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Larry Wilkerson says hundreds of Israeli military and intelligence leaders do not consider Iran an existential threat

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel spoke at the AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. Here’s a short clip from his speech. ~~~ BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Ladies and gentlemen, the purpose of my address to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel. Iran is the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran envelops the entire world with its tentacles of terror. This is what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons. Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons. And this same Iran vows to annihilate Israel if. It develops nuclear weapons, it would have the means to achieve that goal. We must not let that happen. I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, that’s devouring country after country in the Middle East, that’s exporting terror throughout the world, and that is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons–lots of them. ~~~ JAY: This speech to AIPAC was delivered one day before Prime Minister Netanyahu is to speak to the U.S. Congress of–extremely controversial speech, as most people know by now, invited by the speaker of the House, Boehner, without the knowledge, originally, of the president of the United States, and now with his opposition to such an invitation. Now joining us to talk about all this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry joins us from Falls Church, Virginia. He’s the former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary and a regular contributor to The Real News. Thanks for joining us again, Larry. COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me. And just in the spirit of due diligence, I’m actually in Williamsburg today. JAY: Ah. You’re in Williamsburg. Good. Thank you. So let’s first of all talk about the quote from Netanyahu. What do you make of that, Iran’s plans to destroy Israel and is planning to make many nuclear weapons and so on? WILKERSON: The first thing I would say is that the Jews living in Iran, who are quite numerous, probably wouldn’t agree with that appreciation of Tehran, since they’re living there quite peacefully. I think Mr. Netanyahu, as is often the case with him, is making points for what is his ultimate aim in being in front of the Congress tomorrow on 3 March, and that is to influence a very tight election taking place in Israel, in which, of course, he is one of the candidates. JAY: Now, his underlying message really is that we all agree Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, but he suggests between the lines of this speech and just about every time he does speak that President Obama’s being sort of naive that he doesn’t really understand what an existential threat this is and so on. There was a press conference on Sunday in Israel of former Israeli military leaders and security chiefs. What did they have to say about this? WILKERSON: I’m in constant contact with a group that–and that’s all I’ll say, but it’s a group that works not just with U.S. personnel, British, German, other members of the Permanent Five, and so forth, but also with Israelis, Israelis from Mossad, Israelis from the IDF, from the political structure, from other walks of life in Israel, such as business. And by and large, the opinion I see in the security complex, whether it’s intelligence, military, or otherwise, is that Iran is not an existential threat. And they wish Mr. Netanyahu would stop saying that, because it puts it in a realm of different discussion, if you will, than if you just talk about it as being a threat. And they don’t believe that the approach Mr. Netanyahu is taking with regard to Iran is the right one for Israel, mid-term or long-term security. They won’t go as far as I will and state that this is all political opportunism to keep him in power for a fourth and unprecedented term, but there are many of them who will hint that in a corner in the dark. JAY: Is it–you think it’s just political positioning? Or does Netanyahu really want what he seems to have suggested on more than one occasion, military action to try to blow up what he says is a nuclear weapons program? WILKERSON: That might be a tactical hope of his. And he would want the United States, of course, to do it, because Israel can’t. But let me say that, as I’ve said many times before, this is not really about Iran having or not having a nuclear weapon. It’s about who’s going to be the power in the Persian Gulf who is ultimately closest to the United States and who carries out the wishes of the United States or the wishes of the globe, for that matter, with regard to peace, stability, prosperity, and all the things, the buzzwords we normally haul out. And is it going to be Israel? Is it going to be Saudi Arabia leading the Gulf Cooperation Council? Or is it going to be Iran? And which one is the United States going to most frequently side with? Bibi sees that any rapprochement at all between Tehran and Washington might lead to what would naturally be the case–indeed was the case for 25 years when Iran was ruled by our man, the Shah–that Iran is demographically, militarily, nationally, any aspect of power you wish to analyze, the natural hegemon in the Gulf. This is anathema to Mr. Netanyahu–and, I must say, to the Russian émigrés, to the settlers, and to others in Israel who constitute his constituency, because it means he might have to get serious about a two-state solution, about accommodating the Palestinians and then the Arabs, and then about actually seeking peace. And that is not Mr. Netanyahu’s goal. JAY: Now, if you go to the American politics of this, what do you make of Boehner? What exactly does he get out of this? Now, he embarrasses, he thinks, President Obama, but it seems to me it’s actually working more against him than it is President Obama now. Who is he trying to please? Maybe some very big donors, like a Sheldon Adelson type. But there’s a significant public opinion, and particularly in the Republican Party, that doesn’t like the idea that Israel is leading U.S. foreign policy. And doesn’t he seem to strengthen that notion, and thus alienate some of his own people? WILKERSON: Yeah, you bet. You just answered your own question. All of the above is what I’ll say. Plus John Boehner has shown, I