Seymour Hersh’s extensive article describing plans to attack Iran, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, has forced President Bush to respond. Two days after Hersh’s article appeared, President Bush came forward to deny any intent to attack Iran — calling such claims "wild speculation."
Hersh begins his article in the New Yorker explaining the real purpose of attack on Iran: "There is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President Bush’s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change."
In response, President Bush said allegations that he plans to use force to halt Iran’s nuclear program are "wild speculation." He went on to say that his focus is on diplomacy: "I know here in Washington prevention means force. It doesn’t mean force necessarily. In this case it means diplomacy." When Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled Secretary of State, was asked about planning for Iran he was evasive, saying "The last thing I’m going to do is to start telling you or anyone else in the press or the world at what point we refresh a plan or don’t refresh a plan and why."
Hersh seemed to expect this response, writing before Bush spoke:
"The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups."
And when asked about Bush’s comments, Hersh told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now: "It’s simply a fact that the planning has gone beyond the contingency stage, and it’s gone into what they call the operational stage, sort of an increment higher. And it’s very serious planning, of course. And it’s all being directed at the wish of the President of the United States. And I can understand why they don’t want to talk about it, but that’s just the reality."
Pressure is Mounting to Attack Iran — a Long-Term Target of the Bush Administration
Adding credibility to Hersh’s claims is that removing those in power in Iran has been supported by many neo-cons since before Bush took office. It is consistent with the re-making of the Middle East, called for by the Project for a New American Century, as part of ensuring U.S. military and economic dominance of the world.
In addition, a paper published by an Israeli think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in 1996 entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," written for Benjamin Netanyahu, set out a plan for Israel to "shape its strategic environment," beginning with the removal of Saddam Hussein and restoration of the Hashemites in Iraq. With Iraq transformed, they describe a strategic axis of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey that would weaken and "roll back" Syria and divide the Shia’a in Iraq with those in Iran and Syria.
The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), another hard-line advocacy group, has advocated "regime change" by any means necessary in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority. JINSA’s board of advisers has included many Bush administration leaders: Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Richard Perle, James Woolsey and Douglas Feith. JINSA now sees Iran as THE security threat saying in an April 12 JINSA Report entitled "Iran, Iran, Iran and Iran:"
"Whatever we do in Iraq and whatever Iraqi politicians do; whatever we do to Hamas; however hard we look for Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri; whoever runs our port terminals; whatever the price of gasoline; however we secure our borders; whoever leaked Valerie Plame’s name — under the shadow of a nuclear-capable Iran, American and allied options are reduced."
Iran, they say, is "the whole list of national security priorities."
The current pressure to attack Iran is building. The hard right Israeli lobby in the United States is advocating attacking Iran to stop the development of nuclear weapons. A full page advertisement in The New York Times on April 4 on page A-15 sponsored by the American Jewish Committee urged an attack on Iran, drawing a map with Iran in the center showing how far it is from various countries in Asia, Europe and African asking: "Can anyone within range of Iran’s missiles feel safe?" Just as the pro-Israel lobby beat the war drums for the invasion of Iraq, they are doing the same for Iran. AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israeli lobby has a special page on Iran’s escalating threat. The concern of many has been heightened by reported comments by Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad challenging the reality of the Holocaust and that Israel must be "wiped off the map."
The recent announcement by Ahmadinejad that Iran has enriched uranium in a 164-centrifuge network to 3.5% has heightened the conflict further. Ahmadinejad says Iran must now be treated as a nuclear country and that it plans to continue to develop nuclear power. This is far from the level of enrichment needed for a nuclear weapon — requiring at least 80% enrichment and thousands of centrifuges. Iran says it plans to go ahead and construct a 3,000-centrifuge network at the Natanz facility within a year and eventually expand to 54,000 centrifuges. Developing enriched uranium for nuclear power is legal under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty but the UN Security Council has given Iran until April 28 to suspend uranium enrichment.
Further, much to the chagrin of the Bush administration, the Iraq invasion has strengthened Iran. Noted Middle East commentator, Juan Cole, has described Iran as the real victor in the Iraq War. Iran has been able to establish warm relations with the government in Iraq. To have a member of the axis of evil strengthened as result of U.S. policy is an unintended consequence the U.S cannot let stand.
Problems mounting in Iraq are a two-edged sword. On one side the U.S. military is stretched thin and exhausted and opening another front in the Middle East — with a country four times the size of Iraq — would seem to be physically impossible. And, an air campaign would be a challenge with an estimated 400 sites that would need to be targeted. In addition, there are concerns about an alliance between the Shia community in Iraq and Shia-dominated Iran making the difficult Iraq situation even more challenging.
