‘Talking Points’ for Hagel on Iran

Some neocons hope they softened up new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his bruising confirmation fight. But ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern suggests in these proposed “talking points” that Hagel stick to his principled reputation as someone who tells it like it is, regardless of political pressures.

From: Former CIA Analyst Ray McGovern

To: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Subject: Proposed Talking Points on Iran for Your Meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in his official “portrait” at the Pentagon.

You may wish to draw on some of the following talking points for today’s meeting, cast in the first-person, as though you were speaking.

Regarding Barak’s Speech at AIPAC

Mr. Minister, I have read your speech Sunday at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The language you used in discussing Iran prompts me to make sure that you understand that there has been no change in U.S. policy as set forth by President Barack Obama at the AIPAC conference a year ago. There he said (three times) that his policy is “to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” (emphasis added)

You chose more ambiguous wording, asserting that “it is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities which is the greatest challenge facing Israel, the region and the world today,” adding that you do not believe sanctions will make the Ayatollahs “give up their nuclear aspirations.” (emphasis added)

As you may have been told, I have a reputation for plain speaking. Let me just say that, from my perspective, loose words on issues of this importance are not helpful. Not only do they provide grist for pundits intent on finding significant policy differences between our two governments; they also can chip away at what you described Sunday as the “rock-solid U.S.-Israel relationship.”

President Obama chose his words carefully at AIPAC last year: “The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program.”

U.S. intelligence agencies are, indeed, exceedingly vigilant in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program the more so, since all 16 concluded, “with high confidence,” in 2007 that Iran stopped working on a nuclear weapon (as distinct from its continuing program to enrich uranium for energy) in 2003. As you know, each year since 2007, U.S. intelligence has revalidated that key judgment and has assessed that Iran has not resumed the weaponization activity halted in 2003.

The UN Inspection Regime

In preparing for today’s meeting, I was pleased to be reminded of some of your more candid statements on this key issue. I refer specifically to those you made during an interview with Israeli Armed Forces Radio on Jan. 18, 2012 the day before Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey arrived for discussions in Israel. You were asked by your interviewer, “is it the Israeli assessment that Iran has yet to decide to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?” You answered:

“The onlookers’ confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break its subordination to the [UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s] control regime right now …  to try to procure nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible … it is evidently not.”

The all-too-familiar next question was one you handled with equal candor: “How long will it take from the moment Iran decides to turn it into effective weapons until it has nuclear warheads?” You replied:

“It doesn’t really matter. To do that, Iran will have to dissociate itself from the control regime, to announce its departure from the control regime, to stop responding to IAEA’s criticism, and so forth. They haven’t done that. Why?

“Because they realize that, under the circumstances, when it is clear to everyone that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, such a move would be definite proof that time is indeed running out and might generate either steeper sanctions or another action against them, and they don’t want that. That’s why they are not doing it. …”

A Premium on Candor

Forgive me for quoting you back to yourself. I do so only because I find it hard to understand why so few of your colleagues display comparable candor in acknowledging that the UN inspection regime has been effective as a disincentive as well as a monitor.

Let me ask you, as you lay down your duties as defense minister, to bring word to your colleagues back home that it is precisely that kind of honesty and candor that builds trust, prevents erosion of our “rock-solid” relationship, and thwarts those who wish to muddy the situation with ambiguity and hints of danger not yet there.

I speak not only of Israelis, of course. There are those in our Congress and in U.S. media who are prone to raise alarms by playing fast and loose with the facts. That’s another reason why I put such a high premium on avoiding ambiguity. Nor are White House officials and nominees to higher office immune from the common urge to please.

I mean to find out, for example, why John Brennan, the President’s nominee to be Director of the CIA, said the following on Feb. 7 in his prepared testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee:

“And regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems.”

Never mind Brennan’s disingenuousness in conflating Iran with North Korea. The question is how could he diverge so markedly from the unanimous assessment of the entire U.S. intelligence community that Iran stopped working on a nuclear weapon in 2003 and has not resumed that work. In no way does that continuing assessment support his claim that Tehran remains “bent on pursuing nuclear weapons” and ICBMs to deliver them.

Embellishing Threats … and Commitments

Now, there are reasonable grounds to suspect that Iran might be seeking a capability that eventually would allow it to rapidly break out of Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) constraints on building a nuclear weapon. That is, of course, why we monitor Iran’s activity so closely.

But “bent on pursuing” ICBMs? Really? As you are aware, Iran has not flight-tested a ballistic missile with ranges in excess of its 2200-kilometer-range Sajjil MRBM. Nor has it launched a space rocket that would be a suitable model for an ICBM.

What am I saying to you? Simply this. Caution your colleagues against mistaking for U.S. policy the occasional hyperbole that is the handmaiden of pandering to Congress. We make decisions on defense policy in the White House and here in the Pentagon not in Congress, and still less at the CIA in Langley.

Frankly, I am determined to avoid being put in the awkward position in which my predecessor found himself late last summer as the drumbeat for attacking Iran grew loud and intense. Secretary Leon Panetta had to authorize Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey to say publicly, “I don’t want to be complicit if they [the Israelis] choose to do it [bomb Iran].”

Things should not reach such a pass that Washington has to say that kind of thing publicly particularly when the President has taken such pains to articulate our policy on this issue so clearly. Please remind your colleagues about what that policy is and isn’t.

