WASHINGTON, March 17, 2012 — Iranian leaders could make a gross misjudgment of American will and suffer the consequences, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said last night.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey also explained to Charlie Rose during a PBS interview that while Iran operates on its own internal logic, that doesn’t mean Iranian leaders will be reasonable.
The chairman received some criticism for saying the Iranian regime was rational during recent Capitol Hill testimony.
“Rational meant to me that there is an evident pattern of behavior that this regime has followed since the Islamic Revolution that, first and foremost, expresses their intention to remain in power and to preserve the regime,” he said. “Based on that, there are some things that we know they will respond to. That’s a rational actor.”
By that definition, he said, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein also was a rational actor. Yet acting with his own logic, the Iraqi leader made a gross misjudgment of American will. The Iranians may find themselves in the same boat. “They could get it wrong and suffer the consequences,” the chairman said.
American and Israeli leaders agree that Iran getting such a weapon would be an existential threat to Israel and hugely destabilizing to the entire Middle East, Dempsey said.
U.S. and Israeli leaders agree the threat exists and only diverge in timing. “We don’t disagree in terms of intent,” the chairman said. “We disagree in terms of time.”
Both U.S. and Israeli leaders say they are determined to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon. “All options are on the table. And it’s a matter of time,” the general said.
The current U.S. strategy is based on giving economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures time to work. The general would not go into how much time is available. “It’s time not necessarily measured in terms of months or years, but in terms of our ability and capability to collect intelligence, to see if they cross any thresholds,” he said.
An attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would cause many other effects, he noted. The Iranians could, for example, try to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil flows.
Iran also is a player in the war in Syria, shipping arms to Bashir al-Assad’s regime, Dempsey said. The United Nations estimates that the regime has killed more than 8,000 Syrians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Many have asked for an intervention to protect the people of Syria from their own leaders, much like the NATO intervention that toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi last year. U.S. military officials continue to study the situation on the ground.
“Just in terms of geography, size of the country, the demographics of the country, the military capabilities of the country, (it’s a) vastly different challenge” than Libya, Dempsey said.
The opposition groups themselves are fragmented and there is no clear leader like there was in Libya, the general said. And, there is no consensus in the United Nations for action. The Arab League has condemned Assad and asked him to step down, “but has not asked for any intervention,” he said.
“The United States can always act in its own self defense and for its own vital national interests, should those be declared in this case,” he said. “But it’s also very clear that to produce a useful, enduring outcome, it’s always better to do that as part of a coalition.”
The U.S. military has been working on intelligence estimates of the situation in Syria and all the things that would be necessary in order to take planning to the next level. “But we have not yet planned in detail any particular military option in Syria,” he said.
Syria unrest began as a result of the Arab Spring last year when Tunisian and Egyptian citizens rose up against entrenched regimes. Egypt is a powerful U.S. ally in the region and the military-to-military relationship between the countries continues, Dempsey said.
Egypt will become even more important when the Assad regime in Syria falls, the chairman said. “When Syria tumbles, you then have … a Sunni majority government in Damascus that kind of completes an arc of Sunni Islam and standing off kind of against the Shia world,” the chairman said. “The point being that when you have this kind of arc of instability is probably a good way to put it, Egypt becomes a really important player in this. So it’s really important for us to build to continue to build the relationship with the emerging Egypt.”
In the long-term, Dempsey believes the Arab Spring is a good thing for the world. In the short term it is destabilizing. But it will be good for the world if it remains a discussion about the competition of ideas, and not a competition for power, he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)