Ex-Spymaster on Iranian Nuclear Threat

In a recent interview, retired four-star admiral and former head of the super-secret NSA, Adm. Bobby Inman, portrays a very different Iranian threat from the usual – and a very different approach for dealing with Iran successfully. NSA stands for National Security Agency, but is so secretive that Beltway jokes say it stands for “No Such Agency” and “Never Say Anything.” With NSA having a larger budget and more personnel than the better known CIA, it could be said that Adm. Inman served as America’s top spymaster. Hitches as Deputy Director of the CIA and Director of Naval Intelligence add to the evidence for granting him that title. When Bobby Inman speaks, people should listen – especially when he contradicts conventional wisdom that could get us into a needless war. Here are some key excerpts from the interview concerning Iran:

The real issue is, why does Iran want nuclear weapons – presuming that there’s sufficient evidence that they do want them. For me, it is not to go obliterate Israel, notwithstanding the certifiably crazy remarks from Ahmadinejad. I’m persuaded that Iran has the ambition to create a Shia caliphate: Iran, Iraq south of Baghdad, Bahrain, the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the West Bank, southern Lebanon, Syria. And their concern about interference in their doing that is conventional military power, and that if they had nuclear weapons, no one would be willing to use force to keep them from their efforts to expand that Shia caliphate.

Now I may be wrong, but my sense is that’s the motivation and therefore whoever goes to power in Shia-dominated Iran is likely to have the same ambition. But that does not mean they are looking for them for offensive purposes, but rather for deterrent to make sure that conventional forces are not used by their neighbors to keep them from achieving their aims. …

[Inman contrasts past, successful Israeli strikes on Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear reactors with the situation in Iran and goes on to note:] Iran has at least 14 separate targets. All the evidence is that they’ve got redundancy in the process. So a single military strike is absolutely unlikely of doing more than momentarily slowing the Iranian program. And its counterforce would be to ensure the hardliners who now control Iran would control it for another 20 years. …

I think when you talk about negotiating with Iran, the target for negotiations is not nuclear weapons. The target for trying to bring them into multilateral negotiations is in finding a peaceful and acceptable exit from Afghanistan, where you would need to bring in Russia, the three Stans, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and say to all of them: “Chaos in Afghanistan is not in your interests or in ours. You have regional influence. You could invest in developing the infrastructure and the resources in the regions closest to you, and providing them access to markets.” And that’s a far more likely way to advance constructive relationships over the long term with Iran than trying to take away something that they believe is their inherent right to have. …

The heart of the issue for me is why does Iran want nuclear weapons, and can you undertake actions that cause at least significant parts of the Iranian society to decide that they’re too expensive and troublesome and not worth the effort.

Interviewer: So you’re talking about the Iranian middle-class here?

Yes. … And the major question is how does one shake the iron grip that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have on almost everything that goes on in Iran these days. … How one shakes that – it’s got to come from internally. And that gets to the issue of how you can help build up the internal forces that would be resistant. And if you’re visible in that case, you’ll destroy the people you’re trying to help.

Inman’s emphasis on cooperation, instead of confrontation, came as no surprise to me. I had the privilege of experiencing this approach first hand in the 1970’s. Back then, NSA was used to having absolute control over all American cryptographic research, so they were rankled when I started publishing papers that they would have classified above Top Secret. I had developed my results without access to the classified literature, so I thought I should be free to publish my work – plus, there was a growing personal and commercial need for encryption that could not be met by classified algorithms. NSA saw things differently, and some elements within the Agency warned that I could be thrown in jail for publishing my work. This confrontation drew major media coverage, including coverage in Science, TIME magazine, and the New York Times.

That battle was in full swing when Inman took over as Director of NSA and, against the advice of all his advisors at the Agency, decided to pay me a visit to see if he could defuse the conflict. I’ll never forget his cutting through the initial tension by telling me, “It’s nice to see you don’t have horns,” which is how the career people at NSA had been portraying me. I repaid the compliment, since their threats had produced a similar picture of NSA in my mind. Inman went on to tell me that he couldn’t see the harm in talking, and talk we did. With that kind of “out of the box” thinking on Inman’s part, what had been an adversarial relationship eventually blossomed into a friendship with enough trust and understanding that Inman is one of the charter signers of my petition asking Congress to authorize a study of the risk inherent in our current nuclear posture.

Inman has a number of other intriguing observations on issues ranging from nuclear weapons to “enhanced interrogation” in his Electric Politics interview, and I highly recommend it to you.

Martin Hellman

If you haven’t yet joined Adm. Inman in signing the petition, please do so. If you have, I hope you’ll consider recommending it to your friends.

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About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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