On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden restated it before AIPAC, saying: “So we have a shared strategic commitment. Let me make clear what that commitment is: It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Let us not endanger that commitment by unilateral attempts to widen it.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  During his 27-year career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and conducted briefings with the President’s Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

9 comments for “‘Talking Points’ for Hagel on Iran

  1. incontinent reader
    March 6, 2013 at 12:47

    Ray, I hope Hagel follows what you have counseled here, since there is a distinction with a difference in the language, but with all of the sabre rattling and veiled and not-so threats of war- e.g., most recently, reports of statements by Kerry and General Mattis- the Iranians may hold back on negotiating with this new gun held to their head, and if so, might that not at some point provide an excuse to support an Israeli, if not U.S. attack if the hardliners in the Administration have their way? Ultimately, the decision won’t be Hagel’s it will be the President’s.

    • incontinent reader
      March 6, 2013 at 12:50

      meant to say “not so veiled threats of war”. (That’s what happens with age.)

  2. Haim
    March 6, 2013 at 01:13

    No problem. Just so long as you will remember that Israel’s defense policy is made in Jerusalem, by the democratically elected leaders of Israel. If you insist on ignoring the Iranian threat to exterminate the Jewish state for your own selfish calculations, don’t be surprised if one day you will discover that the Jews prefer their own survival to your grand strategies.

    • incontinent reader
      March 6, 2013 at 12:37

      You are discounting the fact that Netanyahu and Barak have been contradicted by many Israeli intelligence officials who are better positioned to know and are not governed by a political agenda, or at least by B&B’s rush to war agenda.

  3. Fred Taylor
    March 5, 2013 at 14:02

    I greatly appreciate your reminding us of the distinction between “weapon” and “capability” in your counsel to Chuck Hagel. It is amazing how slippage in wording can shift the whole discussion and public perception of the issue. Good job!

  4. Hillary
    March 5, 2013 at 12:05

    What would be Ray McGovern’s reaction , with his 27-year career as a CIA analyst, be to CIA Asset Susan Lindauer’s claims ?

  5. incontinent reader
    March 5, 2013 at 10:58

    Great article.

    Here is a response from Senator Schumer to a letter requesting that he support diplomacy with Iran, instead of war.
    Below is his response. I suspect this, with its narrative, is representative of many, if not most, in Congress. You figure.

    “Dear Mr. :

    Thank you for contacting me to express your support for diplomacy between the United States and Iran. I share your concern over the United States’ relationship with Iran and I am committed to supporting President Obama in advancing his diplomatic outreach.

    The Iranian regime is dangerous and unpredictable, and its pursuit of nuclear fuel is a threat to the security and stability of the Middle East and the entire world. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has aligned his country with radical international politics — claiming that Israel should not exist, and using the Islamic Revolutionary Guard to support antigovernment Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

    In the past decade, Iran has developed nuclear technologies which U.S. and other nations’ intelligence agencies believe are intended to produce nuclear weapons. In November of 2007, the Administration released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) giving evidence that Iran had operated a clandestine nuclear-weapons program until 2003. The nation
    continues to enrich uranium into weapons-grade nuclear materials in violation of United Nations resolutions, and in November of 2009 disclosed that it has a partially constructed enrichment facility near Qom. Although President Ahmadinejad maintains that these facilities are designed to generate civilian nuclear energy, experts say that the type of fuel that they produce is sufficient to arm a nuclear warhead. With such fuel, experts argue, Iran could quickly re-instate its nuclear program and thus continues to pose a significant proliferation risk. There should be no lingering doubt that Iran represents an immediate threat to our global security. With Iran still in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons, we must do everything we can to bring their ambitions to a halt.

    President Obama has consistently and repeatedly made clear his good faith desire to enter into meaningful negotiations with Iran about its nuclear activities in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). I deeply regret that, rather than seizing this historic offer, the Iranian government has instead chosen to spurn it. That is why I support a diplomatic approach towards Iran that offers both positive and negative incentives to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table. We must continue to offer multilateral talks with Iran, but if these positive incentives fail in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear plans, then the ruling regime must face the consequence of economic sanctions. This method allows the U.S. to make significant progress diplomatically without resorting to military action. I joined several of my Senate colleagues in January in sending a letter to President Obama urging him to do everything necessary to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while also increasing American support for human rights and peaceful aspirations of the Iranian people.

    Again, thank you for contacting me on this important issue. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of further assistance on this or any other matter.


    Charles E. Schumer
    United States Senator”

    • F. G. Sanford
      March 5, 2013 at 15:16

      It’s one thing to spew insinuations and ambiguities for the purpose of stirring emotions during a campaign. The clever arts of double-entendre and allusion to possibilities which can neither be confirmed or denied are common tactics in the world of political demagoguery. They are used to arouse suspicion rather than provide a rational perspective. Even lower on the ladder into the sewer of demagoguery is that rung which poses innuendo as the answer to a hypothetical question: “I don’t know if so-and-so has ever taken money from a foreign government”. (Where have we heard that recently?) But stepping from the last rung and into the sludge itself is the outright lie. This letter feigns an air of great concern and righteous obligation, then mixes it not with insinuation or innuendo, but with something less odorous. Statements which resort to the “big lie” avoid the appearance of descending into that cesspool. A lie told with conviction implies faith, not dishonesty. No one ever impugns faith or conviction. As long as the lie can be sold, nobody smells the stench. By the time the real strategic objective is launched, guilt by complicity has silenced public dissent, and the regime can resort to that old standard, “They left us no choice”. To an individual, a liar is either dishonest or a lunatic. To the crowd, he becomes a man of devotion and conviction. Schumer’s letter, in my opinion, is a default to that astute political observation, “Never underestimate the willingness of a crowd to be deceived.” That letter is insulting not because of what it says, but because it’s the same letter he sends to everybody. It’s his way of saying, “You’re too dumb to know the difference. Welcome to the crowd!”

      • incontinent reader
        March 6, 2013 at 12:33

        Absolutely right.

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