negotiating table just as we are in the North Korea talks, with all the other parties here. And in that way, try to find a way to convince the Iranians that it’s in their interests to have their nuclear program under international control.

TONY JONES: Are they convincible? I mean you’ve talked about the cards they hold. We’ve heard the sort of rhetoric coming from the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said openly he would like to wipe Israel off the map. Are these people you can deal with? Are there rational heads behind that rhetoric, as there hopefully will be in the White House?

MARTIN INDYK: I’m not sure that there is any option that is a good one in this situation and I’m not sure that the diplomacy will work. What I am sure of is that we have time to give it a chance and that we need to exhaust the diplomatic route before we go down the road of a military option because of the complications involved in that course.

TONY JONES: The complications are incredible. You said it yourself, there’s the number of the facilities, there’s the placement of the facilities, there’s the fact that they are underground. We saw a piece about Israel considering a military option against Iran itself. That’s not feasible, though, is it? They don’t have the capability. It would have to be the Americans.

MARTIN INDYK: The Israelis see this as an existential threat. They have been preparing for the possibility that Iran will have nuclear weapons for the last 20 years, so to say that they don’t have a military option is, I think, an illusion. They have, I think, already built a military option.

TONY JONES: You mean the technical military ability to destroy bunkered facilities?

MARTIN INDYK: To attempt to destroy bunkered facilities. But, will they succeed? Will they get them all? Do they know where all of them are? These are very big question marks and, of course, they would much prefer that the United States do it because the United States has a much greater capability than Israel has. But to imagine that the Jewish state, whose leaders have sworn that the Jewish Commonwealth will never be destroyed again, will sit back and hope that somebody else will take care of an existential threat is simply not facing the reality of their situation.

TONY JONES: Does that put the United States in a position where, at some point, they could literally be blackmailed into taking strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities? We are now talking perhaps more than a year, two years down the track. If Israel told them, “We have the capacity, we will do it, but imagine the consequences if we do. You must do it,” would they do that?

MARTIN INDYK: No, it’s the other way around. It’s that the United States will wink and nod and say, “Well, maybe it’s better that you go and do it than we go and do it”. In some ways you could interpret the statement of Vice President Cheney as already suggesting that. When he was asked what to do about it, he said, “Well, the Israelis won’t stand by and let this happen”. It was almost as if he was signalling to them that it would be OK.

TONY JONES: OK. Let’s talk about the other side of the equation and the power structure, which is almost impenetrable to outsiders, of the state, which has a supreme leader on the other side, equal power – well, maybe the supreme leader, the unelected leader the Ayatollah Khomeini, is actually more powerful. Tell me what you think about that power structure and how that will play into the equation?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, it’s a complicated situation there and the most important things to know is that, as you suggested, the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, has control over the national security institutions and so he will have the final say and his national security advisers.

TONY JONES: And his guardian council as well, virtually all of whom are ayatollahs?

MARTIN INDYK: Right. And, so, the clerics, in effect, are the ones who will decide but in the end, it’s the supreme leader and his people who control the national security institutions. The President Ahmadinejad, however, is a populist president, meaning not just that he was elected but that he’s playing to the crowd in quite an effective way and he has managed in some ways to outflank the national security establishment who were taking a much more careful – I would say cunning – approach, almost a stealth approach, to try and get the nuclear capability while keeping the international community involved in this diplomatic game. And Ahmadinejad, through his statements about wiping Israel off the map, was able in effect to push them to a much harder line. So it’s not just that Khomeini has control but there’s an interplay there in which Ahmadinejad’s ability to play up – not just to the Iranian crowd, by the way, but to the Arab world and the Muslim world as the man who’s standing up to the United States and Israel and is going to wipe Israel off the map and so on – that takes us back to the days before the 1967 Six-Day War who said exactly the same kind of thing and started the ball rolling, as the Iranians said today, “Let the ball roll,” and we ended up with a six-day war.

TONY JONES: A final quick question. I’m sorry, we are nearly out of time, but it is an important question. These are the ayatollahs who blessed hundreds of thousands of Iranian martyrs to go off and fight, throw themselves to death in front of Iraqi guns in the Iran-Iraq war. They’re not the sort of people who are going to quail at the threat from, as they call it, ‘the great Satan’, the United States. We are setting ourselves up for a terrible conflict, are we not, if there are military strikes?

MARTIN INDYK: The Iranians have 500,000 battle-hardened Pasdaran, plus the people they have control or influence over in Iraq. I would just put this proposition on the table – the United States cannot strike Iran while we still have our troops in Iraq.

TONY JONES: Martin Indyk, we thank you very much for taking the time to come in and talk to us tonight, although it was rather a bleak assessment. Thank you.

MARTIN INDYK: Thank you.