But, the other edge of the Iraq-quagmire sword increases the chance of an attack on Iran. Certainly, the administration would prefer to have discussion of war strategy instead of the fighting in Iraq. And video of precision air attacks bombing alleged nuclear facilities in Iran will be preferred to civilian deaths in Iraq. As former national security adviser Norman Birnbaum recently said "I fear what the French term a fuite en avance, a flight in advance, and an attack on Iran."
Is Diplomacy Possible? Is it Really Being Pursued?
Pursuing diplomacy is complicated by President Bush’s rhetoric. Four years ago Iran was labeled by President Bush as part of the "axis of evil." Since then the United States has surrounded the country with troops in Afghanistan on its western border, Iraq on its eastern border and the Persian Gulf in the south. And, the rhetoric is escalating.
Since the Iranian Revolution the US has had no formal diplomatic ties with Iran. According to a report in the New York Times, in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Iran reportedly made an overture to U.S. officials to begin what former U.S. policymaker Flynt Leverett, a former national security adviser, State Department and CIA official says there was "a diplomatic process intended to resolve on a comprehensive basis all the bilateral differences between the United States and Iran." The United States did not take up the offer. Leverett says that Bush "is, on this issue, very, very resistant to the idea of doing a deal, even a deal that would solve the nuclear problem." So, is the administration serious about diplomacy?
Leverett’s view is consistent with one stated by Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, in a NY Times op-ed on April 6. Zarif made the point that "A solution to the situation is possible and eminently within reach." And, he emphasized that Iran has complied with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, indeed, would like to see it strengthened and enhanced. Further, "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, has issued a decree against the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons." Further, he points out that Iran wants "stability" and "never initiated the use of force or resorted to the threat of force against a fellow member of the United Nations. Although chemical weapons have been used on us, we have never used them in retaliation — as United Nations reports have made clear. We have not invaded another country in 250 years." The article also highlights how Iran has gone above and beyond the inspection requirements of the UN. Zarif concludes saying: "Finding solutions requires political will and a readiness to engage in serious negotiations. Iran is ready."
Not only is the President’s rhetoric and record a problem for diplomacy, but so is modern U.S. history with Iran. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration engaged in public rhetorical attacks on Iran when they nationalized the oil industry, seizing a British oil company. Working with Great Britain, the CIA overthrew the democratic government of Mohammed Mossadegh and installed the Shah of Iran.
The most recent Democratic Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, excused the U.S. overthrow of Mossadegh saying in 2000 that: "The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America."
Just as Albright excused the overthrow by a Republican president, there is essential silence by the Democrats in response to the Bush administration’s talk of bombing Iran. While some Democrats have opposed the use of nuclear weapons, they have not opposed the idea of attacking Iran with non-nuclear weapons. Senator Hilary Clinton has said that a nuclear-armed Iran would be "unacceptable." Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House describes Iran as "the greatest threat to Israel’s right to exist." Senator John Kerry told Meet the Press on April 10, that he favored keeping the option of air strikes against Iran on the table. The strongest opposition to attacking Iran has come from Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) who notes there is little resistance in Congress and it appears we have not learned anything from three years in Iraq.
Hersh reports on a Member of the House of Representatives describing meetings where carefully selected Members have been briefed on Iran, he writes: "’There’s no pressure from Congress’ not to take military action, the House member added. ‘The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it.’ Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, ‘The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.’"
If diplomacy means gaining international support then the Bush administration has problems. There is opposition to an attack on Iran around the world. The U.S. may only have Israel as a serious ally in a military attack. The Washington Post reports that the Russians and Chinese won’t even go along with economic sanctions. And in the recent Security Council resolution Russia and China edited out the threat of sanctions if Iran did not stop its enrichment of uranium. Further, Saudi Arabia has asked Russia to use its position on the Security Council to prevent a U.S. military attack on Iran. Even Great Britain is unlikely to participate in an Iran attack.
The consensus seems to be that while many would prefer Iran not to have a nuclear weapon, Iran is certainly not an immediate threat to the U.S. or surrounding countries. U.S. intelligence agencies and Hans Blix, chief UN weapons inspector have reported that Iran having a bomb is five to ten years away. As author Mike Whitney point out, "IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei has repeatedly stated that his team of inspectors, who’ve had the opportunity to ‘go anywhere and see anything,’ has found nothing to corroborate the assertions of the US or Israel."
Further, would Iran use a nuclear weapon offensively? Iran does not have any modern history of attacking other countries. Certainly, with Israel having 250 nuclear bombs and the U.S. with its large arsenal, would leave Iran to recognize that the use of the bomb would result in the destruction of Iran. A nuclear response would be something that Israel and the U.S. could easily justify and the world would accept.