think, with this homeland security issue, funding of Homeland Security, funding of the Homeland Department, that–as he’s done previously, I might add–that he is about as good a leader as Mickey Mouse. This is not a man who can even get his own party to follow policy, to follow leadership, and vote accordingly. This is a man who operates, in my view, on a purely tactical basis, from crisis to crisis, moment to moment, day to day, and a man who’s motivated by, I think, personally as well as politically, doing anything he possibly can to diminish the president’s power. And this is the latest example thereof. You’re right. There are still some sane and sober voices in the Republican Party who object to spending beyond $17 trillion we’re already in debt on further wars, who object to frittering away our power on the peripheries of our empire, who object to doing things that are not in the spirit of realistic policy and realistic action. There are still Republicans who are geared, in other words, to a realistic and to a sound foreign policy, and Mr. Boehner does not represent that. JAY: Right. Now, the substance of what Netanyahu says, that Iran is a existential threat, and then he ends by saying–and this has been the thing that he’s going to talk about Congress, that they’re planning to build nuclear weapons without [incompr.] lots of them, he adds–the American media covers that uncritically said over and over and over again, when, as we know, there’s actually no evidence of any of this. WILKERSON: None whatsoever. JAY: I interviewed Robert Kelly recently, the former IAEA inspector. And I thought he made a very important point, that you can talk about this many centrifuges or that many centrifuges, but the real issue is: is there any evidence that there’s intent on the Iranian side to have a nuclear bomb? And there’s no evidence of it. But the American media never talks about that. WILKERSON: Yeah. The DNI, Jim Clapper, just confirmed that before the Congress in his assessment, his intelligence assessment. There is certainly no evidence of that now under the joint plan of action, which I might point out has frozen the Iranian nuclear program, such as it is, for the first time in two decades. When I came into office with George W. Bush, for example, they had about 300 centrifuges. They have something like 19,000-plus now, and some very sophisticated ones. So what we were doing in the Bush administration and the earlier Obama administrations has done nothing. Now, this joint plan of action has not only–it’s changed our act, where they would have had a plutonium processing facility or plutonium producing facility. It’s changed it into a reactor configuration that won’t be able to do that. This is what we dealt with with the North Koreans in Yongbyon, for example. We have frozen the Iranian nuclear program under the highly enriched uranium program. That is to say, all of that above 5 percent has been shipped out, and we’ve leveled it at 5 percent. We are dealing with the level of centrifuges in the sophistication of those centrifuges and how they’ll be left intact for a civilian program. And we’re dealing with other aspects of the program. Under the joint plan of action, we’ve frozen the program. If this diplomacy succeeds and we have a win-win solution, one that–and we forget this sometimes–Tehran can sell to its Majlis, its Congress, and its people, and one we can sell to our own–then we have the most intrusive inspection regime set up under the IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty the world’s ever seen. And it will extend for the period we specify and agree to–ten years, 15, 20. I don’t care if it’s ten, I don’t care if it’s eight, because in that period, you can build some trust and you can deal with other issues. And also people forget it doesn’t end at the end of that period. You still have the Non-Proliferation Treaty, for which Iran is the signatory. You still have the original additional safeguards. You still have all the things that you’ve set up in the way of inspections and so forth. So this is probably the best deal that can be achieved if what I’m hearing about it is accurate. And I wait to see if it is. JAY: Right. So, to go back to your earlier point, this really isn’t about nuclear weapons. It’s about do you or do you not accept Iran as a regional power. And right now there is a war against Iran, and it’s called economic warfare through sanctions. And that’s what Netanyahu doesn’t want to stop, because the sanctions are hampering Iran’s ability to fully play its role in the region,– WILKERSON: Absolutely. JAY: –and they don’t want that war to end. WILKERSON: And it’s hampering Iran’s ability to compete economically with Israel, too. And this is a big part of it. But if you look at it closely, Paul. This is what–I was just out in Memphis, Tennessee, talking with a number of people trying to get–essentially trying to get myself oriented towards talking to Senator Bob Corker, whom I think–a Tennessean, of course–whom I think is a pragmatic man. If you look at it very, very closely, the most stable country in this region is Iran. In many respects, the country with the most democratic aspects to its governance is Iran. The country doing the most to fight those elements in the region that we see on TV every day cutting people’s throats is Iran. The country that is helping Iraq to become a more stable country in that regard is Iran. Devouring countries, spreading terrorism across the face of the Earth? Come on, Mr. Netanyahu. You are looking at a very different country from the one I’m looking at. And I’ll tell you something else. I know the lens through which you’re looking. You’re looking through the lens of diminishment of Israeli power and enhancement of Iranian power, which would be good for the region but bad for you. JAY: And, in fact, we know Israel and the Saudis are very much on the same page these days, but it’s exactly the Saudis who’ve been playing much more of that kind of role that he’s describing. WILKERSON: You’d better believe it. And that ought to tell someone, even someone who’s just come to these issues, that there’s something stinky in Denmark, because if the Saudis and the Israelis are working together, there’s got to be some nefarious motivation there. JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Larry. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. JAY: Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.