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Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Transcript: Admiral Mullen, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff speaks at CSIS about Iranian nuke threat and Israeli response

The clock's ticking and that's why I'm as concerned as I am.

ADM. MULLEN: I spent a lot of time in direct engagement and time with my
Israeli counterpart, General Ashkenazi. And over the last year,
year-and-a-half - and this, I don't think, is news to anybody - but
fundamental to this is the Israelis see that Iran achieving a nuclear weapon
capability adds an existential threat. And that fact is tied to the rhetoric
of the leadership of Iran, which has said that they would seek to eliminate
Israel.

And so what I think is very important, at least, certainly, from my
perspective, is to understand the word "existential." And that Israel gets
to speak for itself, act
for itself - it's a sovereign country. But that's a very real part of this
entire discussion. And I think actually most, from my perspective, my
counterparts, my engagements in the Middle East, including most of the Gulf
area, understand that they may or may not agree, but they understand that
that's clearly where Israel is.

And so that, to me, is a very real part of all of what we're dealing with
here. And that gets back to the criticality, in my view, of solving this
before Iran gets a nuclear capability, or that anyone would take action to
strike them. And I think that window is a very narrow window. So I'm
actually encouraged by our political leadership committed to the dialogue,
even after the challenges that obviously arose in the election cycle in
Iran. And so I think that commitment - and I'm hopeful that that dialogue is
productive. I worry about it a great deal if it's not.

CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES (CSIS) SECURITY AND STABILITY
IN THE BROADER MIDDLE EAST: A COOPERATIVE APPROACH
ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF TUESDAY, JULY
7, 2009
Transcript by Federal News Service Washington, D.C.
http://csis.org/files/attachments/090707_mullen_transcript.pdf

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN:

,,,When I came in as chairman, one of the priorities for me - in fact, my
top priority, was to work on strategic issues associated with the broader
Middle East, because I feel then and continue to feel now it's the most
volatile area, it's an area that has challenges which abound and that no one
can address alone - not the United States - and that we must do this across
the full spectrum not just of our government, which includes much more than
the military, includes all aspects of our national power, as well as that of
so many other countries around the world.

...

Clearly, another huge challenge, I think, for all of us in that part of the
world is Iran. And I won't speak to the political issues there, but on the
security side, political challenges notwithstanding, still very concerned
about their development of nuclear weapons, their funding and sponsoring
terrorism, focusing that support on Hezbollah, Hamas, et cetera, being a
destabilizing influence in the region as opposed to a stabilizing influence
in the region. And I believe there's a need to certainly reach out and
engage in dialogue with them. And that's obviously up to the political
leadership.

I am concerned about them having a nuclear weapon, and as - if they got to
that point, that being incredibly destabilizing, not just because they'd
have the weapon. I deal an awful lot in Pakistan and Afghanistan
relationships, and if you just look at those two countries and where they
were at one point in time and what's happened since they both achieved that
capability, I worry about an arms race - a nuclear arms race - in the Middle
East region as well. And I don't think any of us can afford that. That would
be, potentially, very destabilizing as well.

And I don't see a lot of space between where Iran is headed and then
potentially what might happen with respect to that development, and so there's
a great deal that certainly depends on the dialogue and the engagement, and
I think we need to do that with all options remaining on the table,
including certainly, military options. One other area I'd like to comment
about is just sort of - and it's an extension of the nuclear weapons issue -
it's the counter-WMD, counterterrorism piece. And what I've worried about
for some time is terrorists who get their hands on nuclear devices.

And I know they seek that. And at the very high end, al-Qaida still both
seeks that capability and sees us as the enemy and our broad-term
engagement, I think, across the entire Middle East - and this is all of us -
to create partnerships and dialogue and understanding and work to make sure
that both, from the terrorism standpoint as well as the proliferation
standpoint, we do everything we can to absolutely minimize that.

I guess I'll leave it at that. I don't think the broader Middle East has
ever been more important, not just to the regional stability, but to global
stability. And as I said earlier, I just came out of Moscow, and one of the
issues that certainly was discussed was the, you know, focus in this part of
the world as well, and that responsible leadership throughout the world, I
think, we need to focus on this and make sure that we generate peaceful
outcomes and not ones that generate more conflict, with so many different
challenges in that part of the world. With that, I'm happy to take
questions.
(Applause.)
...
Q: Richard Weitz, the Hudson Institute. When you were in Moscow, did the
issue of Russia's possible completion of the sale of the S-300 air defense
missiles come up, because that's been factoring into the decision-making
process in Israel, and hence, here, about what kind of Iranian threat we
might see and what kind of timeline we might have to respond to that?

ADM. MULLEN: ..., I'd actually hosted my Russian counterpart [General
Makarov] over 18 months ago. And one of the areas I've certainly discussed
with him in the past is that issue, and recognizing that that is a
significant - that particular system is a game-changer in that part of the
world, and I focused on that. And that's probably all I'd say about that
today without going into great - I'm not going to go into any details of the
summit, as it hasn't really even ended yet - but that's a huge concern
because of the potential that it has, and I've raised that, certainly, with
my counterpart.

MR. ALTERMAN: Molly?

Q: Molly Williamson, Middle East Institute. Do you anticipate greater
cooperation between Washington and Moscow vis--vis Iran, and if so, what
would that look like?

ADM. MULLEN: Again, I wouldn't - I can't - I wouldn't go into any detail.
Certainly, it was discussed, and I'll leave it up to the president and the
administration to lay that out. Certainly, going in, there were concerns
about trying to get that right with respect to the Middle East, and
specifically how Iran fed into all that. And I know there were discussions
about that, and the honest truth is, I just don't have the details on those
discussions.

