In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell offers a personal, in-depth analysis of two top global threats in 2022: Russia’s military aggression toward Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Morell offers historic and contemporary context on Moscow’s objectives and President Putin’s tactics; he also offers unique perspective on the political and national security calculus being made by Tehran’s leadership as nuclear talks continue. He describes alternative scenarios and lays out the most likely outcomes for each foreign policy challenge.
- Likelihood of striking a new deal with Iran: “[A] deal has a low probability. Say 15%. But it is not zero, because diplomats routinely overcome long odds. The most important leverage here for Washington is the perception of U.S. military action. I don’t believe a deal is not possible without Iran believing there is a real possibility that the U.S. might go to war without a deal.”
- Vladimir Putin’s calculus: “I think Putin is a thug and a bully. He only believes in relative power – how much does he have and have much do you have. He does not believe that a negotiation can end in win-win. He only believes in win-lose. He is not the brilliant chess master that he likes to portray. He does not think multiple steps ahead. He takes a step, sees how that plays, and then decides on the next step. And, unlike most people who are risk averse, Putin is risk prone. He is willing to take risks, and he is willing to take even more risk in the aftermath of having taken a risk and having had it pay off. He is particularly dangerous from that perspective.”
- U.S. credibility: “[T]he outcome here is not just about Ukraine and its future. It is also about American credibility. If we back away at all from the self-determination position we have taken, we would lose credibility. If Russia invades Ukraine and incorporates Ukrainian territory into the Russian state, we would lose credibility.”
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: MICHAEL MORELL ON THE TOP STRATEGIC THREATS OF 2022
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Welcome to the new year. Welcome to 2022. I wanted to start the new year by providing some of my own thoughts on the two key national security issues facing the Biden administration – Russia/Ukraine and the Iranian nuclear program.
You are going to get me today rather than me interviewing a guest. You are going to get my thoughts on the two most pressing global hot spots in the world as the new year begins — Russia/Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear program.
I should just add that we taped this on December 30th, so there may be some new developments that occur between our taping and our release of this episode. These are fast-moving issues.
Let’s start with Russia and Ukraine.
Right up front, I suggest we hit the pause button, take a few seconds to pull up a map of Ukraine and have it handy for this discussion. It will help.
By the way, the reference to the map reminds me that CIA produces the best maps and the best graphics to display analytic information of any organization I have ever seen – inside or outside government. The cartographers and the graphic designers at the Agency are the best. They don’t get a lot of attention outside the Agency, but they should. And I just wanted to give them some.
So, let’s start with: what is happening with Russia and Ukraine?
As most know, the Russians have amassed some 100,000 troops along the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine. The largest concentration of those forces lies to the east and to the south of Ukraine.
Look at your maps. The Russians are coming as close as they can to surrounding eastern Ukraine, where a significant share of the population are Russians. The share of the population that are Russians — and who speak Russian — grows as one moves east in Ukraine. But it never gets over 50 percent. Ukrainians remain in the majority in every province. Only in Crimea is it over 50 percent, and Putin incorporated that territory into Russia in early 2014.
The 100,000 troops have more than 1,300 tanks, 1,800 pieces of heavy artillery, and missiles capable of carrying a 1,000 to 1,500 pound warheads some 250 to 300 miles into Ukraine. These missiles are capable of carrying fragmentation bombs, submunitions, penetration bombs, fuel-air explosives. These are sophisticated missiles.
As he has amassed these troops, Putin has demanded that the United States and western Europe agree to a red line – that Ukraine will never be given membership in NATO. In fact, Putin has demanded the immediate start of negotiations to codify strict limits to NATO’s expansion, particularly with regard to Ukraine. Putin sees the expansion of NATO to his borders (already existing with Poland and the Baltics) as a significant national security threat. He really does. These are not just talking points.
And, most important, Putin is signaling that he may well invade Ukraine if he does not get what he wants. In his mind, he would guarantee his security by taking a significant part of Ukraine – the part that protrudes like a dagger into Russia. Look at that map again.
So, why is Putin doing this?
By threatening an invasion, Putin is putting pressure on Ukraine and the West to act more in his interests, to come to his side of the fence on the NATO expansion issue, while giving him an ability to invade if he so chooses. He also garners some other gains as well. The military deployment plays to a domestic audience in Russia that wants its leaders to be tough, and it creates an impression, important to Putin, that Russia is a major player on the world stage.
Why is he doing this now?
