Confronting Iran

Former CIA director: Preemptive strike on Iran 'least worst' option

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and chief of staff Esfandiari Rahim Mashaei, March 2013 / AP
April 4, 2013

Former CIA director General Michael Hayden said a "well organized" preemptive U.S. strike on Iran could be the "least worst" option in preventing Tehran from successfully obtaining a nuclear weapon.

"I must admit, as this [standoff with Iran] has spiraled down over the last four years, that option, if not becoming more attractive, looks least worst in my eye," Hayden said Thursday during a discussion on Iran’s nuclear program organized by the Atlantic Council think tank.

Hayden, who attended the event as an audience member, said that while U.S. action against Iran remains "a bad option," his opposition towards it has lessened over the years.

"There had been no doubt that it’s a very difficult and bad option," Hayden said. "When we discussed this in the Bush administration, [former Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates, it was very common for him to point out if we go do this, we will create that which we’re trying to prevent—an Iran that will stop at nothing in secret to develop a weapon."

Hayden disagreed that "thousands of Iranians would likely be killed by the attacks," as the Atlantic Council maintains in its latest report on Iran, arguing that the number would probably be lower. Hayden was a member of the team that assembled the report.

Panelists at the event, including former Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat and former State Department whistleblower Greg Thielmann, disagreed on the need to fully prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Thielmann maintained that the United States should set the bar lower in its ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.

"Conceding Iran’s right to enrichment is a must," he said, explaining that the United States could permit Iran to enrich a low level of uranium, the key element in a nuclear weapon.

Additionally, the United States "should give up the demand to shut Fordow," an underground nuclear facility believed to be used for illicit enrichment activities.

The "key to the deal would be some sanctions relief," Theilmann continued, arguing that the European Union could ease its economic sanctions on Iran.

"I personally think the consequences of a nuclear Iran are overdrawn," said Thielmann, who served as top intelligence officer at the State Department before resigning in protest in the lead up to the Iraq war. "Why should we believe the Iranian bomb would threaten the very existence of Israel when [Israeli Defense Minister] Ehud Barak does not?"

Eizenstat disagreed, saying the United States would look weak and ineffective if Iran successfully obtains a nuclear weapon.

"I think that there is an underestimation of the massive defeat for the U.S. if we in a sense allow Iran to slide into a nuclear capacity," said Eizenstat, a former Clinton administration official who served as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union.

"It’s contrary to what the president has said repeatedly and would be seen as weakness by our allies in the region," Eizenstat said. "It would be taken as an absolute massive defeat."

Eizenstat also warned it could destabilize international relations.

"In addition, it would mean a country could simply thumb its nose at five [United Nations] Security Council resolutions with impunity," Eizenstat warned. "What conceivable incentive would any country have to take the U.S. or UN Security Council seriously?"

The debate between the experts was organized to mark the unveiling of the Atlantic Council’s latest report, "Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy on Iran."

The in-depth analysis proposes the United States ramp up diplomatic efforts with Iran while bolstering sanctions and engaging the Iranian people.

The Atlantic Council is the former home of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who chaired the organization from 2009 to 2012. The report could provide a window into Hagel’s mindset regarding Iran and a potential U.S. strike on its nuclear sites.

"President Barack Obama faces a relatively short timeframe in which to peacefully address the most significant near-term foreign policy and security challenge for his second term," the report warns.

"Due to Iran’s persistent nuclear advances, Obama’s repeated pledge that the United States would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons could well be tested in the coming months," the report states.

The report goes on to advocate in favor of "retaining the option of military strikes" as a last resort.

"The Obama administration must ensure that this threat remains credible as it may ultimately be the only course that deters Iran from deciding to build nuclear weapons," the report states.

However, an attack would likely endanger Israel and lead Iran to "increase support for militant groups in Afghanistan that target U.S. personnel," according to the report. "These potential adverse consequences underline the need to redouble efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution of the crisis."