Kahl spoke to bloggers who specialize in the Middle East during a briefing set up by the Middle East Institute in the Pentagon today.
As negotiations with Iran start on October 1, there are encouraging signs, Kahl said. The Iranian elections in August and the regime’s violence against the protesters solidified European opinion on Iran. European leaders are now “on the same wavelength” as U.S. officials, he said.The Europeans now want to ensure Iran negotiates in good faith, “and if they are not, to pivot towards pressure track,” he said. The pressure track refers to increased sanctions against the country.
The revelations about the nuclear facility at Qom also had the effect of bringing the Russians closer to the U.S. position. “And there is the hope that if you can get the Russians on board, then the Chinese may also be on board,” he said.
President Barack Obama told Iran that the United States would negotiate, but no one is going to talk forever or wait forever. If Iran doesn’t come to negotiations with some proposals that make sense, “I think you will see the international community turn very decisively toward the pressure track,” Kahl said.
Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons for one of two reasons: defensive reasons or for hegemonic reasons, Kahl said. “If it is purely for defensive purposes, then the engagement effort is an attempt for us to prove that we are no threat, and there is no reason to acquire these weapons,” he said.
“If it is because of hegemonic reasons – the fear that Israel and the Gulf states have – then it is important to convey to the Iranian regime that their security would be lessened with nuclear weapons rather than enhanced,” Kahl said.
Just the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has changed the calculus in the Middle East. The United States continues to exercise with the Gulf states, and the Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia – are spending extraordinary amounts of money to modernize their forces, the former Georgetown professor said.
What Iran has done is unify the region in a way that hasn’t been seen in a long time,” he said. “There are more unified air and missile defense systems for example.”
“I don’t think anybody thinks a military strike by anybody is imminent,” Kahl said. Diplomacy is the preferred track. The U.S. position is that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear processing facilities would be consequential.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen have pointed out that “while no action is off the table, military action is not a desirable course and it should be a last option,” Kahl said. “This is largely because military action would have an unpredictable set of consequences for the region.”
Military action would be de-stabilizing in a very unstable part of the world. Iran could choose to retaliate to any strike by using its proxies – the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah, he said. The Iranians could also incite Shia communities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Iran could directly retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan or against Israeli interests in the region. “You could imagine the second and third order of consequences of that on the peace process and our outreach to the Muslim world,” he said.
A military strike also does not solve the problem, it just pushes it farther down the road. A strike could also ‘incentivize’ the Iranians to bury their factories further underground. “The secretary has been clear and consistent on this: No one is talking about a military strike at the moment, but all options are clearly on the table,” he said.
The international community is putting more pressure on Iran that is being felt in the region, he said. “There is a bit more time on Israel’s clock, I think you’ve seen a little bit more patience in their statements as well,” he said. The Israelis are not optimistic about diplomacy, but they are willing to let the international community try.