Joint Chiefs Chairman: An Israeli Attack On Iran Would Be Unsuccessful And Counterproductive

General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a message to Israel last week.

General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, said in a speech that an Israeli attack on Iran would not end Iran’s nuclear program and would likely lead to a wider war:

An Israeli attack on Iran would delay but probably not stop its nuclear programme, the most senior US military officer has claimed. General Martin Dempsey reinforced Washington’s opposition to unilateral Israelmilitary action as he made clear that US military chiefs were equally wary of getting ensnared in Syria.


Distancing himself from any Israeli plan to bomb Iran, Dempsey said such an attack would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear programme”.

He added: “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.”

Dempsey said he did not know Iran’s nuclear intentions, as intelligence did not reveal intentions. What was clear, he said, was that the “international coalition” applying pressure on Iran “could be undone if [Iran] was attacked prematurely”. Sanctions against Iran were having an effect, and they should be given a reasonable opportunity to succeed.

If nothing else, this is another demonstration of the apparent conflict that has developed between the United States and Israel over Iran that I noted earlier. Many will no doubt criticize General Dempsey’s worth as impolitic, and perhaps that’s true. However, based on all the available evidence we have (which is admittedly far less substantial than the evidence and analysis he has access to), he happens to be absolutely correct. For years now, experts have been warning that an attack on Iran, whether by Israel alone or in conjunction with the United States would lead to a wide variety of unintended consequences ranging from the danger of worldwide terror strikes by Iran’s allies in Hezbollah and Hamas, massive spikes in the price of oil, and the danger that the whole Middle East could be plunged into war. Earlier this year, The New York Times took note of a wargaming exercise in which a number of high-profile experts participated in designed to determine how an attack on Iran might play itself out.  As I noted at the time, the general conclusion from that exercise that there was an extremely high risk that a one-off attack on Iran’s nuclear program would both fail to succeed in seriously damaging the country’s nuclear program and lead to a wider crisis that could potentially develop into war and terror attacks. Another wargaming scenario played out last year reached similar conclusions. Dempsey no doubt has access to analysis that is even more well-informed than this, and it’s quite obviously influencing his opinion on this matter.

Hawks such as Michael Ledeen are denouncing Dempsey’s remarks, predictably, but Lawrence Rafferty raises an excellent point:

Do we really want to back or assist in an Israeli attack when the majority of Israeli defense chiefs are reportedly against it?  If the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs states that sanctions against Iran are working, why would anyone want to attack first and ask questions later?  Are these calls for attacks in Israel and the United States politically motivated and out of touch with the intelligence and military realities?  When United States Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton make claims that it is necessary to attack Iran, should we believe them, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the former head of the Mossad?  USA Today & Radio Free Europe

How accurate was the track record of hawks like Senator Lieberman and Ambassador Bolton prior to attacking Iraq because of its alleged weapons of Mass Destruction program?  Why do politicians want to send in the military, even before the military thinks it should be involved?  Could the upcoming election be part of the reason for these calls for war?

Election year politics assuredly has something to do with this. There is, after all, political benefit to be derived from rhetorical attacks against the Iranians and “standing by Israel,” but when you’re talking about Lieberman, McCain, and at least some of the people advising Romney on foreign policy I think there’s also the belief that war really is the only and best option we have against Iran. That was certainly the position of Vice-President Cheney, who reportedly urged President Bush to launch a strike against Iran during the final years of his Administration, advice which Bush wisely rejected.

Jeffrey Goldberg agrees with Dempsey but thinks that his public statements aren’t the way to convince the Israelis to hold off from an attack:

Dempsey is right: An Israeli attack would be premature and potentially ineffective. But the way to convince the Israelis that the Obama Administration is serious about stopping Iran is not to make statements that reinforce Prime Minister Netanyahu’s belief that Israel stands alone on the issue. That makes an attack more likely, not less. Of course, Gen. Dempsey could be privy to information that we don’t have — which is to say, he knows that it is too late to stop Netanyahu and Barak from launching an attack before November, and is simply trying to protect American forces in the Gulf from the fallout.