I think Putin is being driven was several factors — by the continued drift to the west of Ukraine since 2014, by Moldova making clear that it wants to join Ukraine in looking to the west for its future, and quite possibly by Putin sensing weakness in U.S. policy in the aftermath of our decision to withdraw from Afghanistan as well as by the chaotic nature of the withdrawal itself.
What’s been the Western reaction?
For their part, Western officials have said that Putin’s demand to impose limits on NATO expansion is a nonstarter. The NATO position is that individual countries have the right to choose their own security arrangements. The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it best a couple of weeks ago. He said, “Ukraine has the right to choose its own security arrangements. This is a fundamental principle of European security. And a decision on whether Ukraine can join NATO will be taken by Ukraine and 30 NATO allies alone.”
In addition, Western officials, including American and European officials have said directly that Russian aggression against Ukraine will be met with “serious consequences,” to quote Secretary Blinken.
Indeed, the United States, the European Union, and NATO have all said that any new Russian incursion into Ukraine would be met with harsh, intensified and extraordinary economic sanctions, including possibly killing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which bypasses Ukraine, a project important to Russia.
The United States has also suggested that NATO would beef up its troop presence near Russia’s borders should Russia invade.
Having said all that, the U.S. has also just agreed to talks with Russia about security arrangements in eastern Europe. Those talks are set to begin on January 10th. This is very important and we will come back to it.
Is there some context here that can help us think about this and where this might be headed?
Yes, but let me start with another digression: analysts talk about context all the time. Former director of CIA George Tenet used to say that “context is everything.” What is context to an intelligence analyst? Context is just information that helps one understand a developing situation better, that gives one perspective on what is happening today. It could be as simple as “this development is just the latest in a long trend.” Or, “this development is the first time we have seen this.” For example, a North Korean solider firing a weapon across the DMZ into South Korea sounds scary, but not if the context is that that sort of thing happens routinely.
I think there are three key pieces of context here.
The first is that Russia is acting fully consistent with how it sees its national security interests. One of Russia’s key foreign policy goals is controlling or having significant influence in those parts of the former Soviet Union that are no longer part of Russia. Not only does this geography line up with the borders of the former Soviet Union, it is also lines up fairly close to the former borders of the Russian empire. Russia sees this as a key way to protect Russia. And, of course, to Russia, NATO membership for any of those countries is a direct challenge to this long-standing foreign policy goal.
And, Ukraine is the most important of those countries to Moscow. Why? Russia sees Ukraine as part of Russia. Ukrainians and Russians are both ethnically Slavs. Ukraine was part of the original Russian state; indeed, the first capital of the first Russian state was Kyiv.
Most important, Putin fears that what happens in Ukraine could spill over into Russia. This is why he reacted as harshly as he did to the color revolution in Ukraine eight years ago. He, of course, did not want to lose Ukraine to the West, but even more important, he did not want his own population to mimic their brethren in Ukraine and come out into the streets of Moscow and say, “We don’t like the direction our country is going, we want a greater say in how we are governed, and, by the way, we want you to go away.” That’s the nightmare scenario for Putin. That is existential for Putin. What’s the point of this piece of context? This issue of the future of Ukraine is extraordinarily important to Putin.
The second piece of context is that Russia has already invaded Ukraine, and it is already at war there. As I mentioned earlier, Russia took Crimea in 2014, the first land grab in Europe since the Second World War. And, it has been supporting Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine for seven years. Russian money, Russian weapons, and Russian special forces. The fighting has been bloody, it has cost 13,000 lives, and the separatists hold Ukrainian territory. What’s the context meaning here? Putin has invaded Ukraine before. It should be no surprise if he does so again.
The third and final piece of context is Putin the man. Who is he, and what does that mean for what we can expect of him? Bob Gates, a former director of CIA and a former Secretary of Defense perhaps put it best when he said, “When you look in Putin’s eyes you see KGB, KGB, and KGB.” I think Putin is a thug and a bully. He only believes in relative power – how much does he have and have much do you have. He does not believe that a negotiation can end in win-win. He only believes in win-lose. He is not the brilliant chess master that he likes to portray. He does not think multiple steps ahead. He takes a step, sees how that plays, and then decides on the next step. And, unlike most people who are risk averse, Putin is risk prone. He is willing to take risks, and he is willing to take even more risk in the aftermath of having taken a risk and having had it pay off. He is particularly dangerous from that perspective.
So, what does all this mean for where we might be headed in the days, weeks, and months ahead? How to think about the future?
