On Iran, Ashton Carter Has Been Hawkish

by Jim Lobe

Neoconservative and other Iran hawks have to be at least somewhat encouraged by Obama’s imminent nomination of Ashton Carter as Chuck Hagel’s replacement at the Pentagon. Before his service—first as Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and then as Deputy Secretary of Defense—during Obama’s first term, Carter was a strong advocate of using or threatening to use military force to prevent nuclear non-proliferation. Like Dennis Ross, he had served on the Iran task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which produced a report in September 2008 that I described at the time as a roadmap to war. It was reportedly drafted by one of the architects of the Iraq invasion and occupation, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, and overseen by Michael Makovsky, then director of foreign policy at the BPC, and currently CEO of the ultra-hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Whether Carter’s views on the subject have changed in the intervening six years—circumstances certainly have changed dramatically—is unknown at this point, although it’s likely that Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee will be eager to find out. Also unknown is how effective he will be in pressing his own views on Iran on the White House, which no doubt intends to maintain its tight control on its policy. But there’s little doubt that he’s a proliferation hawk, and, given the political reality that, as Obama’s fourth Pentagon chief, the president is unlikely to fire him, he may feel freer to give voice to any disagreements he may have with his boss, either directly or via selective leaks. He knows how bureaucratic politics works.

Apparently prescient, the Rightweb website updated its profile on Carter in October, so I will excerpt the part about the nominee’s views on proliferation and Iran:

Nuclear counter-proliferation and Iran

Carter has been adamant in his insistence that the United States consider the use of force in its efforts to prevent the proliferation of programs that could provide the capability to produce nuclear weapons programs.

In a 2004 article for Foreign Affairs, he argued that a U.S. priority must be “to stop adding to the world’s stock of fissile materials, by preventing additional governments, especially those hostile to the United States, from making plutonium or enriching uranium. This will require establishing a clear U.S. strategy—diplomatic at first, but coercive if necessary—for the complete and verifiable elimination of Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs. The United States should also seek agreement that no more fissile material for weapons purposes will be produced anywhere, including in India, Pakistan, and Israel.”[10]

In the same article, Carter stressed the need to prevent non-state actors from acquiring “weapons of mass destruction,” arguing that the decision to invade Iraq was a distraction from more important goals.[11]

Carter wrote, “The war on terrorism that Washington is fighting and the war on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that it needs to fight are related but not identical. The attacks of September 11, 2001, stimulated a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. counterterrorism practices and agencies. The United States went on the offensive in Afghanistan and around the world; border and immigration controls were tightened; emergency response was fortified; and a new Department of Homeland Security was created. But counterproliferation policies have not been overhauled. The most significant action taken by the United States to counter WMD since September 11 has been the invasion of Iraq. Although at the time intelligence suggesting a recrudescence of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs appeared to justify the war, it now seems that the intelligence was incorrect. Meanwhile, North Korea has quadrupled its stock of plutonium, a far graver setback to counterproliferation than anything Saddam might have been pursuing. A distracted administration has left the initiative for curbing Iran’s evident nuclear ambitions to two groups that failed to support the Iraq invasion: the Europeans and the UN. And it has made no new efforts to prevent nonstate actors such as terrorists from getting their hands on WMD.”[12]

In a 2006 report for the Carnegie Endowment, Carter and coauthor William Perry wrote that “diplomacy and coercion should be mutually reinforcing,” suggesting that certain “sticks” could be used to “persuade the Iranian regime to accept a diplomatic outcome.”

However, Carter and Perry also warned that while a single airstrike could have “an important delaying effect” on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, any long-term damage to the program would require “repeated attacks” from the United States.”[13]

Although the report did argue that Iran was likely “years away” from attaining any nuclear capability, some analysts have criticized Carter and his Washington colleagues for “assuming a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran as a fact.”[14]

In 2008, Carter was one of several future Obama appointees who served on a Michael Makovsky-ledteam that approved a controversial report on Iran published by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC).

A lead drafter of the report—titled “Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development“—was American Enterprise Institute fellow Michael Rubin, an outspoken proponent of militarist U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Other participants included Henry Sokolski; WINEP scholar and Obama adviser Dennis Ross; Stephen Rademaker, the husband of AEI’s Danielle Pletkawho worked under John Bolton in the State Department; and Kenneth Weinstein, CEO of the Hudson Institute.[15]

The report argued that despite Iran’s assurances to the contrary, its nuclear program aims to develop nuclear weapons and is thus a threat to “U.S. and global security, regional stability, and the international nonproliferation regime,”[16] a conclusion that contrasted sharply with the CIA’s November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran had put its efforts to develop nuclear warheads on hold.[17]

The report stated, “As a new president prepares to occupy the Oval Office, the Islamic Republic’s defiance of its Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards obligations and United Nations Security Council resolutions will be among the greatest foreign policy and national security challenges confronting the nation.”

In contrast to many realist assessments of the situation, the report contended that “Cold War deterrence” is not persuasive in the context of Iran’s program, due in large measure to the “Islamic Republic’s extremist ideology.” Thus, even a peaceful uranium enrichment program would place the entire Middle East region “under a cloud of ambiguity given uncertain Iranian capacities and intentions.”[18]

The report advised the incoming U.S. president to bolster the country’s military presence in the Middle East, including by “pre-positioning additional U.S. and allied forces, deploying additional aircraft carrier battle groups and minesweepers, emplacing other war material in the region, including additional missile defense batteries, upgrading both regional facilities and allied militaries, and expanding strategic partnerships with countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia in order to maintain operational pressure from all directions.”

