As the fifth consecutive day of protests in Iran drew to a close, one of the chief members of President Bush's intelligence apparatus warned that the United States should forgo the military option no matter what the outcome of the contested elections.
"I would argue against any military option. I just don't think it will work, and it will have consequences that will be severe," said John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director of the CIA under President George W. Bush.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday for a panel on national security risks, McLaughlin went on to acknowledge that his statement would generate a robust argument among well-intentioned foreign policy observers. But the advice he offered on Iran did not end there.
Earlier in the event, McLaughlin, who served briefly as Acting Director at the CIA, urged the Obama White House to proceed with caution when it came to the politically embattled country. Regardless of who emerged victorious from the election, he said, the United States would have real difficulties on its hands.
"As best we know Mousavi or Ahmadinejad there's no real difference in terms of the nuclear program," he said. He asked, rhetorically, if support for nuclear weapons extends throughout the country. "I don't think anyone can prove that. There are lots of reasons to think they're heading for a weapons program. It would be prudent to assume it so."
McLaughlin's remarks reflect the acute diplomatic concerns that Iran's protests pose within U.S. foreign policy circles. Clearly, frictions have existed between the United States and the Ahmadinejad government. But President Obama himself has cautioned that having Mousavi in power would not necessarily bring about shifts in policy. In either case, McLaughlin hinted, the next government in Iran would have, at best, tenuous legitimacy.
At a same time, a growing majority of thinkers and opinion makers are urging the United States to adopt a less confrontational approach when it comes to Iran, cognizant that a popular movement exists within that country for greater international engagement.
As to a projected outcome of the protests, McLaughlin argued that Iran's own history sets a bleak precedent. As evidence he pointed to a lack of cohesion among reform groups as the reason why Iran's fifth president, Mohammad Khatami, (whom McLaughlin referred to as a "genuine reformer in Iranian terms"), was not elected to a third term. However, he added, "they didn't have that kind of technology then" which "may enable them to last longer [this time], to coalesce."