Hersh is Not Alone Reporting on Iran Attack Planning, Including Nuclear Weapons
Sy Hersh is not the only one reporting on military plans being developed. According to Philip Giraldi, writing in the American Conservative, last year Vice President Cheney ordered the Strategic Command to develop plans to attack Iran if there is another 9-11 type attack on the United States. These plans include a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons.
Giraldi points out that within Iran there are more than 450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program development sites. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option. As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States. Giraldi reports that several senior Air Force officers involved in the planning are appalled at the implications of what they are doing — that Iran is being set up for an unprovoked nuclear attack — but no one is prepared to damage his career by posing any objections.
Further, the Washington Post also wrote that intense planning was underway including the nuclear option in an article published on April 9. The Post reports that while U.S. officials continue to pursue the diplomatic course they privately are increasingly skeptical that it will succeed. And, that last month the White House’s new National Security Strategy labeled Iran the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country. They described two levels of air attack — a quick and limited strike against nuclear-related facilities and a more ambitious campaign of bombing and cruise missiles leveling targets well beyond nuclear facilities. The White House is also considering "nuclear penetrator munitions" to take out buried labs.
Hersh describes specific plans using tactical nuclear weapons stating:
"One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. One target is Iran’s main centrifuge plant, at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. Natanz, which is no longer under I.A.E.A. safeguards, reportedly has underground floor space to hold fifty thousand centrifuges, and laboratories and workspaces buried approximately seventy-five feet beneath the surface. That number of centrifuges could provide enough enriched uranium for about twenty nuclear warheads a year. (Iran has acknowledged that it initially kept the existence of its enrichment program hidden from I.A.E.A. inspectors, but claims that none of its current activity is barred by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.) The elimination of Natanz would be a major setback for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the conventional weapons in the American arsenal could not insure the destruction of facilities under seventy-five feet of earth and rock, especially if they are reinforced with concrete."
Hersh describes the nuclear option as creating "serious misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," with "some officers have talked about resigning. Late this winter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the evolving war plans for Iran — without success . . ." Further "some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue" and "the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran."
Hersh also comments that the Defense Science board, chaired by William Schneider, Jr., an Under-Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration, which has urged the development of tactical nuclear weapons. Schneider served on an ad-hoc panel on nuclear forces sponsored by the National Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, in January 2001. Hersh states: "The panel’s report recommended treating tactical nuclear weapons as an essential part of the U.S. arsenal and noted their suitability ‘for those occasions when the certain and prompt destruction of high-priority targets is essential and beyond the promise of conventional weapons.’ Several signers of the report are now prominent members of the Bush Administration, including Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; and Robert Joseph, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security."
While seeking to stop Iran, the Bush Administration has made upgrading US nuclear weapons a key goal. The Los Angles Times reported on April 6 that "The administration . . . wants the capability to turn out 125 new nuclear bombs per year by 2022, as the Pentagon retires older bombs that it claims will no longer be reliable or safe." The last nuclear bomb was built in 1989 but the Bush plan also "calls for a modern complex to design a new nuclear bomb and have it ready in less than four years, allowing the nation to respond to changing military requirements."
Thus, the Bush administration is moving to upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons, develop tactical nuclear weapons and even use nuclear weapons against Iran — in an effort to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The irony (or is it irany) of this hypocrisy will not be lost on the world and it is likely to further weaken U.S. alliances around the world.
Who to Trust, Hersh or Bush?
So, back to the original question — who to believe, the commander in chief or the investigative reporter. Sy Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize—winning reporter who gained international fame for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and more recently the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
President Bush has most recently been tied to the leak of a CIA agents name in retaliation of her husband’s report criticizing claims related to nuclear weapons in Iraq. He has been widely criticized for exaggerating the threat of Iraq regarding weapons of mass destruction. And he has claimed that the United States does not torture people it detains, when photographs and other evidence indicate that it does.
Right now the U.S. public is divided on attacking Iran. The Los Angeles Times reports that 48% would support an attack if Iran continued to develop nuclear weapons, while 40% opposed. In January a Times/Bloomberg poll found 57% support, so support is dropping. But, there is loss of trust in Bush, with 54% saying they do not expect him to make the right decision. Bloomberg reports that only 37% of Americans believe Bush when he claims progress is being made on Iraq. And, according to a Washington Post poll, 55% of Americans do not find Bush to be "honest and trustworthy." So, Bush has a lot to overcome to convince the public to believe him on Iraq.
Hersh obviously struck a cord deep enough that the president felt he had to respond. Hopefully, shining the light on the plans to go to war will result in a more informed electorate and opposition in Congress that stops the expansion of the war in the Middle East.
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