As I just said, I do not believe Putin has a thought-out plan of what he is going to do. What he decides to do next will depend on a number of factors — a large number of factors.
What are those factors? I see four big ones.
The first is what the United States and Europe do over the next few weeks. Do we stand tough or not? Do we send the message that an invasion will really be extraordinarily costly to Putin in terms of sanctions or not? Do we make him think that the sanctions we are considering will have significant economic costs and could well lead to his nightmare scenario – his own people in the streets protesting against him?
Here also is where the U.S. willingness to talk comes in. Can we walk a fine line here – between allowing Putin the public perception that he has gained something diplomatically without sacrificing our fundamental stand that each country gets to pick its own future.
The second factor is the political dynamic in Kyiv, how Ukrainian politics, is reacting to the threat of invasion. Are Putin’s actions here reinforcing the Ukrainian drift west or at least some Ukrainian politicians coming to Putin’s side of the fence?
The third factor is the amount of military opposition that Putin thinks the Russian invasion force would face. While being tough is popular in Russia, dead bodies coming home in large number would not be popular and Putin knows that. While the Javelin missiles that the U.S. has provided Ukraine since 2014 could not stop a Russian invasion, they would inflict significant damage on the Russian military.
And the fifth factor is the degree to which Putin thinks that his occupation of eastern Ukraine after a successful invasion would face an insurgency, that would send, over an extended period of time, even more dead bodies home to Russia.
There is precedent for this – the Ukrainians have done it before. The Ukrainian insurgent army (the UPA), formed in 1942 to fight for the country’s independence, fought viciously against the red army when it marched into Ukraine in 1943. The UPS carried out thousands of attacks and inflicted thousands of casualties on soviet forces. The UPA continued fighting until the 1950s, forcing Moscow to mobilize tens of thousands of troops and secret policemen to restore control. The Ukrainians could well do something like this again.
Putting all these factors together, I think there are three scenarios for the future:
Scenario one: Putin stands down, calculating that he has chalked up at least some political and diplomatic wins, perhaps thinking that he has affected the psychology of both NATO and Ukraine with regard to future NATO membership, and, most important, calculating that the costs of an invasion are too high. In this case, he would probably keep his forces near the border for some time and only slowly remove them to save face.
And, back to the talks again between us and Russia: Again, they can play a role in helping us get to this scenario. But, but, but: We cannot get to this scenario by giving him what he wants. We cannot walk away from Ukraine. We cannot give him Ukraine in those talks. That would be appeasement.
Scenario two: Putin significantly increases his support to the separatist insurgency, most likely with the separatists grabbing even more territory in eastern Ukraine. In this scenario, Putin would keep his troops on the border to intimidate the Ukrainian government from fully responding militarily to the increased insurgency. This scenario would afford Putin the ability to demonstrate that he is serious about the NATO issue while publicly denying Russia’s involvement. This scenario becomes more likely the less he thinks he has won from what he has already done and the more he thinks that a full invasion would be too costly.
Scenario three: Putin invades and takes significant territory in eastern Ukraine. In this case, he would have two choices – take just those provinces with a high perception of Russians among the total population or take the entirety of eastern Ukraine up the Dnieper River, essentially taking half the country right up to Kyiv. Look at your map again. This becomes more likely the less he thinks he has already won and the more confident he is that he will not face a steep cost from an invasion.
There are so many factors here and so much that is still in flux that it is difficult to put probabilities on each of the three scenarios. I think at this point that, if you are a government or a private entity with an interest in Ukraine, you need to plan for all three, which means planning for 2 and 3.
Two final thoughts on Russia and Ukraine. Two big-picture points.
The first is that the outcome here is not just about Ukraine and its future. It is also about American credibility. If we back away at all from the self-determination position we have taken, we would lose credibility. If Russia invades Ukraine and incorporates Ukrainian territory into the Russian state, we would lose credibility. Make no mistake this standoff is as, Richard Fontaine, the President of the think tank The Center for New American Security, recently said, “If the United States says, ‘Don’t do this, you will regret it, there will be very serious costs,’ and the Russians do it anyway, it does raise questions about America’s ability to achieve outcomes.” Darn right.