In addition, it said, the new administration should suspend bilateral cooperation with Russia on nuclear issues to pressure it to stop providing assistance to Iran’s nuclear, missile, and weapons programs. And, if the new administration agrees to hold direct talks with Tehran without insisting that the country first cease enrichment activities, it should set a pre-determined compliance deadline and be prepared to apply increasingly harsh repercussions if the deadlines are not met, leading ultimately to U.S. military strikes that would “have to target not only Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response.”[19]

Calling the report a “roadmap to war,” Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service wrote, “In other words, if Tehran is not eventually prepared to permanently abandon its enrichment of uranium on its own soil—a position that is certain to be rejected by Iran ab initio—war becomes inevitable, and all intermediate steps, even including direct talks if the new president chooses to pursue them, will amount to going through the motions (presumably to gather international support for when push comes to shove).… What is a top Obama advisor [Dennis Ross] doing signing on to it?”[20]

Carter’s aggressive counterproliferation views have received praise from some conservatives, including Mario Loyola, who lauded Carter in a 2012 National Review article for “not[ing] that limited military force could be integral to a diplomatic strategy” with respect to Iran.[21]

On the other hand, Carter has expressed skepticism about the value of a direct military strike, either by Israel or the United States, on Iran’s nuclear installations. In his contribution to a 2009 Center for a New American Security report titled Iran: Assessing U.S. Strategic Options, Carter wrote that a direct U.S. attack on Iran’s Natanz faculty would likely have little long-term impact on the country’s alleged bomb program.

With respect to an Israeli strike, he emphasized the negative impact such a strike would have on U.S. interests: “The benefit to Israel of such a strike—delaying Iran’s acquisition of a bomb—could be estimated in much the same way as the benefit of a U.S. strike. The cost to Israel is harder to estimate. Unlike the United States, Israel is not involved in any multilateral negotiations with Iran that would be compromised by military action. Israel has no regional or global reputation to safeguard when it comes to dealing with Iran. The Iranian people harbor no good will toward Israel that would be shattered. And Iran would likely cali­brate its retaliation against Israel in the certain knowledge that Israel was prepared to take fur­ther action to dominate any escalation. The costs to the United States of an Israeli strike are easier to discern. Even if the United States had no complicity in or knowledge of an Israeli strike, few people on the street throughout the Middle East would believe it. It would also be a challenge for the United States to prove to the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and others outside the region that are key to any kind of lasting settlement with Iran that it had nothing to do with the attack. The costs to the United States of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program might therefore be almost as large as the costs of a U.S. strike.”

Despite these shortcomings, Carter concluded that military action must nevertheless be an integral part of any strategy aimed at halting a presumed Iranian bomb program, “Military action must be viewed as a component of a comprehensive strategy rather than a stand-alone option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. But it is an element of any true option. A true option is a complete strategy integrating political, economic, and military elements and seeing the matter through to a defined and achievable end. For any military element, the sequel to action must be part of the strategy because the military action by itself will not finish the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions once and for all. Airstrikes on the Iranian nuclear program or other targets could conceivably reset the diplomatic table in pursuit of a negotiated end to the nuclear program, but they could also easily overturn the diplomatic table. The alternative to the diplomatic table, broadly speaking, is a strategy of containment and punishment of an Iran that ultimately proceeds with its nuclear program. A variety of military measures—air assault, blockade, encirclement, and deterrence—could be elements of such a containment strategy.”

Yesterday the Times of Israel ran a profile of its own, which closely parallels Rightweb’s with some additional information.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. So does this mean the new US Defence Secretary will be advocating the use of military force against Israel, the only known country with nuclear weapons in the region?
    How would be received in the confirmation hearings?

  2. Hagel was kicked out because he was neither a ‘yes’ man nor a ‘fighter’ when dealing with the White House ‘clique’ ( Susan Rice, Victoria Nuland, Jan Psaki etc..). Let see how the new Defense secretary will deal with them.

  3. Nominating a hawk to replace Hagel? Who is running the show? Disaster after disaster, the gates of the asylum have been thrown wide open. The U.S. may have the superiority position as far as the military goes, but the death and destruction, for both sides would be too much. Relying on the ability to bomb Iran back into the stone age, well, we’ve already seen that movie, too many times already and the results for all of it: $$$$$$ down the toilet. I do have one question: in all these think tanks, do any members beside Jewish belong, not counting the congressional shills? I’m not trying to be bigoted in asking, but it sure seems one sided in this situation. The U.S. may have sympathy’s toward Israel, but going to war and dying for them, is quite another matter, one that the whole of the American people should be asked, in a not this is what we ask, but this is what we meant, forum.

  4. No worries — the White House, based on past practice, will tell Carter to stick to straightening out the Pentagon and to refrain from foreign policy.

    Carter the physicist has been in the Pentagon, which is different from free-wheeling in a think tank plugging for financial support, and he knows how to tend to business instead of carelessly mouthing off about people and issues he knows nothing about.

  5. The interventionists in DC think tanks and else where are theoreticians from academia with some legislative/political experience. Not too many have dawned a uniform and participated in any actual combat, this is unfortunate for us, given the implications of what they profess and advise on. With experience of three failed missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya one would think that some lessons may have been learned, unfortunately based on materials that are being published, it does not seem likely. On the issue of Iran and “bombing them to stone age”, these illustrious advisors need to also take into account the continued counter attacks that would probably be staged by the defending force. Should any harm come to production facilities across Iran on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, and or, random substantial and persistent attacks on international shipping lanes passing through Hormuz carrying crude, or, in other parts such as the Gulf of Aden; what would be the impact on oil prices and should the price, as some oil experts predict, go above three digit figures for a barrel of crude, even for an interim period, say six months to a year … What would happen to the world economy, which we are a major part of? I wonder?

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