Q: Hi. Yochi Dreazen from the Wall Street Journal. Admiral, I was struck a
moment ago by how explicitly you said that, in the case of Iran, all options
are on the table, which you often say, but then you explicitly again said
the military option, specifically. How close do you think we are to the
point beyond which an Iranian nuclear bomb becomes inevitable? How much time
is there left to deter that from happening? And how close do you think we
are, really, to a point of no return?

ADM. MULLEN: Well, I wouldn't over-read the fact that I said including
military options, because when I've said all options on the table, I
certainly have been inclusive of those and it certainly - this isn't the
first time I've said that to include the explicit statement. Where we're
challenged here is the timeframe - which depending on who you talk to, the
estimates of when they would develop a nuclear weapon and again based on
both your assumptions and who you talk to it's been one to three years. It's
sort of in that kind of timeframe.

My concern is that the clock has continued to tick. I believe Iran is very
focused on developing this capability and I think when they get it or should
they get it will be very destabilizing. I often times I get - another
question is the whole strike option piece of that. I also think that would
be very destabilizing because of them - actually in both cases, certainly a
strike or them getting the weapon - those are hugely significant in and of
themselves.

But there is also with both of those kinds of possibilities there are
unintended consequences that are very difficult to predict in a very
volatile, highly volatile part of the world and I worry as much about that
as well. So that's why I talk about this very narrow space that we have to
work towards an objective of not achieving that capability.

And I think the time window is closing without being exact on what it is, as
I indicated. The clock's ticking and that's why I'm as concerned as I am.

MR. ALTERMAN: Mr. Chairman, you had started by talking about cooperation.
Could you talk specifically about the Iranian issue in terms of the
cooperation especially on the military side rather than on the diplomatic
side?

ADM. MULLEN: In terms with?

MR. ALTERMAN: In terms of cooperation. Cooperation on military issues
deterring and defending against Iran.

ADM. MULLEN: Cooperation with anybody? Or - (chuckles).

MR. ALTERMAN: With original states.

ADM. MULLEN: Certainly we share the concerns. I'm in touch with my
counterparts who are in lots of countries who share the concerns with
respect to that. We've worked with our Gulf partners to look at the
development of regional defense capability. And I see that as - they are
very committed to that and expanding that capability over time. We think
that's an important both initiative and recently the steps that have been
taken with regard to that I think have been positive.
So there's cooperation and exchange, both bilateral and multilateral on this
issue all the time, yet again I am concerned about, you know, the clock's
moving.
...
Q: Arnaud de Borchgrave, CSIS. Admiral, you've spoken several times about
the untoward consequences that would flow from military action against Iran
either by Israel or the United States. I wonder if you could give us some
examples of these serious untoward consequences.

ADM. MULLEN: Well, if you - and I don't want to get into too many
hypotheticals, despite the attractiveness - (laughter) - of that. But you
worry about - I worry a great deal about the response of a country that gets
struck and the vulnerabilities that regional countries have who are our
great friends of ours, their populations. And then what's next.

And then how does it end up? And does it in fact get contained or does it
expand? I mean it's that kind of scenario; that is one for example - and
certainly responses potentially in other parts of the world. One of the
things that, at least in my experience over the last two decades is we're
not very good predicting, we're not very good at predicting what's going to
happen. We're not very good predicting where it's going to happen.

And I don't just mean we; I mean, lots of countries in the world - but I can
focus on us. And then what are we prepared for, given that unpredictability?
So it is a really, from my perspective, it is a really importance place to
not go if we cannot go there in any way shape or form.
...
Q: Hisham Melhem, Al Arabiya. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Sir, the Iranians
keep saying that an Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities would be seen
as an American attack. And I'm sure they would interpret the statement by
Vice President Biden as some sort of green light to the Israelis. Talk a
little bit about what you hear from your Arab friends and from the Israelis
about the nature of the Iranian retaliation. You spoke about the difficulty
of anticipating that kind of reaction, and the vulnerabilities of your
friendly states in the region. And that probably includes the American
forces in Iraq, includes the oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE,
and also, a concern that another front would be activated - the
Lebanese-Israeli front. What do you hear from your allies and what are your
concerns also, but specifically about these areas: oil fields and the
Lebanese-Israeli front?

ADM. MULLEN: I spent a lot of time in direct engagement and time with my
Israeli counterpart, General Ashkenazi. And over the last year,
year-and-a-half - and this, I don't think, is news to anybody - but
fundamental to this is the Israelis see that Iran achieving a nuclear weapon
capability adds an existential threat. And that fact is tied to the rhetoric
of the leadership of Iran, which has said that they would seek to eliminate
Israel.

And so what I think is very important, at least, certainly, from my
perspective, is to understand the word "existential." And that Israel gets
to speak for itself, act
for itself - it's a sovereign country. But that's a very real part of this
entire discussion. And I think actually most, from my perspective, my
counterparts, my engagements in the Middle East, including most of the Gulf
area, understand that they may or may not agree, but they understand that
that's clearly where Israel is.

And so that, to me, is a very real part of all of what we're dealing with
here. And that gets back to the criticality, in my view, of solving this
before Iran gets a nuclear capability, or that anyone would take action to
strike them. And I think that window is a very narrow window. So I'm
actually encouraged by our political leadership committed to the dialogue,
even after the challenges that obviously arose in the election cycle in
Iran. And so I think that commitment - and I'm hopeful that that dialogue is
productive. I worry about it a great deal if it's not.
...

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