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Michael Morell on strategic challenges ahead in 2023 —

Michael Morell on strategic challenges ahead in 2023 —
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This week on Intelligence Matters, Michael Morell offers an in-depth analysis of the top national security challenges facing the world in 2023. Morell describes how the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war is in the hands of West and that without Western assistance, Russia could win the war. Morell defines the U.S. China relationship as a “cold war,” but despite that tension Morell does not predict that China will invade Taiwan in 2023. Where Morell foresees the greatest probability of war in 2023 is between Iran and Israel as a hardline Israeli government takes the helm. 

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • Outcome of Russia-Ukraine war: “The outcome of this war is really in the hands of the West. So if you want a guide, I think, to any big inflection points in 2023, watch the West and its approach to Ukraine. And why do I say that? If the West withdrew its support for some reason, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. And I want to emphasize that. But if we did, Russia could and probably would still win this war, including achieving its overall objective of turning Ukraine into a vassal state. So Russia could still win, if we pulled back our support. From a policy perspective, we just got to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We need to make sure that we hold together the political support here in the U.S. and hold together our allies internationally.”
  • U.S.-China cold war? “When China clearly chooses to maintain a strategic relationship with Russia despite Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation. When it threatens reunification with Taiwan by any means necessary. When we place tariffs on Chinese products largely for domestic political reasons, and when we deny Chinese technology, when we deny technology to China in a bid to contain their own technology goals, we’re in a Cold War.”
  • Likelihood of war between Iran and Israel? I think the probability of war between Iran and Israel has gone up as a result of the outcome of the Israeli election. The formation of the most hardline conservative government, probably in Israel’s history. And while the probability is still low, it is for 2023, I think, the most likely place where we could see a new major war break out.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: Michael Morell

PRODUCER: Paulina Smolinski

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: MICHAEL MORELL ON THE YEAR AHEAD: STRATEGIC CHALLENGES IN 2023

MICHAEL ALLEN:  Michael, Happy New Year. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Happy New Year. Michael. I think it’s a terrific idea to do this as a podcast to turn the tables on me, so to speak. So I’m really looking forward to this.

MICHAEL ALLEN: All right. This will be fun. I’m going to try to interrupt you every now and again. I’ll try to make it a deposition. All right. Let’s start with Russia-Ukraine. What are you seeing on the ground today and what do you see in the year ahead?

MICHAEL MORELL: Michael, I think it makes sense to break the answer to this question into two buckets, a tactical bucket and a strategic bucket. But before I do that, I want to give credit here to one particular source of information on the war. I read a lot on this issue, but by far the thing that I find most informative and most useful to be the daily report on the war that’s put out by the Institute for the Study of War. It really is an amazing example of the high quality of analysis that’s possible with open source. So I just want to give them credit because a lot of what forms my view comes from them. 

So first, tactically. The situation on the ground today is a stalemate. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces lack the resources to move forward, to conduct an offensive. Russia has not had any significant victories since early July, and for weeks they have been digging in. Literally building defensive positions, preparing for trench warfare. They are not going to be moving forward anytime soon, anywhere. Ukraine, for its part, Ukraine is awaiting the supply of new and more advanced weapons systems that had been promised by the West. That, I think, could change the deadlock in individual locations. But I don’t think it’s going to be enough to change the stalemate across the entire battlefield. So that’s where we are tactically. 

I think the other thing to note tactically and everyone here knows this, is that the Russians continue to hammer Ukrainian infrastructure targets multiple times a week. All of that designed to deny heat, to deny electricity, to deny water to the Ukrainian people. And I’d make two points on these attacks. One, they’re intentional attacks on civilian targets designed to break the will of the Ukrainians to fight. They are, in my view, I don’t know if it’s from a legal perspective, but in my view, they’re war crimes, and they need to be called out as such by Western governments and by the Western media. And we need to use them right, to embarrass any country that is supporting Russia in any way, in my view. And then number two, they’re not working, and I don’t think they’re going to work. They are not going to break Ukraine’s will to fight. If anything, they’re strengthening Ukraine’s will to fight. I think this is another example of a huge mistake by Vladimir Putin in this war. 

