The Pentagon’s senior policy official, who until recently took part in detailed war planning, said on Tuesday that U.S. military strike plans for Iranian nuclear facilities are very advanced and ready for use.
Michele Flournoy, who last month stepped down as undersecretary of defense for policy, also said the Obama administration is opposed to using force now because of worries that Iran will redouble its nuclear arms work, increase the secrecy of its program, and use proxy terrorists in the region to attack Americans.
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"The United States military has very developed contingency plans for just about everything imaginable, including this scenario," Flournoy said during her first public remarks since leaving the Pentagon. "And those plans are there, they exist, they are ready."
Flournoy provided a detailed inside look at recent discussions within the administration on how to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and the consequences of a military strike.
She did not elaborate on the war plans that are among the Pentagon’s most closely guarded secrets.
Military specialists, however, say a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—which are dispersed around the country at some two dozen facilities—would utilize aircraft carrier-based jets and submarine-launched missiles armed with precision-guided warheads and ground-penetrating munitions.
Many of the Iranian nuclear facilities are located underground or are protected by air defense missiles.
Iran must be prevented from developing nuclear weapons because a failure of block Tehran will set off a "wave of proliferation" in the Middle East, Flournoy said. Two states in the region are set to go nuclear, she said, without identifying the countries.
Members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family have said in recent public remarks that the kingdom should develop nuclear weapons if Iran goes nuclear. Saudi Arabia already has medium-range Chinese missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons.
Other states that could build nuclear arms in response to an Iranian nuclear arsenal include Turkey and Egypt.
Flournoy, a campaign adviser to President Obama, told a conference at the Stimson Center that the administration wants to continue sanctions in hopes they will pressure Iran to "climb down" from violating its international obligations to allow U.N. controls on its nuclear program. Newly imposed U.S. sanctions, including penalties against doing business with Iran’s central bank and limits on purchases of Iranian oil, will soon begin to "bite," she said.
Flournoy said administration officials are concerned with what she termed numerous "nightmare scenarios" produced by a military strike.
"You also have to think beyond the strike itself," she said. "The ‘ok, then what?’ What would happen?"
First, she said, Iran is expected to "play the victim" in the eyes of the international community, and that could "break the international consensus that is upholding sanctions."
As a result, Tehran is expected to redouble its efforts to pursue its nuclear arms program, and could place the dispersed elements, such as its large-scale uranium production facilities, deeper underground as well as making them more secret and thus more difficult to monitor, she said.
With an attack, "you’ve bought just a little bit of time, but you haven’t really resolved the problem," Flournoy said.
Additionally, Iran will ramp up its use of proxy groups that would engage in terrorist attacks in the region. "You could have Americans being killed at embassies all over the world, starting with Iraq," she said.
Another scenario is that Iran likely would begin proliferating weapons to a greater degree to its proxies, such as Hezbollah, which it has supplied with anti-ship C-802 cruise missiles. One such missile was used to try to sink an Israeli coastal patrol boat during the Summer War in southern Lebanon in 2006.
"There are all kinds of nightmare scenarios, and, oh by the way, you could just have a miscalculation like if they tried to close the Strait of Hormuz and there is some tactical engagement. You could have all of this in combination escalating to another war in the Middle East," Flournoy said.
Additionally, tensions remain high in the region over a possible miscalculation in any attempt by Tehran to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a channel used to deliver 20 percent of the world’s oil.
"So this notion that a strike on Iran’s program would be just like Osirak [Iraq in 1981], that somebody could bomb the reactor and nothing would happen and we’d all be happier for the new reality, is just not realistic in this case," Flournoy said.
President Obama on Tuesday criticized those who are "beating the drums of war" while repeating his commitment to preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons. "We will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon," Obama said at a news conference.
Obama said an Iranian nuclear bomb would undermine U.S. nonproliferation goals and could spread nuclear arms to terrorists. "And we've been in close consultation with all our allies, including Israel, in moving this strategy forward," he said.
On Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "We ought to start talking about the costs of not stopping Iran."
Flournoy acknowledged that the administration’s efforts to engage Iran were "not very productive" but have helped garner international support for sanctions.
She said sanctions were "somewhat effective" but that more recent bank and oil sanctions represent a new phase.
U.S. intelligence agencies continue to closely monitor Iran’s nuclear program. "The assessment is that we still have time to let sanctions work and to try to resolve this without the use of force."
Asked whether the sanctions are hurting the Iranian people and not the regime, Flournoy said the question was asked frequently inside the administration and was being tracked closely by U.S. intelligence agencies.
"The judgments of the intelligence community up to a month ago was that it was not causing massive humanitarian suffering across the population, but it was causing the regime a good deal of concern," Flournoy said.
"There is no magic bullet. This path has not been exhausted," she said of sanctions. "It still has the potential to create the change in the calculus that we’re seeing without the downside of the use of force. That is where we are today."
Flournoy sidestepped a question about whether the regime in Tehran should be changed.