When Iran Goes Nuclear: Technology and Ideology

When Iran Goes Nuclear: Technology and Ideology
(R. James Woolsey, November 11, 2015)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

R. James Woolsey is a Venture Partner with Lux Capital Management. He also Chairs the Board of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Mr. Woolsey previously served in the U.S. Government on five different occasions, where he held Presidential appointments in two Republican and two Democratic administrations, most recently (1993-95) as Director of Central Intelligence.

During his 12 years of government service, in addition to heading the CIA and the Intelligence Community, Mr. Woolsey was Ambassador to the Negotiation on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), Vienna, 1989-1991.


R. James Woolsey:

I’ll fit in questions and answers at the end if you all want but I’m going to deal with one right now because it always gets asked and if you’ve heard me tell this story before as my father used to say, “Please, don’t interrupt me. I love it too much.”

It happened because in the fall of my first year at the agency as Director my Stanford reunion, my 30th Stanford reunion came up. And so I mentioned in my morning meeting with my staff that in 2 or 3 weeks I was going to take a couple three days off and fly to California for my Stanford reunion and my head of security, Buck, who was about 6’8’’, 290 [pounds]… something like that, came up afterwards and said, “Mr. Director, I just wanted to let you know that if Mrs. Woolsey goes, she’s going to have to be on a different plane because we can’t have anybody named Woolsey on your plane.” I said, “What do you mean? My name is Woolsey.” He said, “Oh, no sir. You need to fly an alias.” And, of course, my first thought was, “Oh, there go the frequent flyer miles.”

So I up to the airport. We put my wife on a flight for… They find a separate flight and then I go on a separate flight ushered on by these two big security guys and they stop by the cockpit. They show the pilot, the chief flight attendant they’re carrying weapons [and] that they’re authorized to by the federal government. We pass through…given that it’s McLean, I should probably explain. There’s a section of the airplane behind First Class. It’s called Coach. We went through First Class, actually Business, back to the back of Coach and there are the three seats right in front of the John that you can’t even lean back because- And I was in the middle of these and with a 290 pound guy on one and a 300 pound guy on the other, spread out. We fly to California for six hours or something.

So we’re getting off and walking down the jetway and I- The flight attendant came over and whispered something to my head of security. And Buck just cracked up. Now, I had not seen 280-90 pound Buck even smile in the eight months he had been my head of security. But he just cracked up. I kind of drifted over toward him as we were walking down the jet way I said, “What’s so funny?” He said, “You know what she said? …She said I’ve been on these flights now for nearly 20 years and that is the politest and best behaved prisoner that we have ever had.” So look at it this way, I can say accurately that as Director I participated in a covert operation. I got to California under cover. Operation brought off. That’s not made up. I could not have made it up.

Well, let me share some thoughts if it’s alright with you on Iran and the situation particularly in that part of the world because it has created as difficult a set of problems for the United States as we’ve had since Pearl Harbor… and maybe even including Pearl Harbor and what happened subsequently.

We have some very serious things to deal with and let me talk about why Iran is a problem. First of all, there’s the ideology and the administration I think is convinced that the ideology is not something hard and fast. That it’s held- a belief held by the leadership in Iran- I think they believe that it is something that can be tuned down as the Soviets belief in Communism was by the 1960s or so late 60s anyway.

Probably there were more true believing Marxist-Leninists in the bookstores of the Upper West Side of Manhattan than there were in the Kremlin. And we wore the Soviets down. Not only did we wear them down with respect to the resources they had to spend, with respect to the superiority of our technology, and their fears about things like the Strategic Defense Initiative. We wore them down I think just in terms of their realizing how thoroughly rotten and ineffective their ideology was. And they with very rare exceptions, were not interested in dying for the principle “From each according to his ability to each according to his need.” They didn’t want to die at all. They wanted to remodel their dachas. So… I think we got used to dealing with an enemy like that. And our managing of that relationship with the Soviets worked, actually, pretty well. We had some real close calls, one of them the Cuban Missile Crisis, another one where things could have gone completely haywire.

But they didn’t in part because we were dealing with a rational opponent who didn’t like us very much but didn’t loathe us from the essence of his being. We’re in a different situation now with Iran. We’re in a situation where the ideological umph that was present in the 1930s and in 50s, probably in the 60s on the Soviet side, the belief… the fanatic belief essentially in destroying us… that has been for at least since 1979, and is still, a core belief for a large proportion of the managing and ruling elite of Iran, including more than the elite, the Revolutionary Guard, equivalent to sort of the SA and the SAS in Hitler’s Germany. We- …except they own a big chunk – which the SA and SAS did not – they own a big chunk of the Iranian economy and manage [the] nuclear program and the rest. And their ideology is the one that drove them into the streets in… fifteen years ago and helped them get in the state of mind in which they tortured, raped, and killed large numbers of young people who were trying to take Iran in a positive direction and save the election from having been stolen like it was by Ahmadinejad.