Strategically, and I don’t think- from a strategic perspective- and I don’t think, Michael, this is too strong of a statement, the outcome of this war is really in the hands of the West. So if you want a guide, I think to any big inflection points in 2023, watch the West and its approach to Ukraine. And why do I say that? If the West withdrew its support for some reason, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. And I want to emphasize that. But if we did, Russia could and probably would still win this war, including achieving its overall objective of turning Ukraine into a vassal state. So Russia could still win, if we pulled back our support. From a policy perspective, we just got to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We need to make sure that we hold together the political support here in the U.S. and hold together our allies internationally. 

On the other hand, if we continue to only slowly increase the sophistication of the weapons we’re providing to Ukraine, call that the base case, that’s where we’ve been. And that’s assumed that’s going to continue to happen. The fighting is likely to go on for some time, in my view. It’s going to at least drag on well into the second half of this year, if not the entire year. But- and this is the last point I’ll make here. But if the West- if the coalition gave the Ukrainians what the Ukrainians are asking for, namely fighters, tanks, long range precision weapons, President Zelensky’s entire list, I believe that Ukraine could retake all of its territory currently held by the Russians, including Crimea. And in the process, we would demonstrate to the world that the West is going to lead and make sure that violations of sovereignty like this will not stand and the world would be a whole lot better place if that’s the outcome. And just one more sentence here, which I think is really important. I want to remind everyone that what’s happening in Ukraine is the biggest military conflict in Europe since World War Two. And that’s quite a statement. 

MICHAEL ALLEN: Michael, I might have called it incrementally progress by the Ukrainians, but I would have come out at the same place, which is that the Biden administration is seemingly not willing to give so many weapons or give everything that Zelensky wants. I mean, why not? You’ve served with many of these people in the Obama administration. What’s going on?

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me say a few sentences and then turn it back on you because you look at this as closely as I do. I don’t know is the answer. I don’t sit at the table, obviously, with these people. And quite frankly, I don’t talk to anyone regularly in the administration about this. My guess would be it’s a concern about escalation. It’s a concern about nuclear use by the Russians, and it’s a concern that if Russia collapses, we could be in a much worse place. My guess is those are the kind of thoughts that are going on, the kind of discussion that’s going on as they make decisions to kind of slow roll things. I think that’s a mistake. I think we’re over worrying about those things. And I think if you want to end this war sooner and you want to leave both countries in a better place, you would provide the weapons that the Ukrainians need to end this thing. Is my sense. But I’d love to hear your view.

MICHAEL ALLEN: Well, my sense is that they’re playing not to lose. They- the Biden administration is playing not to lose, and that they are being way too cautious in not transferring over what we need. What the Ukrainians need. We’re just now apparently getting around to sending a lot more infantry fighting vehicles. But to me, that’s a little late. And over and over you hear of requests, denials, delays, eventual acceptance, and then it takes a long time to incorporate it into the battlefield. So the Ukrainians are doing great. It’s hard to say the Biden administration has been weak, but it seems like they are really talking themselves out of a lot of things for fear of World War three, which is what always ends up in the newspapers. What Biden’s concerns about.

MICHAEL MORELL: I think that you’re absolutely right. They deserve credit for what they’ve done. They deserve credit for standing up to Russia and saying no. They deserve credit for leading the coalition, that supports Ukraine today. The Obama administration didn’t do that in 2014, when Russia grabbed Crimea. Quite frankly, the Bush administration didn’t do that when Russia invaded Georgia. So they deserve credit for standing up and saying no. But I would like to see them be more aggressive in providing the weapons that Ukraine needs. Whenever I see them make a decision to send a new weapon system. I ask myself, why didn’t that come two months ago? Why didn’t that come four months ago? I ask myself that question.

MICHAEL ALLEN: Exactly. Well, you mentioned nuclear weapons. And of course, if we believe that Putin would use them, that is a great reason to self deter. But after his initial round of threats, I’d say three months ago, most analysts looked at this and said, you know what, I don’t think he’s going to use it because why would he use it on his own battlefield that he claims is Russian territory and he would lose significant diplomatic ground with the Indians and the Chinese. So I’ve sort of seen the nuclear weapons specter decline. What do you think?

