- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Pentagon’s top strategist believes it is “probable” that Iran’s anti-American Islamist regime will one day possess nuclear weapons, according to his talking points obtained by The Washington Times.

James H. Baker, who directs the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA), raised that inevitability during a private talk in July 2017 before a Japanese-U.S. audience. 

At the time, Iran was under the constraints of a U.S.-led, time-limited agreement that prevented Tehran from seeking nuclear arms but the new Trump administration was weighing an end to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) with Iran

President Trump heaped scorn on JCPOA as a giveaway to a chief sponsor of terrorism and a killer of U.S. service members, and he pulled the U.S. out of the deal in May 2018.

But even under JCPOA and its restraints on bomb-making uranium enrichment, Mr. Baker revealed that he thought Iran’s bellicose leaders will likely acquire nuclear weapons.

Today, President Biden is trying to coax Iran into talks to adhere to JCPOA. So far, the ruling mullahs have refused to negotiate, as their surrogate armies in Yemen and Iraq fire rockets at Saudi Arabian civilian targets and Iraqi bases housing Americans.

Meanwhile, a possible Iranian nuclear arsenal is being watched by Israel. Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Fox News this month that he is updating plans to strike Iran’s nuclear targets.

As chief strategist for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Mr. Baker’s secretive office is presumedly producing options and assessments for the next U.S. moves. The two men worked together 10 years ago, when then-Army Lt. Gen. Austin ran the Joint Staff, which reports to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Mr. Baker, then an Air Force officer, was JCS strategic adviser.

Obama aides picked Mr. Baker to head the Office of Net Assessment in 2015. His 2017 talk was titled “Rise of Eurasian Revisionist Powers (Iran, Russia, China) and the Implications for the Japan-U.S. Alliance.”

“The region dominates Iran in every dimension of power, even though lack of Sunni cooperation severely hampers effectiveness,” his talking points state. 

“Saudi Arabia possesses the will and wealth to contest Iranian expansionism. Proxy wars and destabilizing tendencies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are likely to preoccupy the entirety of Timur’s old possessions and prevent stability. Each of these trends is likely to continue. Iranian probable possession of a nuclear weapon carries serious and likely risks, but offers Iran only limited use in reshaping the power dynamics in the region,” he wrote.

Timur was a Central Asian conquerer who established an empire in the region in the 1300s.

Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah L. Orland, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Washington Times that Mr. Baker’s “probable” assessment is not out of line.

“The long-term comparative assessments of trends, key competitions, risks, opportunities, and future prospects of U.S. military capability provided by Mr. Baker and the Office of Net Assessment are an integral part of helping the department adapt to a changing and dynamic threat landscape,” Col. Orland said. 

“One area of interest ONA is examining is a proliferated world, so these comments are not atypical. In fact, we expect ONA to present the Secretary with ideas, concepts and alternative futures that force the department to think differently and more strategically about the challenges we will face,” the colonel said.

Mr. Baker also said: “Iran, if it chooses, may ‘safely’ possess a nuclear weapon in 10-15 years time.”

The Times asked a U.S. defense official about this sentence. The official said “safely” is not an assessment of Iran’s ability to secure weapons. It is instead, the official said, a reference to JCPOA’s expiration dates and the fact that Iran might own nukes and still avoid “significant penalty or repercussions … resulting in a poor outcome for the world.”

Mr. Baker in his talk delivered his views on “revisionist” states — China, Russia and Iran — so labeled because they want to upend the global status quo.

“Russia and Iran also do not possess the means, and are unlikely to ever possess the means to permanently change the borders of their neighbors, or to dominate them economically.” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to change one border with his invasion and seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Iran respects little of its border with Iraq, moving units and equipment through the country to aid militias there and in Syria.

Mr. Baker’s talk also argued that China, Russia and Iran “lack the ability to substantially revise the present international order through violent or coercive means.”

On China, Mr. Baker said the communist regime has clearly abandoned an old strategic policy of “hide and bide” — that is, to mask a burgeoning national military while waiting for the right time to unleash an aggressive foreign policy.

“The U.S. is presently not well poised to capitalize on this trend, nor is it clear that U.S. elites across the political spectrum understand the danger that China poses as a competitor,” Mr. Baker said. 

“Comparative military advantage remains with the United States (and its allies), but is being systematically undermined by increased Chinese investment, focus, training and basing,” Mr. Baker wrote.

Still, he said, China depends on globalization for prosperity, which “will inhibit more radical tendencies.”

By 2020, the Trump administration had come to view China as America’s chief adversary. Just this month, China launched another broad computer hacking attack, this time against Microsoft mail servers.

The hack was an effort to try to steal personal information and other data from millions of Americans. The FBI estimates that China has stolen private identity data on half the U.S. population.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a report on Iran’s military power in 2019.

Iran’s overarching strategic goals of enhancing its security, prestige, and regional influence have led it to pursue nuclear energy and the capability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so,” the DIA report said. “As long as Iran adheres to the agreement, the JCPOA limits the pathways to a nuclear weapon and hampers Iran’s ability to conduct activities that could contribute to nuclear explosive device design and development.”

Responding to Mr. Trump’s JCPOA exit, Iran in 2019 exceeded the agreement’s allowable stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, has been investigating Mr. Baker’s tenure at ONA.

A Department of Defense inspector general report said ONA failed to follow contracting rules for studies it financed and did not verify sourcing for $1 million in reports done by Stefan Halper, the FBI’s main spy in its investigation of the Trump campaign.

As ONA director, Mr. Baker enjoys direct access to Mr. Austin. While Mr. Austin ran the Joint Staff for one year in 2009-10, Mr. Baker, then an Air Force colonel, headed the JCS’ “Action Team” providing strategic advice.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide