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Inside Washington: Bruce Riedel

Bruce Reidel

Bruce Riedel has served in the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House and has advised four presidents of the United States on South Asia and the Middle East issues. Reidel was formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and during his 30 years as an officer was posted overseas in the Middle East and Europe. Currently he is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Riedel was a negotiator at the Camp David, Shepherdstown and Wye River Israeli-Arab summits. In 2009 at the request of president Obama he chaired a review of American policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Here he talks to The Majalla about the Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of an US, Western or Israeli intervention in Iran:

The Majalla: What do you think will be the most likely outcome of the current crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program?

Well, I fear the most likely outcome is war. Obviously my preference is a diplomatic solution. I think the prospects of a diplomatic solution have gone up a little bit in the last week with the news that the United States and Iran are considering a direct bilateral negotiation process. Although both sides have denied that, I don’t find either of their denials particularly compelling. My view is that the only way that this is going to be resolved is if it is Washington and Tehran talking directly. But now of course that depends on the results of the American election.

Q: What is the greatest risk should the US or the West or Israel or some combination of them all attack Iran.

I think the greatest risk is that it is easy to start wars and awfully hard to stop them. The Iranians will retaliate, certainly against Israel, probably against American targets. We’ll retaliate in response to that and you open up an escalatory latter that is very hard to shut down. And how far that goes is anyone’s guess. There is a fundamental difference between taking out Iran’s nuclear program and the earlier Israeli moves against the Iraqi program and the program in Syria. And the difference is that the Iranian program is dispersed and operates in multiple sites over a much larger area, and Iran has much more capacity to retaliate than Saddam Hussein did in 1981, when he was in the midst of a war, or that Syria ever has had. And that makes for a much more dangerous situation.

Q:How high do you think the chances are of a US attack on Iran?

That, in a large part, depends on the results of our election. I think President Obama has demonstrated for the last four years a pragmatic, very realistic approach. I think he is a man who understands very well the recklessness of another war in the Middle East. Governor Romney is much harder to read. He, in the last debate, was much more pragmatic than he has often been in the past. He will also be in a position where he has made many commitments to get elected to advocates of military operations against Iran, not the least of which, of course, being Sheldon Adelson. It will be difficult for a first term president to walk away from something like that.

Q: Along these lines, what do you make of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship?

I think they despise each other. I think if you wanted to know what Netanyahu’s real number one foreign policy goal is today, it is regime change on the banks of the Potomac. But he has very little mechanism for making that happen. I can’t say I will know what Obama will do, but I think that the president does understand that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in America’s national security interests and I would hope that if he is reelected he will get back to the business of trying to make that happen.

Q: Under what circumstances would you advocate a US attack on Iran?

For me the bar would be very, very high. I think you would have to have evidence of Iranian support for a major terrorist attack that had killed American citizens. And in that regard, reports of Iran’s support for an assassination attempt in Washington that surfaced earlier this year are disturbing. That suggests the tit-for-tat, covert war that is well under way between Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran, could get out of control.

Q: What do you think the US should do to convince Iran to make a deal?

I think the United States is already doing what it needs to do: it’s applying significant sanctions, both economic and an arms ban through the United Nations; it’s waging an intense, covert operations against Iran, including unprecedented use of cyber warfare. Now it needs to see if there is an opening in Tehran after the election for direct diplomatic negotiations that can find some agreement on Iran not becoming a nuclear weapons state. I think there is a prospect for a deal, but it may be a very informal deal and it will probably mean that Iran will be able to enrich to some level. But that the Iranians will make clear that they are going to forgo the actual development of a nuclear weapons arsenal. And the last point, I think, it needs to have some sort of international monitoring system, probably through the IAEA, that leaves the international community confident that Iran is not crossing the nuclear weapons threshold.

Q: Do you think Israel would accept this?

I think that if the international community accepts something and it has the blessing of the Security Council, it will be very difficult for Israel to take unilateral measures in those circumstances.

Q: How can we resolve this crisis without resorting to the use of force?

I think that the combination of sanctions, covert action, and negotiations is the way out of this crisis.

Q: Do you think that the US should take military options “off the table” at any point?

Realistically, we are not going to do that. So I don’t think that’s a serious prospect, but it could become part of the final deal, if the United States makes clear that as long as Iran abjures a nuclear weapons capability, a nuclear weapons arsenal, it will not seek to use military force against the Government of Iran. Now that, of course, would not rule out responding to something unrelated to the nuclear weapons program, like a terrorist attack, but every country retains the right to self defense under those circumstances.

Q: Just a final point, have you read the “Iran Project Report”?

I’ve read the summary of it. I am in agreement… I would go a step further, I think the down sides of military action against Iran, whether it is American, Israeli, or joint, so outweigh the potential gains that it would reckless in the extreme to resort to military action. I think the last think the world needs is another war in the Middle East, certainly the last thing the global economy needs is another war in the Middle East. And that is why I think we need to find a way out of this that avoids conflict.

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Bryan R. Gibson
Bryan R. Gibson is a PhD candidate in International History at the London School of Economics and author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran–Iraq War.

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