Goldberg goes on to say that he doesn’t think an attack  before November is probable, and in fact that the Israelis are coming to the conclusion that the window of opportunity is closing very rapidly. Of course, if that’s true then wouldn’t that make it more possible that the Israelis would attack sooner? It seems like Dempsey is concerned about just that possibility, and that’s why he chose to speak out so emphatically. Given his position, one can assume that he’s not merely expressing his opinion, but the opinion of the Obama Administration itself.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    If Bibi Netanyahu and his settlers and ultra-orthodox and Brooklyn fanatics and apocalyptic American Christianists drag us into this, we need to be quits with Israel. This would be an absolute betrayal of our friendship and alliance. Israel needs to be reminded who’s the dog and who’s the tail and who wags who.

  2. Me Me Me says:

    What michael reynolds said.

    Also, while we are at it, lets remember that point of American foreign policy is to advance America’s interests – not Netanyahu’s.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    This states the underlying question very well:

    When United States Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton make claims that it is necessary to attack Iran, should we believe them, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the former head of the Mossad?

    When John Bolton favors military action it is a matter of quantity over quality – when has he ever counseled otherwise? If someone in Lichtenstein criticized America, Bolton would order an attack.

  4. george says:

    I think the chiefs are just stating the obvious – you can’t keep 70 year old technology from spreading to nations with sufficient funds (such as oil, for instance).

    And the US’s first concern has to be to its own population – if an ally (such as Israel, or Canada for that matter) is attacked, then defending it if possible is the right thing to do. But if that ally starts a war on its own, there’s no obligation to help it. Especially a war which ultimately is just pissing into the wind.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but starting a war is definitely not it. (Typical situation in science and technology – easier to see what won’t work than what will work).

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    The best reason not to vote for Romney is he will be listening to the likes of Bolton and Lieberman and look at what that got us last time.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    I’m sure Adelson knows better than the Joint Chiefs…and it’s Adelson who will be pulling Romney’s strings.
    Romney will probably be good for the economy because Republicans always spend money and grow Government and that’s exactly what we need.
    But Romney will be an absolute disaster for Foreign Policy and the SCOTUS.

  7. Laurence Bachmann says:

    I for one am glad our president refuses to stick his nose up netanyahu’s backside.

  8. Dazedandconfused says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I think anybody who believes Romney will honor his word on anything has to be blind and deaf. Adelsons money is chump change to a sitting Republican president, and to people like Karl Rove these days as well. They are rolling in cash. Dan Senor made a statement while they were in Israel that Mitt would support a strike on Iran and Mitt walked it right back.

    I suspect that, and the lack of mention of Israel at the Republican pep-rally, along with Iran’s hosting of the non-aligned nations meeting, has a bee up Bibi’s butt. Word is he got in a shouting match with the US ambassador this week.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    Adelson is one of the top 5 contributors to a campaign fueled by huge donors…and he is obsessed with Israel. If you don’t think he’s showing up for breakfast at the White House on Jan. 21st with a list of demands you are kidding yourself. And spineless Mitt will do his bidding. That’s the problem with men who are infinitely malleable…they are infinitely corruptable.
    Adelson and the rest are buying the Presidency…and they’ll get what they paid for.

  10. Dazedandconfused says:

    He thinks he is buying a President. Haim Saban may have thought the same thing four years ago, but I doubt it. I think Haim is several times brighter.

    If you can’t fire it or sell it, you don’t own it, you are simply an investor.

  11. Barry says:

    What’s amazing is watching Doug not point out that all of these guys was for the Iraq War.

  12. Franklin says:

    @Ron Beasley: Sometimes I forget that there are two main reasons that I probably won’t vote Romney. The first is that I would like to reduce the possibility of Republicans controlling all three branches of government. The second is what you said.

  13. J-Dub says:

    Iraq and Afghanistan were such big successes, why not go for the trifecta?