Former Top U.S. Military Official Warns Iran Attack Would Require Occupation Lasting ‘Tens Of Years’

Then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright in 2010

Former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright today said that military strikes on Iran would not completely end its nuclear program.

Appearing at a conference of the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled “Dealing with a Nuclear Iran,” Cartwright laid out what he saw as the difficulties inherent in launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program. Topping the former General’s list: the inability of any attack to wipe out the intellectual capital developed by Iran during its research.

An attack on Iran then would be one of delay, according to Cartwright, rather than denying Iran the ability to conduct further uranium enrichment. “You will not kill all of the intellectual capital,” Cartwright said, indicating that would take “tens of years” of occupation if that was the goal of a military strike. “If we want somebody to ‘uninvent’ [knowledge], that’s pretty unrealistic,” Cartwright said.

The calculus that states face today is whether they want to pursue nuclear weapons, Cartwright said, not whether they would have the ability. Iran has not made that choice, Cartwright continued, echoing the assessment of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities. Asked about the worry that the use of force against Iran would prompt the regime to accelerate towards obtaining a nuclear weapon, Cartwright responded that any military activities would have to be considered appropriate to change Iran’s decisions, rather than “reinforce where they were heading.”

The use of military force should only be considered, Cartwright went on, when there is “a problem that diplomacy has run out of tools for, and we want to reset that, so that at the end of conflict, those tools work again.” That reset has to be one that continues to serve an overall diplomatic solution. “You do not end in military conflict,” Cartwright said, noting that planners have to ensure that military tools used fit the desired end state. The policy outlined by the former second highest ranking military officer in the armed services lines up closely with the Obama administration’s stance of “all options remain on the table” when confronting Iran.

Cartwright made sure to stress that those diplomatic tools — including economic sanctions as well as direct talks — have not run out in dealing with Iran. Those talks have to be sure to not be one-sided affairs that include no “win.” “If you’re going to negotiate, you need to understand [your counterpart’s] needs, wants and aspirations,” Cartwright said. Finding a way to guarantee Iran’s fears related to its sovereignty, then, “should be a part of the calculation in finding a solution space.” Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 are scheduled to restart at the end of February in Kazakhstan, after a delay of several months.

Cartwright’s talk mirrored previous statements he’s made on the subject, including when testifying before Congress. Many of the concerns voiced by Cartwright also appeared in a report from The Iran Project on potential military strikes on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. That report, signed on to many of Cartwright’s former colleagues in the armed services, warned that any strike on Iran would be difficult in nature, with the costs most possibly outweighing the benefits.