The second is Putin’s gain could well be Russia’s loss. What does that mean? Think about it this way – what’s the answer to the question, who was the big loser in the first Ukraine crisis? Yes, it was the Ukrainian people, who had their aspirations crushed. Yes, it was the West for looking impotent in the face of Russian aggression. But, most of all it was Russia itself. Russia’s only future is to be tied economically to Europe, and Putin continues to sabotage that. And there was no bigger act of sabotage than 2014. He may make a similar and even bigger mistake this time around. Putin is not acting in the long-term interests of the Russian economy or the Russian state. He is not going to go down in history as a great Russian leader. He is going to go down in history as just the opposite.
Let’s switch to Iran.
And let’s start with some background.
The international community (in the form of the U.S., the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (that’s the U.K., France, Russia, and China) along with Germany made a deal in 2015 with Iran that removed all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran in return for Iran, among other things:
Agreeing to cap uranium enrichment at 3.67 percent;
Restricting enrichment only to one facility, a place called Natanz;
No enrichment at a place called Fordow (which we will come back to later);
The use, for the purpose of enrichment, of only Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, not its more advanced centrifuges;
A limit of 300 kgs for Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium (and remember, that would be only uranium enriched to 3.67 percent).
Significant changes to, and limits to activities at, an experimental heavy water research reactor called Arak. This was designed to reduce the risk of plutonium production at that reactor.
And a broad international monitoring and verification regime.
The vast majority of these restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities were time-limited – that is, they would sunset at different points of time (anywhere from 8 to 25 years, with most in the 10-15 year time period). Since the deal was struck in 2015, that means most, under the agreement, would have been removed by 2025-2030.
President Trump withdrew from this deal in November 2018; he announced the withdrawal in May 2018. He reimposed on Iran the U.S. nuclear-related sanctions that had been removed in 2015.
The Trump administration argued that the sunset provisions were a fatal flaw to the agreement and also that the agreement failed to account for Iran’s missile program and its malign regional activities, including its support to international terrorist organizations.
In withdrawing, the U.S. did not cite any evidence of Iranian non-compliance on the specifics of the nuclear deal, but it did say that Iran’s regional activities were inconsistent with a clause in the preamble of the nuclear deal that said the signatories to the deal would commit themselves to act in a constructive atmosphere, based on mutual respect, and to refrain from any action inconsistent with the letter, spirit and intent of the agreement.
The Iranians condemned the U.S. move, but they initially took no action in response – hoping to divide the U.S. from the rest of the international community, hoping to make the U.S. look like the bad guys and the Iranians look like the good guys.
This lasted until May 2019, when the U.S. ended waivers it had granted under the reimposed U.S. sanctions. These waivers allowed a handful of countries to buy Iranian oil.
Iran responded almost immediately with two sets of actions.
First, it significantly increased its malign activities in the region, both to demonstrate that that it, too, could impose costs and hoping that the threat of instability would push the international community to pressure the United States to reverse itself in whole or in part.
These malign activities included attacking, both directly and through proxies, third-country tankers in the Persian gulf, attacking Saudi oil facilities with drones and missiles from Iran, and increasing attacks on U.S. facilities and personnel in Iraq. The U.S. responded by killing Qassim Soleimani, the architect of much of Iran’s malign regional activities, which brought the U.S. and Iran closer to all-out war than at any time since the tanker wars of the 1980s.
And, second, the Iranians started to take steps on the nuclear front that took them out of compliance with the nuclear deal. These steps have become more aggressive over time. They’ve included five significant steps.
One, increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium. As of November, Iran remained under the 300 kg limit. At that point, they were on track to breach. They may have done so already.
Two, enriching uranium to higher levels. Iran started violating the nuclear deal’s protocols by enriching to 5 percent, just above the 3.67 limit, then went to 20 percent, and then to 60 percent. A nuclear weapon requires enrichment to just over 90 percent. Somewhat counterintuitively, it is much easier to go from 20 percent to 90 percent than it is to go from 0 to 20 percent. The Iranians are getting very close to enriching uranium to weapons-grade.
Three, using advanced centrifuges, which are capable of enriching uranium at a much faster rate than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges.
Four, enriching uranium at locations that were prohibited, namely the underground facility at Fordow.
We have to take a digression on Fordow here: Fordow was designed to be a covert enrichment facility. It is much too small to produce uranium fuel for a power reactor and just the right size to produce enriched uranium for a weapons program. The Iranians only declared it to the IAEA after western intelligence agencies discovered the facility and publicly outed it in 2009. And Fordow is so deep underground that it would require special munitions to destroy from the air — that only the United States has. End digression.