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I agree. So on the use of- we’re talking about tactical nuclear weapons, you’re right on their use. The Russian rhetoric has died down. I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is the public rebuke of Russia on this issue from China during Chinese President Xi’s meeting with German Chancellor Scholz in early November. And I think that was a very important thing for China to have done. And second, and this is only a guess I don’t know for sure, is that we probably in the form of Bill Burns sitting down with his Russian counterpart or through Jake Sullivan to his Russian counterpart, sent Russia a very strong message on how we would respond to a Russian use of nuclear weapons. And what they heard gave them pause. 

So I think probably those two things have changed the dynamic here a little bit with regard to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. And that is a very good thing. Now, I’d say the probability has gone down, but it’s not zero. I can still imagine situations where Putin might feel completely cornered and feel he has no other choice. But I do think the threat has gone down.

MICHAEL ALLEN: And there’s some suggestion from the administration on occasion that at least in the newspapers, that if the Ukrainians tried to seek or had some success in Crimea, that might provoke Putin. Do you credit that at all?

MICHAEL MORELL: So certainly Crimea is the most important piece of what he currently holds to Putin. Certainly. But for all the reasons that you talked about. For why the use of nuclear weapons would be a mistake to Russia, stand in Crimea as they stand in eastern Ukraine. It would make Russia a pariah state. The Chinese would undoubtedly break with the Russians over the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Their military effectiveness, unless you use many, many of them are highly questionable. So the value you get out of it is not significant. You probably draw on NATO into the war in Ukraine. Not into Russia, but into Ukraine in some way. So there are huge downsides for Putin. And those are true in Crimea as they are anywhere else in Ukraine.

MICHAEL ALLEN: My last question on Ukraine. Can you comment a little bit on Putin’s political position?

MICHAEL MORELL: I think, not surprisingly, Putin is highly attuned to his own politics. I think sometimes it’s easy for us to sit back and look at authoritarians and say they don’t have to worry about their politics. But they do. Just like any politician anywhere. But what he’s attuned to is not what most of us would think. Most of us would think He’s attuned to anti-war voices in Russia. No, he’s attuned to and reacts to critiques from the ultra nationalist right from those folks who have supported him for years and who actually want him to be more aggressive in Ukraine,  not less. He did the partial mobilization several months ago in response to their critiques, and he angered the general population by doing so. And I think also the the regular missile and drone attacks that we’re now seeing on Ukrainian infrastructure are largely in response to the critiques of the ultranationalists. He’s afraid of them. He’s trying to manage them by responding to these critiques and by trying to co-opt them at the same time. 

So he’s asked them, believe it or not, he’s asked them for a monthly report. I think it’s an effort to bring them under the tent. So he’s highly attuned to his politics and to these ultranationalists in particular. I think the last thing I’d say is I think it’s very hard to say if Putin is under any near-term political threat. I don’t see it. But 33 years as a CIA analyst taught me that it’s very hard to see successful coups coming. If we, if the U.S. intelligence community sees a coup coming, it probably means the troubled leader does as well and can move to stop it. It’s the unseen coup that gets you both as a leader and as an outside analyst. So would I be surprised if we woke up tomorrow to news that Putin’s been arrested or he’s been shot? Not at all. But him being around a year from now. Wouldn’t surprise me either. 

MICHAEL ALLEN: Wow. So you wouldn’t be surprised if you woke up tomorrow morning and Putin was dead or arrested? 

MICHAEL MORELL: Right, because these ultra nationalists think he hasn’t gone far enough. But again, let me emphasize, I don’t see any evidence of that. And I think the last thing to say is I think there’s a sense sometimes in the West and in the United States that if Putin were to go, he’d be replaced by less of a hardliner. And I think we need to realize that the more likely outcome is a more hard line, more authoritarian leader of Russia rather than a small d, democrat leader of Russia. Putin going would, in my view, be unlikely to solve our Russia problem.

MICHAEL ALLEN: That’s for sure. Okay, let’s move to China. Let me just start off. Go ahead.

MICHAEL MORELL: No, I was going to say let’s move on to an easy one.

MICHAEL ALLEN: That’s right. What will 2023 bring to the US-China relationship?

