A decision on attacking Iran need not be taken at present, as current assessments point to its achieving nuclear-weapons capabilities no earlier than 2013 or 2014, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Michael Hayden told Haaretz on Monday.
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Gen. Hayden (U.S. Air Force, retired), who led the CIA when the Syrian nuclear reactor in al-Kibar was destroyed by the Israel Air Force five years ago, also believes that if an operation against Iran were eventually deemed necessary, the United States would be much more capable of undertaking it than Israel.
Hayden arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday for a seminar to be held today by the Institute for National Security Studies and its cyber warfare program, run by retired Israel Defense Forces Col. Gabi Siboni.
Hayden served as the director of the U.S. National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005, then as the principal deputy director of National Intelligence and as President George W. Bush's third and perhaps most successful CIA chief.
He is currently a principal at the security consultancy founded by Bush's Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, teaches intelligence at George Mason University and was named as one of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's national security advisers - though Romney has yet to talk with him.
"I do not underestimate the Israeli talent, but geometry and physics tell us that Iran's nuclear program would pose a difficult challenge to any military, as it is not a raid, and Israel's resources are more limited than those of the U.S.," Hayden told Haaretz.
"There is no absolute certainty that all targets are known," he added. "They will have to be revisited - which only the U.S. Air Force would be able to do - and the operation will only set the Iranians back some time and actually push them to do that which it is supposed to prevent, getting nuclear weapons."
"While it is probably true that the so-called 'window' regarding effective action is closing, there is still some time, as real decisions are to be made in 2013 or 2014."
At the CIA, Gen. Hayden supervised the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which concluded in late 2007 that Iran had halted its nuclear-weapons program, though not its advance along the critical paths of uranium enrichment and delivery-systems development.
This conclusion still holds, in his view - based, he pointed out, only on what he reads in the press - because the Iranian leadership has yet to make the fateful decision to "spring" from producing quantities of missile and fissile material toward nuclear weapons.
One of the highlights in the decade in which Hayden held top positions in the U.S. intelligence community was the discovery of the North Korean nuclear reactor supplied to Syria and constructed at al-Kibar.
In his interview to Haaretz, Hayden said: "Prior to the spring of 2007, we had concerns and suspicions regarding eastern Syria. We independently discovered the trench leading from the cooling pond in the Euphrates to the 'enigmatic' structure. We could then make certain studies and put them in a global context."
For the first few months following the Israel Air Force operation on 5 and 6 September 2007, Hayden agreed that in order to save face and refrain from pushing Syrian President Bashar Assad into retaliation, no official word should be issued from either Jerusalem or Washington. "We were really fearful that war might break out. Our policy was 'no core, no war'."
But as of April 2008, Hayden no longer thought this silence was necessary and has detailed the intelligence exploits of his colleagues, whom he proudly praises as "the best intelligence community in the world, for all the failures in coordination and sharing - which we learned from and improved upon."