Is the 'military option' on Iran off the table?

Is the military option finally off the table regarding Iran?

If, as seems likely, President Barack Obama retains enough support to complete the nuclear deal with Iran, it will be largely because enough members of the House and Senate are persuaded by his argument that the only other real option is war.

This was the rhetorical gauntlet the president threw down at his press conference last week. Equally significant, Mr. Obama omitted the until-now obligatory warning that "all options, including the military one, remain on the table."

Since then, Israeli media have been pressing hard to restore the military option to its accustomed place "on the table." Flying to Israel Sunday night for a handholding mission with top Israeli officials, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter tried to make his reception in Tel Aviv less frosty, telling accompanying journalists that the nuclear deal with Iran "does nothing to prevent the military option." The context, however, seemed to be one in which Iran was caught cheating on the nuclear deal.

That this kind of rhetoric, even when it is not from the president, is still poison to Tehran was clear in the immediate reaction by Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who insisted Monday: "Applying force ... is not an option but an unwise and dangerous temptation."

Looking for changes in official public statements was my bread and butter during a long tenure as a Kremlinologist. So on Wednesday, as I watched Mr. Obama defend the deal with Iran, I leaned way forward at each juncture — and there were several — where the timeworn warning about all options being "on the table" would have been de rigueur. He avoided saying it.

"All options on the table?" The open-ended nature of this Bush/Cheney-esque bully-type warning is at odds with Western international understandings spanning more than three and half centuries — from the treaties of Westphalia (1648), to the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) to the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal to the UN Charter (1945). Try raising that with Establishment Washington, though, and be prepared to be dismissed as "picky-picky," or as quaint and as obsolete as the Geneva Conventions. Undergirding all this is the chauvinism reflected in President Obama's repeated reminders that the U.S. "is the sole indispensable country in the world."

But in the wake of last week's accord with Iran in Vienna, it is possible now to hope that the "military option" is finally off the table — in reality, if not in occasional rhetorical palliatives for Israel.

Most Americans have no idea of how close we came to making war on Iran in 2008, the last year of the Bush/Cheney administration. Nor do they know of the essential role played by courageous managers of intelligence who, for the first time on the Iran nuclear issue, supervised a strictly evidence-based, from-the-bottom-up National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concluded in November 2007 that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon at the end of 2003 and had not resumed that work. That key judgment issued unanimously and "with high confidence" by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies played a huge role in strengthening the hand of Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other reasonable national security leaders in dissuading President Bush from following Vice President Cheney's prompting to launch a war that would have made the war in Iraq look like a volleyball match between the Quaker School and Ursuline Academy.

The juggernaut toward war with Iran was already rolling downhill. Recall that then-CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon was abruptly cashiered after saying "we're not going to do Iran on my watch." And Mr. Cheney later admitted churlishly that Mr. Bush had been a big disappointment in giving in to intelligence and military officials on Iran.

In Mr. Bush's memoir "Decision Points," he complains bitterly that the NIE "tied my hands on the military side. ... After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?"

The wider lesson here is that, with managers with integrity, analysts freed to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and all manner of technical means of intelligence collection available, unnecessary wars can be prevented and arms control agreements can be effectively monitored. Thus, we could assure President Richard Nixon and his successors that we could "verify" should they decide to place a modicum of trust in Kremlin leaders.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has stressed both the need and the ability to verify the just concluded nuclear deal with Iran. For me, it is a source of vicarious pride that there remains such a high premium on my former colleagues in collection and analysis performing their monitoring duties as the sine qua non for such deals.

Ray McGovern served as a CIA analyst from the administration of John Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush. He was chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, chaired NIEs, and prepared and briefed The President's Daily Brief for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. His email is rrmcgovern@gmail.com.

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