And, five, producing uranium metal with 20 percent enriched uranium. Uranium metal produced from 90 percent enriched uranium is what is at the very heart of a nuclear weapon. It is the core.
Why are they so radically breaching the nuclear protocols?
Multiple reasons, I think. Improve their negotiating position by creating facts on the ground that can provide more gains if they negotiate them away; improve their technical know-how that no agreement can ever take away from them; and get to the threshold of being able to produce a nuclear weapon – that is, get to their nuclear weapons objective. It can be one of these or even all of them.
We need yet another digression here on the concept of threshold: analysts have long debated whether Iran’s goal is to actually have a nuclear weapon or to simply get to the threshold of having one – that is, having all the pieces and being able to put them together fairly quickly. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program said the goal was threshold, so we will use that as Iran’s objective in this discussion.
Another factor for Iran’s more aggressive behavior on the nuclear front is the shift in political power in Tehran from what some call “the Reformers” (still quite conservative from a Western view) to the hardliners. The hardliners, who opposed the nuclear deal, were able, with Trump’s withdrawal, to say, “We told you so, we told you you could not trust the Americans, we told you you could not trust the head of the snake.”
This political shift was clear in the February 2020 election of Iran’s legislature, called the Majlis, in 2020, in which the reformers lost in a landslide. This was followed by the Iranian presidential election this past July, won by a hardliner.
Just like we did with Russia/Ukraine, let’s look at some context here.
First piece of context: why does Iran want to be on the threshold of nuclear weapon? A combination of three reasons, I think.
Nationalism. Persian nationalism is strong in Iran. Iran sees itself as a major regional power. It looks around the world and sees other major regional powers having a weapon and they think, “Why not us?” France is a country that the Iranian compare themselves to, and France, of course, has nuclear weapons.
Deterrence. Iran fears the United States. Iran believes that the United States wants regime change in Iran, and they see nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against U.S. military action against Iran. In 2003, with the U.S. military to its east in Afghanistan and to its west in Iraq, Iran thought it was next. It never wants to feel that way again.
Regional hegemony. Iran wants to be the hegemonic power in the Middle East. It is something it had at one time in its history. Nuclear weapons would support such a policy objective, particularly given that its archenemy in the region, Israel, has nuclear weapons.
Second piece of context: how close is Iran to being on the threshold?
There are three key pieces of a nuclear weapon:
Fissile material. This is necessary to make that core of uranium metal that will generate a nuclear yield when detonated. On this, it sounds to me as if Iran is only weeks away and they are certainly closer than they were when we began nuclear negotiations with Iran in 2013.
A workable bomb design. This is the ability to put enough pressure on the fissile material to detonate it and create a nuclear yield. We know the Iranians were working on this up to 2003 when they stopped. I don’t know if they have worked on it since or how far they got before they stopped.
A delivery system. You have to be able to deliver a nuclear weapon to its target, usually either by missile or aircraft. Aircraft delivery is risky, as the plane could be shot down. If by missile, the nuclear device has to be small enough to be mated to the missile and the bomb design robust enough to withstand the pressures, the vibrations, the temperature changes of flight and reentry into the atmosphere. The Iranians have worked on an ICBM, and they have a vast inventory of MRBMs. I don’t know where the Iranians stand in successfully mating a nuclear design to a missile.
Bottom line: they are clearly close on fissile material but I don’t know on the other two. At minimum, they are a few months away, and at maximum a couple of years.
Where do the negotiations stand?
The negotiations that began in April to come up with a new agreement are not going well. There have been seven rounds of talks, but they have not made progress. The eighth round of talks just began. Throughout, the U.S. and the Iranians are not even talking directly to each other. We are talking through others.
The conventional wisdom was that the Biden administration would be able to come to agreement with the Iranian government. It is what the Biden team said it wanted to do during the 2020 campaign.
That has not worked. One reason – and we will talk about others in a minute – is that the talks did not start until April. This turned out to be too late. While the talks initially made some progress under the government of former Iranian President Rouhani, they did not conclude before the Iranian presidential campaign kicked off, the hardliners won the election, and Iran’s position hardened.
Many experts are now questioning whether there will be a return to an agreement.
All of this has the attention of the Israelis, who see the Iran having nuclear weapons as a significant threat and who see the progress the Iranians are making toward a weapon. There are those in Israel arguing for their country to take military action.
