Iran Could Make Gross Misjudgment, Chairman Says

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)