US President George W. Bush will not attack Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program before his term ends in January, David Wurmser, a key national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney up until last year, has told The Jerusalem Post. “No, Bush won’t go,” Wurmser said when asked whether he thought the US president would want to take military action before he left office.
Wurmser’s comments came after a day-long roundtable this week in Brussels on nuclear nonproliferation sponsored by the European Jewish Congress. “Two things have to be in place for there to be an attack,” Wurmser said. “That time has run out, and that diplomacy has run out. The feeling to a large extent now is that diplomacy is working, that there is a trend in the regime toward moderation, that pressure is building on the regime.”
Wurmser said his certainty that no US action was in the works had to do with the fact that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice now clearly had the upper hand in the administration in her struggle with Cheney. Rice and Cheney have represented two different schools of thought in the Bush administration, with Cheney advocating a tough line against Iran, often brandishing the possibility of a military strike, while Rice advocated letting the diplomatic process and sanctions run their course.
According to Wurmser, who served as Cheney’s senior adviser on national security affairs, specializing in the Middle East, terrorism, proliferation and strategy from 2003-2007, the prevalent feeling toward Iran now was that diplomacy and sanctions were working, and that this was creating a trend toward moderation in Teheran. He said the thinking in Washington had gone from advocating regime change to advocating Iranian “behavior modification.”
Wurmser, once considered one of the key neo-conservative voices in the administration, and who now heads Delphi Global Analysis, a firm that conducts political risk analysis for financial institutions, said that currently the hope in the administration was not to replace the rule of the ayatollahs, but rather that a “Gorbachev” might emerge in Iran who – like Mikhail Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union – would substantially change the regime’s polices from within.
And as far as the timeline was concerned, Wurmser said Bush did not feel the urgency to strike Iran now, believing that there was still sufficient time before Teheran achieved nuclear capabilities.
According to Wurmser, “Rice, the British and others” believe that to a large extent, recent US successes in Iraq were attributable to the fact that “Iran has acquiesced” and were not as involved in Iraq as they were previously. He said that Rice feared that if the US or Israel attacked, all that would “unravel.” What Rice did not take into consideration, he said, was that Iran’s allies have been defeated in Iraq and don’t have the ability to cause problems for the US to the same degree they did in the past.
Wurmser also said that Iran’s military might, and its capacity to respond to any attack, was overblown. He said the present regime was marked by “tremendous weakness, and tremendous nervousness. They are flying on the edge. The Shi’ite world is bubbling under their feet, their situation in Lebanon is not that solid, and this government has little else other than its nuclear program.”
Wurmser was one of 12 academics and policy shapers from Israel, Europe and the US who took part in the symposium, initiated by the European Jewish Congress’s president Moshe Kantor.
Kantor said the conference was held in Brussels to raise the profile of this issue and impact decision makers in Europe. While Iran was obviously on the top of the agenda in Israel, the issue was much less pressing in Europe, he said. According to Kantor, some 10,000 European companies continue to do business with Iran, to the tune of some $100 billion a year.
Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, agreed with Wurmser that Iran’s threat of response to military action needed to be taken with large doses of skepticism. “Iranians are masters of bluff,” he said during the symposium. “They said they have 30,000 suicide bombers ready to be deployed, but when was the last time there was an Iranian suicide bomber. They will use Lebanese and Arabs, because they are expendable, but not one Iranian.”
Bar did not discount that the Iranians could respond, but said their ability to do so needed to be placed in perspective. If, in response to an attack, they lashed out at Saudi Arabia, they would invite an even larger American response, he said. As to Iranian threats to close the straits of Hormuz, he said the US was clearly planning for this eventuality, and how to prevent it.
“An Iranian response would not be as terrible as the reality which would ensue from an Iranian nuclear capability,” he said.
Another participant at the symposium, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin, a researcher on international relations at the Russian Academy of Science and a senior advisor at the PIR think-tank in Moscow, presented four scenarios for action against Iran, and roughly drew the broad strokes of possible Iranian responses.
The first option, said Dvorkin, would be a fairly limited air strike by Israel or the US, either alone or in tandem, against nuclear sites, air defense systems, weapons silos, airports, and key military installations throughout the country. One variation of this scenario, he said, would be an Israeli attack, followed by US involvement after Israel declared its inability to deal with Teheran’s retaliatory measures.
Dvorkin, who for nearly a decade headed a research institution in the Russian Defense Ministry and was also intricately involved in formulating the Soviet and then Russian position at the negotiations on strategic arms control and reduction, said another option would be more extensive bombing of Iran, something he called the Yugoslavian option, after the extended NATO bombings there in 1999.
Either option, the limited strike or the Yugoslavian option, were “fairly realistic,” he said, and would likely lead to a rally-around-the-flag reaction by the Iranian people. “Iran sees efforts to stop its nuclear program as attempts by infidels to keep it from advancing its technology and science, and even those [Iranians] who oppose the ayatollahs support the nuclear program. There is no disagreement on the issue, regardless of [what people think of] the political regime,” he said.
If there were a limited strike, Dvorkin said that Iran’s nuclear program would stop operating for a short period, and that the country would then divert its resources to getting it back up to speed.
“We assume that the rank and file would make donations to restore the nuclear program,” he said, and also predicted intensified terrorist activity within the region and beyond, including the possibility of using so-called “dirty bombs.” Two other options, he said, were very unlikely: a large-scale military operation similar to the invasion of Iraq, and regime change.
Dvorkin let Moscow off the hook for not supporting more forceful sanctions, saying that while he did not know how long it would take for Iran to create a prototype nuclear weapon, it was “certainly less time than it would take to apply collective or individual sanctions. That is the problem, incompatibility of time frames. The hopes of a Russian role in this are therefore not well founded.”
He added that in addition to Russian economic interests, which made Russian pressure on Iran improbable, the current tensions with the West following the war in Georgia made cooperation even less likely. Having said that, Dvorkin added that in his mind, while all the options for stopping Iran were bad, the prospect of a nuclear Iran was still worse.
Uzi Arad, a professor at the IDC in Herzliya and a foreign policy adviser to Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu, came out against the feeling that a nuclear Iran was inevitable.
“We have to be very self-critical and not describe things as inevitable,” he said. “They can be affected by actions.” He said that so far too little has been done, too late.
For instance, he said that had the relatively mild sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council in 2006 been adopted in 2003, things might have looked different. At that time Russia was in a more cooperative mood with the West, and the US invasion of Iraq was fresh in everyone’s mind, especially the Iranians. “The right moves at the right time would have made a big difference,” he said.
Arad recommended putting into action immediately “a persuasive body of inducement or dis-inducements” that would include “the full, intensive activation of non military sanctions,” including those targeted at the energy sector.
According to Arad, sanctions aimed at the Iranian energy sector, sanctions not yet employed, “do bite,” and would show the Iranians that the international community was serious. “If they see that there are cuts in oil exports or imports, that carries weight,” he said, adding that there must also be a “credible” military option on the table “so they know that if they don’t agree, there is a military action.”