Confronting Iran: An Exclusive Interview With Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey

In an exclusive interview with Jim Woolsey, the former director of the CIA (1993-95) discusses the danger of the Iranian nuclear threat and how regime change still serves as a viable option.

Where are we in terms of the Iranian nuclear threat?

Woolsey: If Iran enriches uranium to bomb-grade material using standard processes they may be a few years from having a weapon. But if they remove some of the fuel rods from their existing reactor and enrich them further, secretly, up to bomb-grade (while replacing them with dummy rods to deceive inspectors), or if they secretly import fissile material from North Korea, they could have a simple weapon considerably sooner.

What is the danger of a nuclear Iran?

Woolsey: A nuclear Iran fundamentally changes the Middle East. Some or all of the six Sunni states that have recently announced their own "peaceful" nuclear programs will probably move promptly and secretly to enrich fuel up to bomb grade.

Iran will begin to try to influence events in the Middle East and beyond. Most seriously, there are a number of statements from President Ahmadinejad and other members of the regime that urge the destruction of Israel and the U.S., call for Iran to become a "martyr nation," and forecast an early return of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, leading to the end of the world. Some welcome such a prospect, refuting any concern about great numbers of potential deaths by saying that "Allah will know his own."

One cannot exclude the possibility that some individuals with access to a nuclear weapon within the Iranian regime would not be deterred as traditional analysis would assume, but would order, perhaps utilizing a terrorist group such as Hezbollah, that a nuclear weapon actually be used.

Can you comment on the trouble Iran is stirring in Iraq?

Woolsey: Senior U.S. officials, particularly the secretary of defense, have now made clear that Iran is providing "explosively formed penetrators," particularly advanced forms of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) being used against U.S. forces in Iraq. Material and information obtained from Iranians captured in Iraq, including members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Command (IRGC), together with serial numbers and components of exploded devices clearly indicate Iranian origin. In addition Hezbollah, essentially a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran’s ruling circle, has been training Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

Iran’s greatest nightmare would be a democratic, Shi’ite majority, Arab majority Iraq next door because its own clerical totalitarian regime would suffer terribly by comparison, especially given its understandable unpopularity with the Iranian people. So by interfering in Iraq the Iranian regime is, in its view, fighting for its survival. It is a fight from which the Iranian people stand to benefit hugely if the Iranian regime can be made to lose.

The strategy of deterrence doesn’t work with the Mullahs does it?

Woolsey: One of the biggest problems in dealing with the current clerical regime in Tehran is that we are indeed not certain that they can be deterred from the use of nuclear weapons. In the Cold War we got used to dealing with an enemy that was cynical and bureaucratic and whose ideology was, in its homeland, effectively dead. After Khrushchev’s disclosure of Stalin’s crimes there were relatively few Soviet true believers, very little of 1917’s "fire in the minds of men." The Soviets didn’t want to die for the principle of having a society embodying the notion of "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs" — not only did they not believe in it they didn’t want to die at all. They wanted to keep their dachas. We were thus able to contain and deter them and, in time, their rotten system collapsed.

President Ahmadinejad is no Brezhnev — he is a much flakier lad. One troubling point is that he and the Ayatollah to whom he is close, Mesbah-Yazdi, are part of a circle that calls repeatedly for the destruction of Israel and the U.S., looks at the return of the Hidden Imam as something that is imminent and that will be connected with mass deaths and even the end of the world, and welcomes the idea of Iran being a "martyr state." The vast majority of those outside Germany in the 1930s did not take seriously Hitler’s pledge to destroy the Jews and build a 1000-year Reich. They learned quickly that there is nothing inconsistent between having crazed objectives and being able to manipulate others shrewdly — crazed doesn’t mean dumb. We should not make the same mistake. It may be impossible to deter this regime, especially given its ability to use Hezbollah, the world’s most professional terrorist organization, to act for it clandestinely.

What policy must the U.S. pursue toward Iran?

Woolsey: We should have been bringing pressure on the Iranian regime to encourage regime change for years, and the hour is now very late. It is still worth an effort, however, because diplomacy is almost certain to fail in stopping the regime’s nuclear weapons program due to Russian and Chinese vetoes of any sanctions worth the name. So under this assumption we will soon have left only the option of using force as a way of stopping their nuclear weapons program unless we can bring about regime change without using force. Some steps that we could take that might conceivably bring enough pressure on the regime to weaken it decisively are: support for labor, student, and other dissident groups; blocking all international financial transfers by members of the ruling circle; blocking investment in Iran; bringing charges against Ahmadinejad in an international tribunal for violation of the Genocide Convention, for his calls for Israel’s destruction; and cutting off Iran’s imports (over 40% of the total) of gasoline and diesel fuel.