So the first point is that we are facing in Iran at least in my judgment a very, very, motivated and angry and religiously motivated enemy. When they talk about the Mahdi returning and fighting the battles that end the world, they’re not just kind of mumbling something. Bernard Lewis, who to my mind has been for a long time, our leading scholar on that part of the world, says that during the Cold War mutually assured destruction was a deterrent. Unfortunately, now with Iran it’s an inducement. And the road that Ahmadinejad built form Qom up to Tehran so that the Mahdi would have a nice road to travel on after he came out of the well which he fell into sometime in the 700s is something people built with belief not… “Ah, yeah, we’re going to build this road.” No. We have a very serious problem in the [unintelligible]… especially serious although we’ve done a not too bad job of curtailing their use of funds and slapping sanctions on them that were B+ sanctions. They were pretty good. And we did that more or less effectively.

We have a situation where for some years they were scraping hard for cash in order to get done what they needed, they believe, to have done and now with the Iran Deal, the agreement that President Obama signed and submitted to, they have a- I think a stance which is essentially one of increasing- dramatically increasing wealth. They will get something between $100 and $150 billion with a B dollars from the lifting of the sanctions which the president has decided… The requirements have been met and therefore it can proceed. [I’ll] answer questions if you want about why I think the sanctions have not been lifted by the Iranians or anybody else’s behavior and why I think the agreement is not only rotten in substance but procedurely not yet begun. But nonetheless it is being treated that way and we are freeing up funds and we will soon have not just an enemy that loathes us with every ounce of his being but one who does so and has a nice load of $100-150 billion dollars to spend on various terrorist activities. The administration the other day, the State Department, decided they were not going to label the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization because… it was very hard to pick at exactly why. That has some very serious consequences centered around but not exclusively Iran’s work on nuclear weapons. Iran is marvelously endowed with oil and gas. In order to believe that they really want nuclear power in order to generate electricity, you have to be among the most naive participants in the public debate discussion. But they are pushing very hard on their work, on their centrifuges, on the heavy water reactor, on really all other steps that are needed to move them toward having a nuclear weapon.

I had someone whose judgement I trust although he did not claim to be absolutely sure of what I’m about to say. [He told me] a month or so ago that Iran probably already had developed a nuclear weapon and was moving it around up in the northern desert which- on armored vehicles not keeping it at a single location, which could be learned and perhaps hit by an American airstrike or Israeli. So we don’t know I don’t think for sure but they either have or are very, very close to having a nuclear weapon and the theoretical limits that are imposed by the agreement, which might mean that they are a year or a year and three months or something away from having a nuclear weapon, I think is extremely cautious estimate. I think the chances are reasonably good they have one and better than reasonably good that even- That if they don’t, [they will have a nuclear weapon] very, very soon.

That creates a whole host of problems for us because our colleagues, sometimes they’re friends, sometimes they’re not friends, sometimes they’re allies, sometimes not, but let’s call for examples the Saudis ‘our colleagues’ in dealing with Iran. A number of our colleagues in that part of the world, Jordan, Egypt, et cetera have decided based on the nuclear agreement that we signed that the United States has given up on its role of taking a firm stand and basically being a leader of the non-Iran faction of disputes and arguments and disagreements and even battles in the Middle East and that we are basically giving up. It’s difficult to challenge based on the evidence [for] that conclusion and that state of mind that is being pursued I think in the capitals of Amman and Cairo and so on is one that makes it very likely that within a very few years we will have at least 2 or 3 and more likely 4 or 5 more nuclear powers in the Middle East.

Now we had a couple confrontations with the Soviets; one in which they had a new submarine weapon, a nuclear torpedo, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis and we didn’t know about it and they had two submarines outfitted with these nuclear torpedoes. And when we imposed our blockade essentially and started depth bombing the Soviet submarines in order to scare them to the surface, it worked with all but one and their communications were down, their cooling systems were down, they were all frying down there and getting angrier and angrier.

There was a skipper, a commander of the two submarines together, a skipper for each one, and a party boss. Each of those four people had a key and if the- all those keys got turned, the nuclear torpedo would have been launched at American ship[s] and there would have been a nuclear detonation. And three of those four men turned their key. One did not. The skipper of the boat that had the weapon on it refused to turn the key, and in a situation in which – the Middle East, we have Iranians and Lebanese and Yemenis and Turks and Egyptians and Sunni v. Shiia and so forth, and add a major crisis in the Middle East. Is anyone going to be as sensible and as balanced and as cool under fire as that bless him that Soviet skipper from that submarine in 1962? I somewhat doubt it.