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So I think we start 2023 with the U.S. and China in a Cold War. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. In fact, I think it’s pretty indisputable. When China clearly chooses to maintain a strategic relationship with Russia despite Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation. When it threatens reunification with Taiwan by any means necessary. When we place tariffs on Chinese products largely for domestic political reasons, and when we deny Chinese technology, when we deny technology to China in a bid to contain their own technology goals, we’re in a Cold War. So I think that’s where we were starting the year. I think it’s important to ask what’s the Cold War being fought over? It’s not being fought over ideology. China doesn’t want to export communism or even its own version of authoritarianism. It’s not a Cold War being fought over territory, outside of Taiwan, South China Sea, a couple of border disputes. China does not have territorial ambitions. Rather, I think the Cold War is being fought over technology supremacy that will define future economic and military supremacy. And it’s being fought over political influence around the world. China does not want to use that influence that it has in other countries for a global common like the way we have. And I really believe that. But rather it wants to use that influence solely for its own narrow economic interests. It wants to be able simply by its economic might, to dictate, which is too strong of a word so I will use influence again, to influence countries around the world to choose economic policies that are in China’s strategic interests. 

And my guess, Michael, is that we’ll end 2023 deeper in that Cold War than we’re starting. I think the forces that have brought us here nationalism in China and politics here in the U.S. are just too strong for there to be any other outcome. This is all going to come at a cost. It’s going to come at a cost to the global economy. Globalization had much more economic benefits than costs. And the reverse of globalization, call it decoupling, which is going to be a big part of this Cold War, is going to come at an economic price. It’s going to put some of our allies in an uncomfortable position, and it’s going to put some U.S. companies, who do business in China, in an increasingly uncomfortable position. So that’s kind of where we are.

MICHAEL ALLEN: So for years now, and appropriately so, we’ve been worried that we were falling behind the Chinese. At a minimum, they were catching up with us. I’m wondering whether you subscribe to some of the new thinking out there that says, you know what, the Chinese are not ten feet tall like we used to see. They have structural economic issues, demographic issues, and because Xi Jinping and his zeal for the party has killed the golden goose, he’s overregulated the economy. Do you put any stock in that or do you think they’re still winning?

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, it’s a great question, Michael. I do. So I buy into the Hal Brands argument that China is no longer a rising power, but rather a peaking one. Hal lists three reasons why China is no longer a rising power. First is the huge systemic challenges they face. Demographics, debt, among others. Second is what you just mentioned, is the slowdown and even reversal of economic reform. This is the goose right to kill the golden egg or this is killing the goose that laid the golden egg. And third is the fact that the world is beginning to stand up to China and to say no to its policies that are inconsistent with the rules based order that most of the world wants to live in. 

To Hal’s three points I would add a fourth, which is, I think that China, we’re going to see increasingly sclerotic policymaking in Beijing as Xi’s preference for rule of life gets in the way of what was once a great Chinese strength, which was a change in leadership every five or ten years that brought new people, new ideas, fresh approaches to policymaking. China’s losing that right. So I think, you look at all of that and Hal’s argument, that they are peaking power makes sense. 

The caveat I would put on it is that it doesn’t necessarily change our current situation with China because China has grown so strong and so confident and so aggressive over the last ten years that we have to deal with this country. And as Hal argues very persuasively, I think, them being a peaking power actually makes them more dangerous in the short run if they feel like they have less time. 

I agree with him. And I would add, that fourth point. The other thing I’d say about this is, and I think about this a lot, is there’s dynamics underway in both China and the United States that I think are leading each of us to weaken ourselves. Here at home, here in the U.S., for political reasons we’re walking away from free enterprise on a whole host of policies, including trade. And we’re walking away from caring about budget deficits. You and I just talked about this. We pretend they don’t exist. We pretend they don’t matter and they still do. And plague future generations. And then you look at China and we just talked about for political reasons, them walking away from economic reform and from capitalism. And so as long as these dynamics exist in both countries, I think sometimes the competition between the two countries is literally going to come down to more about not who wins, but who loses the least. It’s not a race to the top, but rather, avoid getting to the bottom first. Both countries have big issues they have to tackle.

