This afternoon on the The Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer talked with retired U.S. Army Colonel Pat Lang, former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Pentagon, about talk of U.S. government plans for a strike against Iran. Transcript follows….
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: The Bush administration has kept up a steady drumbeat of warnings about Iran’s nuclear programs and lately its malicious meddling, administration officials insist, inside Iraq.
Now, with two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups in the region, is there a growing chance the United States could find itself at war with Iran? Joining us now, retired U.S. Army Colonel Pat Lang, former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Pentagon.
Pat, thanks for coming in.
COL. PATRICK LANG, U.S. ARMY (RET.): My pleasure.
BLITZER: Take us behind the scenes right now, all of the saber rattling. The leaks we’re also seeing — the Seymour Hersh article in “The New Yorker” magazine.
What’s going on, in your assessment, behind the scenes?
LANG: Well, a lot of this, of course, is intended to reach the ears of the Iranians. You know, it’s — it’s quite a good idea, in a lot of ways, to make sure the Iranians know the United States is very serious about the concerns about them and if they aren’t careful, they could end up in big trouble with us.
At the same time, I think that you have to understand that there is — there is intensive planning for how you would execute an operation against the Iranians going on in the military, in response to a direction by the president.
These are contingency plans and when they say — when the White House says that we do not plan to attack Iran, what they really mean is that they haven’t made a decision.
But the planning for the operation, I think, is well advanced.
BLITZER: Because in the build-up to the war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, for months administration officials were saying they’re not planning on attacking and there’s been no orders given or anything like that, when we know that the planning had been very, very intense.
LANG: Yes. And that is undoubtedly going on right now. And the level of ambiguity that’s being projected by the administration over this is probably quite productive in terms of getting people in the region in the state of mind in which they would like to talk, if the administration really would like to talk to them.
BLITZER: But I take it, and correct me if I’m wrong, you’re hearing from some inside the Pentagon, some top generals, others, that there’s no great desire to actually start a war with Ahmadinejad in Iran?
LANG: Oh, I think at the present time, there’s a very strong grouping of people at the top, both in the uniform military and within the civilian part of the Bush administration, who absolutely think this would be a terrible idea. And they insist their voices will be heard. So I think there’s — you’d have to say there is a very active dialogue about this, seeking the attention of the president.
BLITZER: But if the president, the vice president gives the order to go ahead — and Sy Hersh in “The New Yorker” says that within 24 hours the plans could be implemented. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong on that. But if they give the order, these military officers will salute and begin the process.
LANG: Well, and there’s no reason why an operation couldn’t be launched within 24 hours from the order to go because this is mostly going to be air and naval business, if it were conducted that way. There is no real tradition in the American armed forces of officers resigning rather than obeying an order they think is wrong. But in this case, I think the issues are so great and the pressures are so high that this is under active consideration, and that’s been mentioned in a few places.
BLITZER: You think top U.S. generals would actually resign rather than go forward and implement a decision like this?
LANG: I think the issue is certainly on their minds. It is, yes.
BLITZER: And what — tell me why they would be so concerned.
LANG: Because, in fact, this is — the United States, as everyone know, is vastly overextended. And we have a great many more issues to take care of in other parts of the world involving the jihadi international terrorists and things of that kind. And we really can’t afford another war.
BLITZER: Here is what the Pentagon said the other day, even in anticipation of the Seymour Hersh article in “The New Yorker.” “The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran. To suggest anything to the contrary is simply wrong, misleading and mischievous.”
LANG: Well, I think that’s the prudent thing for them to say. It’s what I would expect for them to say. And as I said, what it indicates is the fact that when they said we’re not planning to go to war, it means we have no intention at this time to launch an operation. It doesn’t mean the plans aren’t being made or haven’t been made.
BLITZER: Two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups are now in the region, the Stennis, the Eisenhower. People hear about an aircraft carrier going in, but when they go in, they go in with a lot of support, a lot of other battleships and destroyers, submarines. That’s a lot of power that the U.S. is projecting in that part of the world.
LANG: It certainly is. Besides the carriers and their air groups themselves, a lot of these — the screen vessels for the carriers are missile shooters that shoot surface-to-surface missiles, cruise missiles, things like that. They pack a tremendous wallop. Then you could fly sorties from around the world with American strategic bombers.
BLITZER: So what’s the point of doing this?
LANG: Well, I think it is — it has two purposes.
The first purpose is to make sure that you have the Iranians’ attention and that they are willing to listen to the United States when we say, in fact, that we want — we know what we want you to do and we think you should do it. And the other purpose is that, if all else fails and a decision is made to do something, you are in position to do it.
The conference in March, I think, is a fascinating thing.
BLITZER: The conference in Baghdad.
LANG: That’s right.
BLITZER: That the U.S. will attend the various neighbors, including Iran and Syria will attend. This is an Iranian — excuse me — an Iraqi invitation to all of the neighbors, including the U.S., some others, to come in and talk about the situation in Iraq.
LANG: Yes. Britain, France and Russia will probably also attend. And I think this is a step in the right direction, because the Middle East is kind of like a Chinese puzzle. You know, you’ve got all these pieces in there that have to be lined up in order to make the thing work correctly. And the Iranians, the Syrians and all the different players in the region are all part of that pattern.
And you have to work on getting these pieces lined up. Some of the way, to beat them with a hammer in order to get some productive results out of this. This is a good first step, I think.
BLITZER: So, if the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is there, the Iranian foreign minister is there, the Syrian foreign minister, will this be an opportunity to sort of break the ice and get into serious discussions?
LANG: It certainly is an opportunity if we wish to take that opportunity. I hope that what we don’t do is go there and tell the Iranians, for example, that all we want to talk about is what we don’t want you to do to in Iraq, rather than discussing the whole range of our issues, issues between us and them across the region. Because if all we do is tell them, this is what we want you to do, are you going to do it, they’re going to go away and keep on doing what they are doing.
BLITZER: But the administration’s position all along has been the U.S. is more than happy to talk to the Iranians, the Syrians at the highest levels. From Iran’s point of view, they first have to stop enriching uranium.
LANG: Yes. Well, that’s just the general pattern of the Bush administration’s diplomacy, which is to tell people generally, we know what you should do and we want you to tell us you are going to do it. And that will begin the process of negotiation.
In fact, these countries in the region think they are bigger than that, and they’re not going to surrender to what they think are their valid interests unless there is some sort of dialogue that involves bargaining. These countries are the world’s biggest deal makers, and they’re just not going to go for a completely one-sided thing.
BLITZER: They know how to negotiate.
LANG: You bet.
BLITZER: All right, Pat. Thanks very much for coming in.