Professor Paul Pillar is Director of Graduate Studies at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. Professor Pillar retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He has been Executive Assistant to CIA’s Deputy Director for Intelligence and Executive Assistant to Director of Central Intelligence William Webster. He has also headed the Assessments and Information Group of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and from 1997 to 1999 was deputy chief of the center. He was a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution in 1999-2000. Professor Pillar is a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and served on active duty in 1971-1973, including a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Q: Over the last several months, tensions have escalated between the United States and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. In your opinion, what accounts for this recent rise in tensions?
A: The Iranian nuclear program has continued to progress, of course, and Iranian leaders have bragged about these advancements. The program has, however, been slowly advancing since the time of the Shah, and projections have repeatedly been made in the pat by the West that Iran is within a couple of years of having a nuclear weapons capability. There have been no particular new breakthroughs in Iran’s nuclear program that explain the recent rise in tensions. Rather, this escalation has more to do with the U.S. electoral calendar and the prospects of a Republican defeat of Barack Obama in the November 2012 Presidential contest. At the same time, those in both Israel and the American right, who support attacking Iran, have found a possible political opportunity to further their cause. Although an attack would not occur before 2013, beating the drums of war is a necessary preliminary to taking advantage of that opportunity. This pattern is similar to the lead up before the 2003 war against Iraq, in which the Bush administration rattled its sabers for over a year before launching the war. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders have reacted to the drum-beating with their own bellicose rhetoric, as it serves the political interests of Iranian hardliners to maintain high tensions with the United States.
Q: How has the Obama administration’s strategy towards Iran shifted and changed since the start of the administration. What do you believe accounts for this change?
A:The Obama administration came into office genuinely interested in using diplomacy to find a way out of the impasse with Iran over the nuclear issue. Since then, however, the administration has in effect abandoned this diplomatic effort, believing it to be a political necessity to look and sound tough on Iran. The extremely bellicose rhetoric on this issue from most of the Republican presidential candidates has determined the political playing field on the subject. In addition to the perceived need to look strong in the face of Republican attacks, the administration also hopes that a tough posture regarding sanctions and continued pressure on Iran (short of war) will stave off pressure in the United States, and in Israel, to start a war.
Q: There has been much discussion of the supposed success of recent economic sanctions on Iranian financial institutions and oil supplies. Do you believe that economic sanctions have, indeed, been successful? Why or why not?
A:The Iranians are clearly feeling a pinch from the sanctions. However, the sanctions have not been successful in changing Iranian policy and are likely to remain unsuccessful unless diplomatic means are found for reaching an agreement between Iran and the West. Success also requires Iran to believe that changes in its policies will result in a lifting of the sanctions. So far the West has given Tehran little reason to believe this.
Q: Recently, there have been indications that the Iranian government may be interested in resuming negotiations with the P5+1 group. How successful do you think these negotiations would be in resolving the nuclear issue? Would anything short of Iran’s complete abandonment of its nuclear program satisfy the P5+1 group?
A: A peaceful nuclear program has strong support across the political spectrum in Iran, and any agreement with the P5+1 probably would have to allow for continued uranium enrichment efforts in the country, albeit with appropriate inspections and safeguards. Secretary of State Clinton has made some vague remarks suggesting this might be possible, but the P5+1 will probably have to go farther than that to facilitate an agreement.
Q: The Obama administration has also been unwilling to take military options against Iran off the table, although the administration seems split on whether military action should actually be pursued. What do you believe is the likelihood of an American and/or Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities?
A: I believe the chance of an intentional attack during 2012 is less than even. There is the additional danger, however, of armed conflict resulting from unintended escalation of an accidental incident, perhaps occurring in the Persian Gulf.
Q: What would be the consequences of such an attack for the United States, Iran, and the Middle East region more broadly?
A: Iran would use all asymmetric means at its disposal to strike back at the United States, including using terrorism inside and outside the region and other forceful measures in Afghanistan and elsewhere. There would be a significant chance that other Middle Eastern actors, such as Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E., would get dragged into armed conflict. The prospect of decent relations between the United States and Iran would be poisoned for generations, even if there was regime change in Tehran. The standing of the United States in the Muslim world would sink even lower than it is now. Associated hatred of the United States for again using its military weight (or allowing its client Israel to do so) to kill Muslims would stimulate additional extremist violence against the United States. This is in addition to the substantial economic costs associated with the inevitable disruptions in the oil market that an attack would cause.