MICHAEL ALLEN: Right. Michael, what about Taiwan? We can’t have a conversation without discussing them. Most timelines say something general of it gets more dangerous the longer we get in the decade. I hear people within the government always saying 2027 is the timeframe that we’re most worried about. What do you think? First of all, let me just ask you bluntly, do you think that Xi Jinping is going to go for it?

MICHAEL MORELL: Not anytime soon is the direct answer to that. Michael, as you know, there’s been a ton of rhetoric regarding Taiwan in both Beijing and Washington over the last couple of years, more last year than the year before. A lot of increasingly aggressive military exercises by China, quite frankly, aggressive political moves by Washington. Speaker Pelosi’s trip, multiple statements by the president, walking back from our long time policy regarding defending Taiwan. All of which have raised tension in the Straits over the past couple of years. And I expect all of that to continue in 2023. 

I’d note that since the Pelosi trip, China is now at a new normal in terms of military exercises vis a vis Taiwan. There’s a higher tempo, more aggressive level than we saw before the trip. And I don’t think that’s going to change. But despite all that tension I do not believe that China is going to initiate an attack on Taiwan in 2023 or any time soon after that. There’s one caveat to that, which is that China would, I believe, respond militarily to a major policy mistake in either Taipei or Washington. Say Taiwan declares independence or say we walk away from our one-China policy, neither of which I expect to happen. But if one of those two mistakes were made, then I believe China would respond militarily. 

What’s the best way to think about Xi’s thinking on Taiwan. A former CIA China analyst who I really respect, John Culver, really one of the best in the business, has coined the phrase, which I think is exactly right. John says, for Xi at this point, Taiwan is a crisis to be avoided. Not an opportunity to be gained. And I think there’s really a couple of reasons for that. One is Xi has big domestic issues that he needs to attend to. Most importantly ensuring that China can continue to grow its economy and ensuring that China avoids the middle income trap. Solving those systemic problems we talked about earlier, that is going to determine his legacy more than anything else. If Chinese growth goes south under his watch, that is what will be on his tombstone. If he succeeds in making China rich, then that’s his legacy. And second, and I think this is really important, and I think a lot of people don’t understand this, is China is not yet prepared to attack Taiwan at a high enough level of confidence of success. And attacking Taiwan and losing would probably be the end of the road for any Chinese leader.

MICHAEL ALLEN: So he’s deterred. It’s too big of a gamble

MICHAEL MORELL: That is exactly the point. He’s deterred right now. What do they need to have more confidence? They need more amphibious lift to move troops across the straits. They need more nuclear weapons so that they can be seen by us as being able to go toe to toe with us on the nuclear front in a Taiwan crisis. And they need enough economic decoupling from us so that China could more easily, whether broad based U.S. sanctions that would follow a Chinese invasion. That’s what I think they’re trying to pursue. 

And I think the point about them not being ready was captured best by Xi himself. When he ordered his military to be prepared to take Taiwan by force by 2027. He was admitting that he has doubts that he can do it today. So if you think about, and this is this is probably the most important point on China-Taiwan, so what’s the right policy approach for the United States? And you said it. Focus on deterrence. Focus on ensuring that in 2027, 2030, 2035, whatever year you want to pick, that any Chinese leader is going to continue to have real doubts about their ability to take the island. 

And I think that means three things. It means building our military capabilities at an aggressive pace. It means helping Taiwan build the right military capabilities at an aggressive pace. And it means continuing to build our coalition of allies who would be willing to stand up to Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Deterrence. It’s really simple. My assessment of what we’re doing on this front is that we’re heading in the right direction, but that we’re not moving fast enough, and we’re not moving aggressively enough. So I want to see us be more aggressive in pursuing that deterrence.

MICHAEL ALLEN: So we see people all the time say, another reason we need to win in Ukraine is to send a message to Xi Jinping, a demonstration effect about sanctions and just what the West can do when provoked. Do you buy that or do you think Xi Jinping is just marching to his own tune?