So we have the proliferation problem that has been heavily augmented by, I think, the nuclear agreement and we also have another problem, which is very difficult to deal with. We can deal with it but it is, to put it mildly, a matter of some urgency and serious importance. Back in 1962 when the Nuclear Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty came into effect, in the months preceding the coming into effect [of] the treaty both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted some atmospheric tests and detonated, including extra atmospheric in a sense, including 20, 30, 40 kilometers up in space detonation of nuclear weapons on satellites.

By the way, that is not particularly hard to do. One of the reasons that the first thing both the Soviets and the Americans did in space was to put something basketball-sized into orbit is that that’s easy to do. You do not have to have re-entry. You do not have to have accuracy. You don’t have to have a lot of the things you need if you are going to fire an ICBM at somebody halfway around the world. If all you are trying to do is put something into orbit, it is not that difficult. Well, both the Soviets and the Americans were surprised at how far away, thousands of miles in some cases, the electronics, even the primitive electronics of the time, were fried essentially by the nuclear detonation.

The things that were not fried were vacuum tubes, so had we stayed with vacuum tubes in the face of the evolution of the grid and so forth, we might be more secure than we are today at least in this dimension, but that was never in the cards. And both the Soviets and we saw that we had a serious problem with what has come to be called electro-magnetic pulse, and which essentially is the same thing, very, very close to gamma-rays generating two different wavelengths of energy charged with magnetism.

That occurred for both and both noticed that there were two wavelengths involved. One was a shorter wavelength than lightning, one was a longer wavelength than lightning. The short wavelength traveled the line of sight, so if it detonated very far above the earth, then it would hit electronics that were some distance away if it was detonated in an orbit that was only twenty miles high or something like that.

The curvature of the earth would block it from hitting, knocking out a lot of things and the electronics also – they found out in these experiments that a long wavelength would hit transmission lines, ride along the transmission lines, destroying the transformers as it went, and continuing to ride along the transmission lines. The Soviets decided to test this in some detail and they effectively twice blew out Kazakhstan’s energy grid, calling to mind the line from Stalin, “We need Armenia, but we do not need Armenians.” So Soviet rulers of the early and mid-60s apparently felt that way about Kazakhs, but they did have some very detailed experimentation. We had a bit. We both hardened our strategic forces, presidential aircraft and so forth.

And in the United States we have never done much else because we have always regarded this as part of nuclear war. And of course, if this was nuclear war, lots of stuff is going to go up in smoke, including probably the power grid, but why are we more worried about that than anything else? The Soviets have been more sophisticated, and they and the Chinese – if you are interested in this, I would recommend a book by General Slipchenko called The No Contact War.

The problem then is that when might well be able – and the Russians know more about it, unfortunately, than we do, and the Chinese now – there is a real risk to having an electric grid that is not shielded from electro-magnetic pulse. You probably want to shield it anyway because an electro-magnetic pulse generated from nuclear detonation is a very, very close cousin to a solar-coronal ejection, which is essentially an activity by the Sun that has the same effect, and that has been hitting the Earth for four-and-a-half billion years, so it is not a new event here, and every few years something passes very close to us that would create some of these very serious difficulties. And it also is something that when it happens every few hundred years at a very special intensity in what is called a Carrington event because of the name of the first astronomer who tracked this kind of thing, so there is a very good reason for us to protect our electric grid especially and all of our electronics, whether or not we think there might be some Iranian or North Korean event in which a launch at us would occur. We need to do this for reasons, defending against solar events, anyway.

But the problem is that if the electric grid gets knocked out, and especially those long wavelengths that ride along the transmission lines and destroy the transformer, we have got eighteen critical infrastructures in this country, and seventeen of them depend on the eighteenth, it is electricity. The others being food, fuel, water, finance, medicine, etc. And if the grid goes, those all go too, so people do things when the electricity is out that they would probably do here. They take a gasoline can out to the corner filling station to fill it up and run a generator for a few days while this all gets sorted out, and then they realize they cannot turn on the pump for the generator because it is electric. Indeed, almost everything is electric.

The possibility of losing our infrastructure is not fanciful. I wish it were. I wish this was science fiction. It would be fine. It has already generated a great deal of science fiction. One book to read to get a feel for this is a short novel by William Fortschen called One Second After. He has got a new book called One Year After. The one a couple years old called One Second After is about a smalltown in North Carolina right after the nuclear weapon goes off in space and takes out the electric grid. For starters there is one guy in the town who has any transportation. He can drive his Edsel because his Edsel does not have any electronics in it. He is an old car collector. But the point is that one has to realize that we are not talking about moving back into the 1980s, pre-web, we are talking about moving back into the 1880s, pre-grid, and very few of us have enough mules, seeds, whatever we would need in order to function in a nineteenth century agricultural environment.

