Retired CIA officer Robert Baer was at the center of a controversy last week when he hypothesized that Israel may launch a unilateral attack against Iran in the fall and that such a move would drag the U.S. into another major war in the Middle East. His remarks, delivered while on a Los Angeles radio talk-show, were widely repeated both in the U.S. and across the Middle East. The uproar over Baer’s comments hit a crescendo with former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeting on Monday, “the Arab Spring has sufficiently complicated Israel’s strategic calculus that it is more likely to show restraint in the immediate term,” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pressed to respond to Baer’s assertions in an interview with Al-Arabiya today. Netanyahu responded:
I don’t even confirm it because there’s nothing to deny and nothing to confirm. It’s not a real issue.
Baer, writing for Time.com, now says his remarks were an off-the-cuff response to a hypothetical question about when Israel might choose to attack Iran, assuming it had already made the decision to act unilaterally. He writes:
And when [the talk-show host] asked me when I thought this hypothetical attack might hypothetically occur, I blithely suggested September. I was only adding two plus two: a September attack would allow Netanyahu to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and wreck plans for a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood, which is slated for September.
But Baer acknowledges that his comments were made with no inside knowledge of Israeli planning and that media attention afforded to his comments was totally out of line with the degree of seriousness to which his stature as a retired CIA officer should be afforded:
I wondered why Crowley and everyone else didn’t notice I hadn’t drawn a government check in more than 12 years, and therefore wasn’t bringing any inside knowledge to the subject. And I’d certainly never claimed a back-door access to Netanyahu’s inner circle that would give me any privileged knowledge about a planned attack.
Baer, who if anything seems guilty of naivete, reflects that his remarks may have “accidentally kicked a hornets’ nest.” Indeed this is probably an understatement. Netanyahu’s government is in a growing split with Israel’s security elite over attacking Iran, and many analysts, including Baer, have described a potentially disastrous scenario if Israel chooses to exercise “the military option.” So it’s no great surprise that Baer’s comments, albeit eagerly repeated by a hungry media, evoked a strong reaction.