This would not be an easy military operation for the Israelis – there are many facilities that need to be hit, they are deep inside Iran, and Iran has one of the most sophisticated air defense systems in the world, purchased from Russia. In particular, Israel does not have the special munitions they would need to destroy Fordow from the air, or even if they did, the ability to deliver them – one needs a B-52 or B-2. But that does not make it impossible. There are other ways to destroy Fordow, namely with a commando raid where Israel would know going in that most of the commandos would never return.
If Israel believes it is time to act militarily, what the Israelis would like is for the United States to go with them. And that arguably is an option, and the Biden administration has not ruled it out in its public discussion about Iran.
So, what are the scenarios going forward? Three, I think.
The first scenario is an agreement. To be sure, there are many factors arguing against that. What are they? Let me list them.
Politics in the U.S. Biden is weak , he is entering an election year, and he never thought the original deal was worth the political cost. He will not want to give the Republicans a nuclear deal with which to attack him in the mid-terms.
Politics in Iran. As I noted earlier, the hardliners are in charge.
Most important from a political perspective in Iran are the views of Iran’s two most important Iranian leaders.
The Supreme Leader. He was a tough sell on the first agreement. He’s 82. Does he want his legacy to be a deal with the Americans? Does he want his legacy to be another deal where the Americans pull the rug from underneath him in 3 years? I think not.
Then there’s the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi. He wants to be the next Supreme Leader. He has every incentive not to make a deal with the Americans. He does not want to undermine his credibility with the group of hardline clerics who will choose the next Supreme Leader.
And, there is no significant political constituency in reform for a deal. The effect of the U.S. sanctions have diminished over time, as leakage has increased and particularly as the Chinese have purchased more Iranian oil – in violation of our sanctions. In addition, the costs of the sanctions have not fallen on the elite; they have fallen on the poor. But, those Iranians are not blaming their own government for their economic problems; they are blaming the United States.
Also, the Iranians never believed that they benefitted economically from the first agreement. So, many are asking: what’s the point of a deal?
In this regard, the Iranians have historically been a country that prefers not to be economically dependent on other countries, and the events of the last 10-15 years have only reinforced that. So, from the point of view of the hardliners, sanctions are a forcing function for getting Iran to where it should be anyway – as self-reliant as possible. From this perspective, the sanctions are a good thing.
All of this to say, both countries want, for political and for national security reasons, a better deal than they got the first time around. So, the decision space for a deal has shrunk.
So, a deal has a low probability. Say 15 percent. But it is not zero, because diplomats routinely overcome long odds. The most important leverage here for Washington is the perception of U.S. military action. I don’t believe a deal is not possible without Iran believing there is a real possibility that the U.S. might go to war without a deal.
The next scenario is war. The argument in favor of war is to end the nuclear threat for the short term. The arguments against war are many – in the short and long term, big downsides – economic consequences of war, namely in the form of sky-high oil prices, a new generation of hardliners in Iran, a strong incentive for a covert nuclear program in Iran, and a strong incentive to go beyond threshold to a weapon itself.
Even in Israel, one sees these arguments. Roughly a month ago, a group of former senior Israeli national security officials published an open letter arguing against an Israeli strike – for many of the reasons I just outlined. So, no guarantee that Israel will act. Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to strike Iran nearly a decade ago but he could not get the votes he needed in Israel’s security cabinet. But, because there are also strong voices in Israel arguing for military action, we can’t count out an Israeli going it alone scenario either.
What about the U.S.? I don’t think President Biden wants another war in the Middle East. And, politically, it would open him up to a significant primary challenge from the left if he decides to run again. I also think this is the Iranian assessment of the U.S. at the moment. Remember I said earlier that the Iranians need to think we will strike to change their calculus on a deal.
So, overall, what is the probability of war? I’d say it is small but not zero – say 15 percent.
That leaves is with the third and most likely scenario — acquiescence to Iran getting to the threshold of a nuclear weapon. There are big downsides here as well. The Saudis will pursue a nuclear weapon as well – or purchase them from the Pakistanis. The Emiratis could pursue one as well . As nuclear weapons do in South Asia (India and Pakistan), the existence of nuclear weapons by so many states makes any confrontation potentially a nuclear confrontation. This would also represent another blow to U.S. credibility – we failed to prevent something we badly wanted. I put this scenario at a 70 percent probability.
There are many reasons why being President of the United States is the toughest job in the world. Managing national security decisions is one of the biggest. And Russia and Ukraine and the Iran nuclear program are two of the toughest I’ve seen. It is going to be an interesting and important year.