US military officials urge caution on attacking Iran

The problem is that many of the Iranian targets – buried deeply underground – would be beyond the reach of the Israeli military, in what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey calls a “zone of immunity.”

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 14, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon's budget.

Senior Pentagon officials are making no secret of the fact that despite the apparent stepped-up drumbeat to war with Iran, they believe a strike on the country is “not prudent” right now.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, put this view – held by many in the Department of Defense – in perhaps the strongest terms yet this week. 

True, Israel could bomb Iran and delay the country’s ability to create nuclear weapons “probably for a couple of years,” General Dempsey told CNN Sunday. 

The problem is that many of the Iranian targets – buried deeply underground – would be “beyond the reach” of the Israeli military, in what Dempsey called a “zone of immunity.”

What’s more, Iran would likely retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz using mines and swarming boats. It might also activate proxy cells to attack not just Israel, but possibly US interests in Iraq or US troops in Afghanistan

RELATED – What would happen if Iran had the bomb? 

Precisely how Iran would chose to respond to a strike is “the question with which we all wrestle,” Dempsey said, “and the reason we think that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.”

Equally important, senior defense officials emphasize, while it’s clear that Iran aspires to nuclear technology, it is far from certain whether the country is intent on actually weaponizing this technology, 

This was the finding of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)’s recent assessment on security threats facing the United States. Right now, Iran is “more than capable of producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a weapon if it’s political leaders – specifically the supreme leader himself – chooses to do so,” DNI head James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee February 16.

Yet so far they do not appear to have made that choice, Lt. General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers in the same hearing.

“The agency assesses Iran as unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict,” he said, concluding that though the possibility of Iran building a nuclear weapon is “technically feasible,” it is “practically not likely.” 

If attacked, however, Iran could “attempt to employ terrorist surrogates worldwide,” close the Straits of Hormuz “at least temporarily,” and “may launch missiles against US forces [in Iraq or Afghanistan] and our allies in the region,” General Burgess said. 

For these reasons, both Mr. Clapper and Burgess told lawmakers that it is their opinion that Israel has not yet decided to strike Iran, either. 

The urging of the United States to hold off on strikes may also have something to do with this decision, Dempsey conceded.

“I’m confident that they understand our concerns that a strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Indeed, the hype surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions belies a considerable degree of rationality, Dempsey said, adding that Iran does not appear to be a highly irrational or unpredictable actor on the world stage. “We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.”

At the same time, while international pressure in the form of sanctions has continued to increase, Tehran is “not close to agreeing to abandoning its nuclear program,” Burgess added.

Dempsey for his part urged continued international sanctions, but said the Pentagon would continue its planning, making “options available should the nation decide to do something in Iran.”

Whether or not that will come to pass, Dempsey declined to hazard a guess. “Fortunately,” he said, “I’m not a betting man.” 

RELATED – What would happen if Iran had the bomb? 

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