It was a private conversation, and the erudite Middle Eastern expert was referring to Israel's Sept. 6, 2007, bombing of a suspected nuclear site in Syria that had been secretly erected in a remote part of the country with the help of North Korean experts. The Israeli air force "can drop their guided missiles down a smokestack, and their submarine-launched cruise missiles can single out any building, and the Iranians, like the Syrians, will keep quiet about it."
And why would Iran's leaders keep quiet instead of issuing a general call to arms to all Muslims? Because, he reasoned, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has bragged publicly that Iran's anti-aircraft defenses are "impenetrable." Unmentioned is the distinct possibility that Ahmadinejad and some ayatollahs would welcome Israeli bombs as a way of uniting both Shiite and Sunni wings of the global ummah against Israel and the United States.
For an armchair strategist to be that far removed from reality is a little frightening. Syria's nuclear site was located in a deserted part of the country near the Turkish border. Iran's targets are deliberately implanted among heavily populated areas. A single bomb, however accurate, would translate into pictures and TV footage of dead women and children -- and worldwide condemnation.
The U.S. brass is unanimously opposed to any Israeli and/or U.S. attack against any of Iran's 27 known nuclear installations. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and the four service chiefs can see the Strait of Hormuz -- through which 25 percent of the world's oil transits -- mined and supertankers sunk, and vital oil installations up and down the Persian Gulf swept up in the maelstrom.
Three former CENTCOM commanders have said that learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon should be no more of a brain-teaser than it was when China's Mao Zedong predicted a coming nuclear war in which hundreds of millions would perish -- and China (with 800 million at the time) would win if only by numbers surviving. The United States also accommodated Stalin when the Soviet Union shattered America's atomic and then nuclear monopoly.
Gen. Chuck Wald, the retired EUCOM commander and a FAC pilot in the Vietnam War, is the only recent four star who has openly advocated a joint U.S.-Israeli raid against Iran's nuclear sites if the ayatollahs don't come clean. Iran's ceaseless denials that it has nuclear weapons ambitions are threadbare. A recently revealed underground nuclear enrichment plant, tunneled into the side of a mountain near the holy city of Qom, convinced International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors there is a yet-to-be-discovered honeycomb of nuclear facilities under provincial cities.
But more important than Iran's "almost there" nuclear status is the growing opposition movement in the streets of Tehran. It is comparable in many ways to what happened in the Lenin shipyards in the Polish port of Gdansk in 1978, led by Lech Walesa, an embryonic anti-communist movement that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire 11 years later.
An Israeli air attack on Iran's nuclear installations would quickly still opposition voices and rally public opinion to the hard-line clerical regime against U.S. interests throughout the Middle East. Iran's most critical installations are scattered and buried deeply. At most, Iran's nuclear effort could be set back a few years. But any country so attacked would redouble its efforts to deter another attack in the future.
Iran's dilatory tactics included an offer to ship part of its nuclear fuel to Russia or France temporarily, where it would be processed and returned harmless for medical purposes. But obfuscation soon followed with a laundry list of caveats before it was withdrawn.
Tough, coercive sanctions by Western powers and Russia and China are unlikely to reach consensus. Russia told Iran it would have to delay for the Nth time bringing the nuclear power plant it built in Bushehr online. No surprise or pain for Iran. China would like tougher sanctions -- but not the kind that would make an ayatollah cry Farsi for uncle. Threatening Iran merely reinforces the arguments of the ayatollahs who want a nuke NOW.
President Obama hopes to put relations with Iran on a new trajectory to supersede the diplomatic travail of a bygone era. For Iran's hard-line clerics, this can only mean a U.S. attempt to sideline their nuclear ambitions. Like French President de Gaulle in the late 1950s and '60s, these aging ayatollahs and their front man Ahmadinejad are convinced nuclear weaponization would give their regime legitimacy, respectability and protection.
It's also scaring their Sunni Arab neighbors from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates (but excluding Oman, across the Hormuz Strait, which takes comfort in a mutual admiration relationship). Many of the ruling sheiks say privately they would welcome anything that neutralizes Iran's nuclear agenda, but they are terrified at the idea of an Iran-led bloody backlash up and down the Persian Gulf. Iran's revolutionary maritime guards in their small speedboats can sow enough mines to close the strait long enough to drive oil up to $300 or $400 per barrel. And Iran's covert assets can trigger mayhem throughout the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia is already fighting Yemeni insurgents who have been armed with Iranian weapons shipped up the Red Sea to their common border. Forcing the Saudis to divert military assets from the Gulf to the Red Sea appears to be Iran's objective.