MICHAEL MORELL: No, I think the outcome of the war in Ukraine matters. The Chinese study everything, and they will study this. This will be in some Chinese working group leading group on something. They’ll actually study this. But they don’t know the outcome yet. We talked earlier about if the West were to pull its support from Ukraine, Russia could still win. And we talked about if the West gave Ukraine the support it’s looking for, Ukraine could win. Sooner than most people think. So we don’t know the outcome yet, which means that China really isn’t in a position to come to any conclusions. But I think it matters. The outcome in Ukraine absolutely matters to the way Xi thinks about Taiwan.

MICHAEL ALLEN:  I want to go to Iran in just a second. But were you surprised? Give me a quick answer, by Xi Jinping’s rapid rollback of China’s anti zero COVID policy.

MICHAEL MORELL: So this is a bit embarrassing. Surprised? No. Shocked? Yes. I really thought that Xi would not relent and that Xi certainly would not want to rip the Band-Aid off all at once. So I got that wrong. Got to admit it. Got it wrong. And I think one of the lessons here, and we sometimes forget this again, when we’re looking at authoritarian countries, I think the lesson here is that public opinion in China matters. It does influence policymaking. I first learned about this when I was briefing President Bush in 2001, and we had the EP-3 crisis in March of that year. And I learned it a couple of times since. But I keep forgetting it because it’s so easy to think of Chinese leaders doing whatever they want to do. One way to think about this is that if they could just do whatever they wanted to do, they would not need to use censorship and they would not need to use propaganda to shape the views of its public, which of course, they do every day. So public opinion in China matters, and this is a great example of it.

MICHAEL ALLEN: Turns out welding your own people into their apartments is unpopular even in China.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, how about that?

MICHAEL ALLEN: On Iran. Tell us about the protests that have broken out. They seem broad based, or at least they’ve been ongoing. Maybe not broad based. Is it enough to bring down the regime?

MICHAEL MORELL: I think the really important point about the protests of the last several months is that they are the latest in a series of protests that have occurred since 2017. There’s been a number of them. The demands of the protesters have been different each time. But there’s a common theme. And the common theme is that there’s a significant and growing share of Iranians, mostly young Iranians, who feel alienated, is the right word I think, who feel alienated from their government. Who are much more modern, much more reform minded than their leadership. That’s the common theme. Having said that, there’s also a large share of Iranians who are supportive of the regime and many Iranians who don’t have a view one way or the other. Just like here in the United States. 

Current Iranian president Raisi, a hard liner, got 18 million votes, and he got 78% of the vote in the last presidential election. So there is support for this regime. My strong guess, Michael, is that this round of protests is not going to result in any significant political change. Some of the protests since 2017 have fizzled out. Some have been snuffed out. The 2019 protest was crushed by the security forces. This one, because it has involved women. And I think that really matters here. This one, because it’s involved women, has been handled a bit more adroitly on their part. There’s been some crackdowns. There’s been some concessions. There’s been some interesting work behind the scenes where they’ll arrest somebody and then they’ll let them out and they’ll go to their family and they’ll say, hey, you need to ]make sure your kid doesn’t come out in the street and protest. So they’ve handled this, in a different way because so many women are involved. 

I’d make two final points. One is that you never know when a situation can turn in a radical new direction. For example, one of the key turning points in the fall of the Shah was a 1978 theater fire that killed 400 people in Abadan, Iran. And so you never know, right, what might happen tomorrow that could take this out of control. Just an important point, important reminder. And second, and this is really important, too, and this kind of goes with the Russia point. No one should assume that the fall of this regime would lead to an Iran that approaches the world in a very different way. We’ve got to remember that just like the Iranian leadership today, the Shah wanted Iranian hegemony over the entire Middle East. The Shah was interested in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. So this is not just the policies of an ideological regime. These are Persian policies that have been in place for literally hundreds of years.

MICHAEL ALLEN: Fascinating. All right. I want to ask you one more question about Iran, and then I’m going to give you the off the wall what are we not thinking about question. But let’s talk about the nuclear deal. Right now, Biden says it’s not happening. The State Department says it’s, quote, not on the agenda right now. But the way I look at things is that the Iranian regime could be a threshold nuclear power. And lo and behold, you look back in Israel and Bibi Netanyahu is back in charge. And if I remember correctly, there was a lot of time spent in the second term of the Obama administration talking Bibi out of bombing Iran. What do you think? Do you think it’s possible they’re going to go to war?

