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“Talking Points” for Hagel on Iran

Despite a beating from Republicans, Ray McGovern suggests in these proposed u201ctalking pointsu201d that Chuck Hagel stuck to his principled reputation as someone who tells it like it is, regardless of political pressures.

From: Former CIA Analyst Ray McGovern

To: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Subject: Proposed Talking Points on Iran for Your Meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

You may wish to draw on some of the following talking points for today’s meeting, cast in the first-person, as though you were speaking.

Regarding Barak’s Speech at AIPAC

Mr. Minister, I have read your speech Sunday at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The language you used in discussing Iran prompts me to make sure that you understand that there has been no change in U.S. policy as set forth by President Barack Obama at the AIPAC conference a year ago. There he said (three times) that his policy is “to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” (emphasis added)

You chose more ambiguous wording, asserting that “it is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities which is the greatest challenge facing Israel, the region and the world today,” adding that you do not believe sanctions will make the Ayatollahs “give up their nuclear aspirations.” (emphasis added)

As you may have been told, I have a reputation for plain speaking. Let me just say that, from my perspective, loose words on issues of this importance are not helpful. Not only do they provide grist for pundits intent on finding significant policy differences between our two governments; they also can chip away at what you described Sunday as the “rock-solid U.S.-Israel relationship.”

President Obama chose his words carefully at AIPAC last year: “The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program.”

U.S. intelligence agencies are, indeed, exceedingly vigilant in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program – the more so, since all 16 concluded, “with high confidence,” in 2007 that Iran stopped working on a nuclear weapon (as distinct from its continuing program to enrich uranium for energy) in 2003. As you know, each year since 2007, U.S. intelligence has revalidated that key judgment and has assessed that Iran has not resumed the weaponization activity halted in 2003.

The UN Inspection Regime

In preparing for today’s meeting, I was pleased to be reminded of some of your more candid statements on this key issue. I refer specifically to those you made during an interview with Israeli Armed Forces Radio on Jan. 18, 2012 – the day before Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey arrived for discussions in Israel. You were asked by your interviewer, “is it the Israeli assessment that Iran has yet to decide to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?” You answered:

“The onlookers’ confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break its subordination to the [UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s] control regime right now … to try to procure nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible … it is evidently not.”

The all-too-familiar next question was one you handled with equal candor: “How long will it take from the moment Iran decides to turn it into effective weapons until it has nuclear warheads?” You replied:

“It doesn’t really matter. To do that, Iran will have to dissociate itself from the control regime, to announce its departure from the control regime, to stop responding to IAEA’s criticism, and so forth. They haven’t done that. Why?

“Because they realize that, under the circumstances, when it is clear to everyone that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, such a move would be definite proof that time is indeed running out and might generate either steeper sanctions or another action against them, and they don’t want that. That’s why they are not doing it. …”

A Premium on Candor

Forgive me for quoting you back to yourself. I do so only because I find it hard to understand why so few of your colleagues display comparable candor in acknowledging that the UN inspection regime has been effective as a disincentive as well as a monitor.

Let me ask you, as you lay down your duties as defense minister, to bring word to your colleagues back home that it is precisely that kind of honesty and candor that builds trust, prevents erosion of our “rock-solid” relationship, and thwarts those who wish to muddy the situation with ambiguity and hints of danger not yet there.

I speak not only of Israelis, of course. There are those in our Congress and in U.S. media who are prone to raise alarms by playing fast and loose with the facts. That’s another reason why I put such a high premium on avoiding ambiguity. Nor are White House officials and nominees to higher office immune from the common urge to please.

I mean to find out, for example, why John Brennan, the President’s nominee to be Director of the CIA, said the following on Feb. 7 in his prepared testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee:

“And regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems.”

Never mind Brennan’s disingenuousness in conflating Iran with North Korea. The question is how could he diverge so markedly from the unanimous assessment of the entire U.S. intelligence community that Iran stopped working on a nuclear weapon in 2003 and has not resumed that work. In no way does that continuing assessment support his claim that Tehran remains “bent on pursuing nuclear weapons” and ICBMs to deliver them.

Embellishing Threats … and Commitments

Now, there are reasonable grounds to suspect that Iran might be seeking a capability that eventually would allow it to rapidly break out of Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) constraints on building a nuclear weapon. That is, of course, why we monitor Iran’s activity so closely.

But “bent on pursuing” ICBMs? Really? As you are aware, Iran has not flight-tested a ballistic missile with ranges in excess of its 2200-kilometer-range Sajjil MRBM. Nor has it launched a space rocket that would be a suitable model for an ICBM.

What am I saying to you? Simply this. Caution your colleagues against mistaking for U.S. policy the occasional hyperbole that is the handmaiden of pandering to Congress. We make decisions on defense policy in the White House and here in the Pentagon – not in Congress, and still less at the CIA in Langley.

Frankly, I am determined to avoid being put in the awkward position in which my predecessor found himself late last summer as the drumbeat for attacking Iran grew loud and intense. Secretary Leon Panetta had to authorize Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey to say publicly, “I don’t want to be complicit if they [the Israelis] choose to do it [bomb Iran].”

Things should not reach such a pass that Washington has to say that kind of thing publicly – particularly when the President has taken such pains to articulate our policy on this issue so clearly. Please remind your colleagues about what that policy is – and isn’t.

On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden restated it before AIPAC, saying: “So we have a shared strategic commitment. Let me make clear what that commitment is: It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Let us not endanger that commitment by unilateral attempts to widen it.