Game Plan: If Israel Strikes Iran First

Charles Wald headshot, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy AP (file)

Expect the unexpected, at a conference of Middle East experts.

Several hundred spent the weekend at a resort hotel 30 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., forced by cold rain to focus on nothing but Iran and the nearly moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

At this annual gathering of financial backers of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, joined by diplomats, journalists and analysts, many had expected a feisty debate between proponents and opponents of a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Instead, the crowd heard experts suggesting the military option is a very realistic one; and a retired U.S. Air Force general said Israel might open fire first - and that the United States would find it wise to join in.

Gen. Charles Wald, former head of strategic planning and policy for the Air Force who also had been deputy commander at U.S. European Command, said a bombing campaign - while "unpalatable" - could set back Iran's nuclear work for many years.

"I don't think Israel can do it alone," Wald added. "They have a fantastic military, but not big enough for weeks or months of attacks - hundreds of sorties per day."

Wald said the U.S. would not exactly be dragged into air strikes on Iran, but if "our great ally Israel" decided that it "can't take it anymore" - the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb - then "pressure will mount for us to stand by Israel."

The general said that after commanding the air portion of the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, he thought deeply about neighboring Pakistan and the possibility that it might one day use its nuclear arsenal. "I asked my staff to look into what would happen if there were a Pakistani-Indian nuclear exchange. They said there'd be tens of millions of dead at the low end, and 300 million dead at the high end."

Wald said he soon discovered what the Pakistani leaders' reaction to that analysis was: They had not thought of that.

Wald suggested Iran, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations which were likely to feel compelled to acquire nuclear bombs might also be failing to face facts.

"In 2003, General Jim Jones [now President Obama's National Security Adviser] and I sat down with our Strategic Advisory Group for Europe. I couldn't get anyone interested in talking about Iran. The subject was always Iraq. And now Afghanistan is sucking all the oxygen out of the room." Wald added that Arab governments along the Persian Gulf, however, have for years had Iran as their main concern.

Sitting near Wald, a former head of Israel's military intelligence, retired General Aharon Farkash, agreed that the U.S. Air Force could be far more effective than Israel in crippling Iran's nuclear program. "The U.S. can destroy the nuclear capacity, and the war would not be long," Farkash said, though he cautioned that Western intelligence still might not know about all of Iran's nuclear sites.

Like other Israelis, Farkash stressed the importance of making Iran believe that U.S. and Israeli threats are real. Harsh sanctions might lead to a decision by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to stop nuclear enrichment.

"The Teheran regime doesn't seek suicide," said the Israeli, who heads a new high-tech security company. "When they realize we mean business this time, they won't want to lose their regime."

David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute and co-author (with Obama administration official Dennis Ross) of a book on Middle East policy, commented that the generals gave the impression of two different attack philosophies: "The U.S. believes do it huge, and make it overwhelming, while Israel would do what it can because not acting is so much worse."

Makovsky asked General Wald to comment on the suggestion by Jimmy Carter's former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski - in a Daily Beast interview last month - that the U.S. shoot down Israeli warplanes if they try to fly over Iraq to attack Iran.

"The chance of that," Wald replied, "is zero - no, less than zero."

Earlier Saturday, the same audience heard a former vice president of the Islamic Republic of Iran argue that if his country is attacked, the pro-democracy "Green Movement" would be extinguished. Ata'ollah Mohajerani, who resides in London but is considered close to opposition candidate Mehdi Karoubi, said he strongly supports the reform movement, and considers Ahmadinejad's reelection illegitimate. But he said a military strike or severe sanctions would serve to strengthen the regime.

The Iranian politician's unexpectedly long speech included references to books by Dostoevsky, Kafka, Walt Whitman, Elie Wiesel, and even Britain's chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Mohajerani claimed that any good Muslim would not want nuclear weapons, but he made a point of saying that most of the nations putting pressure on Iran now have their own nuclear arsenals, alleging also that the United States and Israel wanted Iran to have atomic bombs when the late Shah was in power.

Responding to questions from supporters of Israel at the conference, Mohajerani refused to condemn Iranian-supported terrorism and declined to say if he thought Israel has a right to exist. Many in the crowd, believing that Mohajerani's goal in this rare appearance near Washington was to raise money and support for the Green Movement, said they were bitterly turned off. It looked to them like a Green-led Iran would not necessarily be much different from Ahmadinejad's regime.

Based in Washington, CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv is host of radio's "CBS News Weekend Roundup," and co-author of "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israeli Intelligence."
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    Dan Raviv is a correspondent for CBS Radio News based in Washington, host of CBS News Weekend Roundup, and co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars"

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