War on Iran may be next

Published January 18, 2005 8:44PM (EST)

So says Sy Hersh in the latest issue of the New Yorker. Hersh reports that the U.S. has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran, at least since last summer, to identify potential nuclear, chemical and missile targets. One "government consultant" with close ties to the Pentagon told Hersh, "The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible," while a former high-level intelligence official said, "This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush administration is looking at this as a huge war zone. Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign."

The question of whether the U.S. (and/or Israel) might attack Iran in order to knock out its burgeoning nuclear program has long been on the table. But the rise in hawkish bluster in recent months is at odds with the many military and intelligence experts who say a military strike, let alone an invasion of Iran, would be ineffective if not entirely reckless.

Hersh has a knack for sensationalist flair -- and a formidable track record from My Lai to Abu Ghraib -- so it's hard not to read the piece and, in spite of its overwhelming reliance on unnamed sources, come away with the sense that the U.S. is secretly planning a major operation of some sort against Iran in the near future.

And that may be precisely the intention of Washington's chattering hawks -- and perhaps even of some of Hersh's high-level sources. With regard to the former at least, Hersh himself acknowledges this possibility in one telling passage of his report:

"It is possible that some of the American officials who talk about the need to eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure are doing so as part of a propaganda campaign aimed at pressuring Iran to give up its weapons planning. If so, the signals are not always clear. President Bush, who after 9/11 famously depicted Iran as a member of the 'axis of evil,' is now publicly emphasizing the need for diplomacy to run its course. 'We dont have much leverage with the Iranians right now,' the President said at a news conference late last year. 'Diplomacy must be the first choice, and always the first choice of an administration trying to solve an issue of  nuclear armament. And well continue to press on diplomacy.'

"In my interviews over the past two months, I was given a much harsher view. The hawks in the Administration believe that it will soon become clear that the Europeans negotiated approach cannot succeed, and that at that time the Administration will act. 'Were not dealing with a set of National Security Council option papers here,' the former high-level intelligence official told me. 'They've already passed that wicket. It's not if we're going to do anything against Iran. They're doing it.'"

The dissonance Hersh points to in the administration's message could be quite purposeful: How do you effectively negotiate with a notoriously uncooperative regime without shaking a big military stick for leverage?

So on the one hand, the administration emphasizes diplomacy and vigorously denies the secret operations reported by Hersh -- see Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita's statement calling Hersh's claims "specious" and based on "the soft bigotry of some conspiracy theorists." On the other hand, Bush officials don't categorically deny Hersh's premise -- White House communications director Dan Bartlett says, "No president at any juncture in history has ever taken military options off the table."

That two-pronged approach also seems apropos of working with cagey U.S. allies. Former defense secretary William Cohen put it this way: That the Pentagon would have contingency plans for an attack on Iran is "not unusual," Cohen told CNN Monday. "The issue really is whether or not this [intelligence] information being gathered is to help put pressure on the Europeans to bring more pressure on Iran to cease and desist from its nuclear ambitions. Or whether or not that decision's already been made and they're actually planning a military operation." He added that the White House's lack of a categorical denial "seems to be some confirmation that there is a fairly serious effort under way to gather this kind of information for potential military operations."

Yet however farfetched an attack on Iran may seem at this point, given the Bush administration's track record with Iraq there is more than enough reason to believe that an influential faction in the Bush administration is chomping at the bit to go after Iran (and perhaps other countries in the region). In his report, Hersh reiterates how Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and a cadre of civilian leaders in the Pentagon have consolidated the power to do so, at least when it comes to covert military action, by neutering the CIA and seizing control of most of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. With the additional help of several executive orders issued by President Bush, they've gained the ability to sidestep normal legal channels with Congress: For the continuing global war against terrorism, writes Hersh, Bush has enabled Rumsfeld "to run the operations off the books -- free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A. Under current law, all C.I.A. covert activities overseas must be authorized by a Presidential finding and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees."

"The Pentagon doesn't feel obligated to report any of this to Congress," a former high-level intelligence official told Hersh. "They don't even call it 'covert ops' -- it's too close to the C.I.A. phrase. In their view, it's 'black reconnaissance.'"

Hersh has been right on blockbuster stuff before, and on Monday he dismissed the Pentagon's sharp denial as "quibbling," reiterating that his information comes from "very, very senior" sources. "There are serious people on the inside who don't like what's going on and don't have a way to communicate that," he said, according to CNN. "The real issue is: What are we doing? Who's in control here? The Pentagon? The White House? That's the real issue."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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