Insights can come from unexpected places.
For example, a report this month discussed what it called an “Ugly Deal” that could be done regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
The suggested deal “would allow Tehran all key elements of a civilian nuclear program in exchange for limits on the amount of fissile material it could possess and the number of centrifuges it could operate.”
In short, it would allow Iran to enrich uranium, a position no Israeli official has publicly embraced.
What makes this report worth reading is that it represents the findings of 13 recently retired U.S. generals and admirals who traveled to Israel and Jordan for nine days last May under the sponsorship of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. JINSA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, pro-military group that advocates strong ties to Israel.
The flag officers — who included retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, retired Army Maj. Gen. Byron Bagby and retired Vice Adm. Bernard McCullough — met with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and several dozen senior Israeli military and intelligence officials.
The report was refined and updated through October, according to JINSA’s Michael Makovsky, who directed it. It covers what the group heard on many area issues, including Iran and its nuclear program. Their findings generally are not surprising, except for the Ugly Deal, which emerged during the retired U.S. officers’ discussions with the Israelis.
The report requires a closer look. Its information emerged from discussions in Israel five months ago with senior national security experts, well before Sunday’s P5 plus 1 interim agreement with Iran. That agreement puts a six-month cap on Tehran’s nuclear program.
It’s also worth noting that the Ugly Deal speaks of allowing enrichment as one of the “elements of a civilian nuclear program,” similar to the phrase President Obama has used.
The suggested Ugly Deal would sharply reduce the allowed number of operating Iranian centrifuges to a range of 1,000 to 3,000. (Iran now has nearly 12,000.) But it would allow Iran to enrich uranium.
Under the Israeli-described Ugly Deal, should Tehran later decide to violate the terms and go for weapons-grade enrichment, the limited number of centrifuges “would set back Iran’s nuclear program by an estimated two years.”
According to the flag officers’ trip report, “Covert operations have had a demonstrable effect on the pace of Iran’s nuclear development. The [Tehran] regime’s goal of 40,000 operational centrifuges by summer 2012 has been reduced to the 12,000 to 13,000 today by a wide range of special operations, though Iran recently began installing more advanced centrifuges.”
Allowing enrichment but limiting the numbers and types of Iran’s centrifuges are part of the interim six-month agreement and will be key in the talks for a long-term settlement.
However, the Israelis in May said that they believed Iran “would only consider such a deal if sanctions generated far more pressure on the [Tehran] regime than currently and if the U.S. conveys a much more credible threat of military action.”
Of course, a month after the Americans heard about this idea, Iranians elected Hassan Rouhani president and negotiations began.
The Israelis believe the Iranian regime has been shrewd in suppressing opposition, using nighttime roundups of protest leaders and employing the fundamentalist paramilitary group Basij, rather than uniformed soldiers, to break up demonstrations.
However, should the United States and its allies “ratchet up” sanctions, the younger Iranian population — 45 percent of the country’s people are 24 or younger, and they have been hard hit by unemployment — could sweep Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from power, the report says.
It adds: “A delay to the nuclear program lasting three to five years” — which is the estimate the Israelis have said would result from a military strike they made alone to knock out the program — “may provide a sufficient window to allow this to occur.”
More interesting findings:
●The rush to hold elections in Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Gaza became a tool for Islamic parties to seize power, since they had grass-roots organizing experience. Western governments and observer groups contributed to the “simplistic notion that holding elections in these formerly authoritarian states would signify that democracy was taking hold.”
The authors called pushing early elections “a catastrophic mistake that has resulted in ‘one person, one vote, once’ in elections across the Middle East.” There has been “a colossal failure of secular liberal elements to gain or hold power or to balance less moderate Islamist elements,” the report said.
I’ve heard similar statements from active and retired government officials, but they were talking in private or off-the-record sessions. It’s bold to publicly criticize the idea of elections as goal No. 1 of U.S. policy efforts in newly freed countries.
●The report says that “trends point to the transformation of the Arab Middle East from the post-World War I order to a new one along tribal, ethnic and sectarian lines.” Following that pattern, Syria may eventually disintegrate “into distinct cantons as the central government’s writ recedes.” The Alawites will dominate in their homeland of northwest Syria; Sunnis may create a republic to the Turkish border; what happens to the Druze and Kurds remains a question.
●Syria’s breakup could be a plus for Israel, since it would interrupt the conduit for Iran’s support to Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups and take away the battle-tested Syrian army on Israel’s border. On the other hand, it could lead to deterioration of stability in the Golan Heights.
This report proves again the worthiness of reading materials you never expected would provide new information.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.