That set of problems especially exists when a country has a nuclear weapon. If it has a nuclear weapon and space launch capability, as the North Koreans for example demonstrated now four times, and when they launch, they launch a version of satellite launch that the Soviets, then-Soviets, taught them called the fractional orbital bombardment system or FOBS, in which the launch starts out to the south, and the satellite comes back up at you from the direction in which you have essentially no radars, no infrared, no surveillance of any kind. You may know what it is, you may not, and it may stay there for a long time, possibly with a nuclear weapon onboard, ready to be pickled off at whatever point the country that has nuclear weapons and a satellite can do it. That would include Russia and China.

I am less worried about Russia and China than I am about North Korea, but the one to really be concerned about is our friends, the Iranians, because they may not have a nuclear weapon yet, but once they do, being able to put that into orbit (and they have tested launches in a similar fashion to the North Koreans with the FOBS), the ability to utilize that could definitely be present, and it may not be a tool just of crazies like a North Korean launch would be, but rather a tool of someone who genuinely, or group that genuinely believes that you, we are devils, and that nothing could be better than as Khamenei puts it, death to Israel and death to America. It is not a hope, it is not just an exhortation, it is a plan.

So, we need to do several things.

Harden the Grid

One is that we need to take some immediate steps to harden our grid, and that is something that the electric utilities have been very, very reluctant to take part in. They do not want to spend the money. It is not all that expensive. The EMP Commission said to do the core part of the grid would be about $2 billion dollars. I calculated it the other day. I have forgotten it precisely, but that is approximately what it would cost if once a month everybody, all adults let us say, instead of having their coffee in the morning be a Frappuccino latte with extra coconut instead just got a little cup of expresso or something.

We are getting up there into several dollars per person, and we got to 310, 320 million Americans, so two thirds of [the population] is 200 million [American adults]. Each of those saves several dollars a year, and it pays for it, saving the grid. Anyway, as infrastructure investments go, $2 billion dollars is tiny, so there is that as a possibility and something that we need to think seriously about doing.

Cut the Money Supply

There is trying to cut off Iran’s supply of money, which we may be able to do. The President has decided to implement the agreement, and to let Iran have the $100-250 billion dollars that has been held up because of sanctions even though the terms of the agreement were not fulfilled by Iran. It did not transmit the full agreement to the United States. It has appendices and ancillary portions that have some of the key provisions about verification, and they refuse to submit that, so according to any reasonable interpretation, the treaty’s period is not started to run.

The president is treating it as if the treaty is functioning just fine, but he would be in serious risk of losing litigation, I think on that point if someone could come to that. Say you had the possibility of litigating this. It might have something to do with the next administration, depending on whoever it is.

And there are probably other steps one could take, but we have to do everything that is possible, that is imaginable in order to try to, for example, get our allies, the Germans and others in Europe especially, to refuse to go along with releasing (or at least releasing rapidly) the sanction money to Iran because if we can do that, if we can slow things down enough, we may have a chance at convincing a lot of people, particularly in Europe, not to go forward because if they start spending and the treaty is not legal under American law, they have got a chance at losing a lot of money in litigation by all of our eager plaintiffs’ representatives in the courts in the United States.

There are things that can be done, [but] none of them [are] ideal.

But we have a serious dilemma staring at us, and it is something that reminds one of the old saying I never promised you a rose garden. This one is all thorns, and we have got to get going and function the way we have at times in the past when the country has been seriously challenged and got moving again. What we are headed for now with just twirling our thumbs, and hoping that the utilities will do something to harden the grid, and letting everything go forward in terms of the added finances to Iran [is sleepwalking into a disaster].

We have got a problem that will not go away and simply must be dealt with. Thank you.

Audience member:

What are your expectations or your hopes? Do we have the form of government and the leadership that can do this? Have we lost the will to kill? I mean you hear all of this stuff, but what is in store? It is a grim picture. Are you at all optimistic about the American ability to do anything about it no matter who is in the White House?

R. James Woolsey:

Yeah. There is a poem by Carl Sandburg, a marvelous poem called The People, Yes, about the American people and the last couple of lines say, “Man is a long time coming, brother may yet line up with brother, this old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.” So, it is only as an anvil laughing at previously broken hammers that one can, I think, be optimistic about this. You have got to have presidential leadership, and that is going to depend [on] if we can get through the next seventeen months, that depends on who the next president is and what he or she decides to do about this because if you have a president and congress acting together, there is a lot that can be done in terms of hardening the grid quickly, not all of it but enough of it that it cannot be taken out. And that is the key step. Once we have got that, there are lots of other things that we can do, and we can make it very, very unpleasant for anybody who launched or even began the process of launching one of these things at us.

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