MICHAEL MORELL: Great question. I think the probability of war between Iran and Israel has gone up as a result of the outcome of the Israeli election. The formation of the most hardline conservative government, probably in Israel’s history. And while the probability is still low, it is for 2023, I think, the most likely place where we could see a new major war break out. I think there’s two dynamics to think about when assessing the probability of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. One is the status of Iran’s nuclear program. I think, Michael, you said something really important. I think it’s fair to say that Iran is closing in on what many of us have long thought its goal is, which is to be a threshold nuclear power. That is to have the necessary pieces for a nuclear weapon and that they can put them together quickly. I think we’re getting very close to that if we’re not there already. Talking about this can get technical very fast and I don’t want to do that. But if Iran wanted to detonate a nuclear device in the Iranian desert for all the world to see, which would change the dynamic in the region overnight. They could probably do so in a handful of months, particularly if they took some shortcuts on the nuclear weaponization work that they halted several years ago and still need to do. 

And the Israelis know all this. They watch this more closely than they watch anything. And what’s happening with the Iranian nuclear program creates an incentive for the Israelis to act. Creates exactly the same incentive that Netanyahu saw ten years ago. The other dynamic, which I think pushes the Israelis in the other direction, pushes them away from military action, is that Israel still can effectively destroy all of Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own. They would need the help of the United States, and I don’t think the Biden administration would provide it. And without that help, the Israelis could not destroy everything they need to destroy Iran, would certainly produce a nuclear weapon in response to being attacked, and they would blame it on Israel’s attack. 

And they would have that talking point to use in the world. Therefore, I think there’s voices in Israel urging caution and there’s voices in Israel urging or arguing that aggressive covert action rather than a military strike is the way to go in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. So I think there’s a push and pull here and we’ll see how it plays out. But I think it is absolutely the place to watch in terms of a new conflict in 2023.

MICHAEL ALLEN: Okay. Last question for now. We’ve already talked about big issues, but what’s the thing we’re not thinking of? Is it another terrorist attack? I think I saw you say that on Face the Nation. Is there something about the economy, after all I remember that you were trained as an economist at the CIA. What is the big thing that’s possible that’s going to happen in 2023 that we’re not talking about?

MICHAEL MORELL: So what I said on Face the Nation was that I would not be surprised if there were a terrorist attack against a U.S. interest, an embassy, a military facility somewhere in the world in 2023. And I think that surprised a few people who are looking at that terrorism front as kind of quiet. We don’t hear about terrorism much anymore. But the truth is that terrorists around the world are bouncing back, which is not surprising because it’s actually very easy for a terrorist group to rebound. It’s very easy to degrade them, when you put pressure on them, it’s very easy for them to rebound, when you take that pressure off. And so terrorists are bouncing back. And nowhere is that more true than in Africa, where Al Qaeda and ISIS occupied vast swaths of territory and where they terrorize and they brutalize civilians. 

Two of Al Qaeda’s five major hubs are there. Half of ISIS’s affiliates are in Africa. These groups are acquiring military equipment, weapons, explosives, drones. So far, there hasn’t been an attack against U.S. interests, but there certainly could be. There’s an ISIS resurgence going on in the Middle East, which is not getting a lot of news. But there’s been four major ISIS attacks in Iraq since mid-December. Again, not against U.S. interests, but that could change. 

And then there’s Afghanistan. We know that the emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and his deputy and the top recruiter are all in Afghanistan. The even bigger problem now in Afghanistan is ISIS. It’s thriving. It’s conducting frequent high profile attacks there. And what’s particularly worrying about ISIS in Afghanistan is that they’re recruiting fighters from neighboring countries. And, of course, that raises the concern that those foreign fighters could return to their home countries and conduct attacks against Western interests. So all of this is happening, right, Michael, at a time when we’re taking our foot off the counterterrorism gas pedal as we focus on Russia-Ukraine. There’s resources flowing away from counterterrorism. I know that we’re walking away from some important foreign partnerships. I’ve had foreign governments, representatives of foreign governments complain to me about that, that they’re worried about that. So I’d say terrorism is something to worry about in 2023 that most people might not be thinking about.



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