Two Former CIA Directors Call on Biden to Threaten Iran Militarily

“The military threat the U.S. poses to Iran is a key reason why the Iranian nuclear program has expanded,” an analyst said, criticizing the statement.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA - MAY 24: The flag of Iran is seen in front of the building of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Headquarters ahead of a press conference by Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, about the agency's monitoring of Iran's nuclear energy program on May 24, 2021 in Vienna, Austria. The IAEA has been in talks with Iran over extending the agency's monitoring program. Meanwhile Iranian and international representatives have been in talks in recent weeks in Vienna over reviving the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Michael Gruber/Getty Images)
The flag of Iran is seen in front of the building of the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters ahead of a press conference about the agency's monitoring of Iran's nuclear energy program in Vienna on May 24, 2021. Photo: Michael Gruber/Getty Images

A hawkish gaggle of former U.S. national security officials, lawmakers, and diplomats has launched a public campaign to pressure the Biden administration into militarily threatening Iran. The statement, headlined by former CIA chiefs Leon Panetta and retired Gen. David Petraeus as well as former Obama-era senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy asserts that “it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States.”

The statement — which was also signed by former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman and Democratic diplomatic heavyweight Dennis Ross, and published by the Washington Institute, a militarist think tank — argues that the Biden administration must “take steps that lead Iran to believe that persisting in its current behavior and rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will put to risk its entire nuclear infrastructure, one built painstakingly over the last three decades.” They suggest that President Joe Biden consider “orchestrating high-profile military exercises by the U.S. Central Command, potentially in concert with allies and partners, that simulate what would be involved in such a significant operation, including rehearsing air-to-ground attacks on hardened targets and the suppression of Iranian missile batteries.”

Iran analyst Hooman Majd, author of “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran,” said the letter from the former U.S. officials “is just plain silly.” He told The Intercept, “There’s no ‘restoring’ Iran’s fear — the last time it feared a U.S. military strike or war was in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion when it looked like the easy victory there and in Afghanistan would indeed perhaps lead to ‘real men going to Tehran.’” Majd points out that despite repeated U.S. and Israeli threats of military action, Iran has steadily “beefed up” its military capabilities. “So I’d say that Iran doesn’t fear U.S. military action against it now,” he added. “All of the Israeli bluster about preparing for war with Iran hasn’t changed their calculus — and they know Israel is probably more likely to attack their facilities than the U.S. is — so why would any U.S. bluster or ‘preparations’ for war do so?”

Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, blasted the statement, telling The Intercept: “The exaggerated faith in the miracles that U.S. military threats can deliver are not limited to any one party in the United States, but is intrinsic to the establishment religion that American security is achieved through global military hegemony.”

The former U.S. officials argued that their strategy is aimed at forcing Iran to the negotiating table and to compel it to reverse any efforts to develop nuclear weapons made in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. “While the United States has recognized Iran’s right to civilian nuclear power, Iran’s behavior continues to indicate that it not only wants to preserve a nuclear weapons option but is actively moving toward developing that capability,” they wrote. While advocating for potential military action — and openly calling on Biden to make explicit military threats — the authors of the letter claim their intent is to support diplomatic efforts. “[W]e are not urging the Biden Administration to threaten ‘regime change’ or to advocate for a ‘regime change’ strategy under cover of non-proliferation,” they wrote. “This is not about hostility toward Iran or its people.”

Parsi, an Iranian American analyst and author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy,” added, “Rather than being the solution to the crisis, the military threat the U.S. poses to Iran is a key reason why the Iranian nuclear program has expanded. The more a country is faced with military threats, the more it will demand a nuclear deterrence.”


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During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden repeatedly criticized Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal and his assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad on January 3. But nearly a year into his presidency, Biden has taken no action to return to the deal and has staked out an increasingly hostile stance toward Tehran. In late August, Biden appeared to be placing military options on the table. During a press gaggle with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House, Biden said, “If diplomacy fails” with Iran, “we’re ready to turn to other options.” The Biden administration has maintained and, in some cases, expanded U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, which has spurred allegations from Tehran that the U.S. is already waging a nonmilitary war against Iranian civilians. Iran is demanding a cessation of sanctions as a precondition to return to negotiations.

“Iran has every reason to want to restore the JCPOA — at least in terms of getting the most onerous sanctions against it lifted. But it hardly is going to engage because it thinks the U.S. will go to war with it if it doesn’t,” said Majd.

“Donald Trump’s military threats and broad economic sanctions are precisely why we are in this mess right now. To believe that more Trumpian conduct by the United States will break the nuclear deadlock bewilders the mind,” says Parsi. “Trump’s exit from the deal and the lack of confidence that the United States will stay in the deal beyond 2024 has profoundly undermined the value of American promises of sanctions relief. The Iranians are hesitating largely because they do not believe that the economic benefits the U.S. promises will be forthcoming. No amount of military threats will change that fundamental weakness in the U.S. negotiating position.”

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