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Seymour Hersh: Senior Pentagon Officials Challenging President Bush’s Iran War Plans

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Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh reports that the Defense Department has been drawing up plans, at President Bush’s direction, for a major bombing campaign inside Iran. Hersh says that generals and admirals have told the Bush Administration the bombing campaign will probably not succeed in destroying Iran’s nuclear program and that war planners are not even sure what to target. [includes rush transcript]

North Korea acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that it had test-fired a series of missiles and vowed to continue launching them. It also threatened to use force if the international community tired to stop it.

The UN Security Council is due to reconvene later to discuss a draft resolution in response to the launches. President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi are pushing for sanctions against Pyongyang. We’ll have more on North Korea later in the program, but first, we take a look at another member of the Bush administration’s so-called “axis of evil:” Iran.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday that Iran should respond by July 15th to an international offer aimed at halting its controversial nuclear program. The package demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment in return for economic and political incentives.

Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and is designed to meet its energy needs, but the United States says it is using it to develop nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration agreed earlier this year to engage in direct talks with Iran but the military option is still very much on the table. The Defense Department has been drawing up plans, at the President’s direction, for a major bombing campaign inside Iran.

In this week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh reports that senior Pentagon officials are increasingly challenging the President’s plans. Hersh writes that generals and admirals have told the Administration the bombing campaign will probably not succeed in destroying Iran’s nuclear program and that war planners are not even sure what to target.

  • Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter for the New Yorker magazine. Read Hersh’s article * “Last Stand.”*

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh joins us now from studio in Washington, D.C. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SEYMOUR HERSH: Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Your piece is called “Last Stand: The Military’s Problem with the President’s Iran Policy.” What’s the Pentagon’s problem?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, the real problem, above and beyond the Pentagon and throughout the government, throughout our allies, is simply this, that the intelligence services of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and even Israel, have been unable to come up with any specific evidence of what’s known as a parallel or secret weapons program inside Iran. In other words, we know nothing more about the Iranian nuclear program than the Iranians have told the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA. If there’s a secret underground facility somewhere, we don’t know where it is. And therefore, the only thing to target are the sites that the Iranians themselves have made public in various disclosures under the NPT, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to the IAEA, which monitors it. So what’s the target?

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your article, you mention the address by Condoleezza Rice on May 31, where she announced a change in U.S. policy, that it was willing now to sit down and negotiate with Iran, but raised that, from the Iranian perspective, this was not really any kind of change in policy. Could you explain that?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, what the article said was simply that there was a precondition that’s been pretty much overlooked in all of the media stuff that’s going on, and the American precondition is very clear, that Iran must stop its nuclear program immediately. It must be verified. And before — those two steps must take place before we will come to the table.

In other words, we’re asking the Iranian — the ruling mullahs, whose only real popularity, I think — the one issue that they have that’s totally popular throughout the country — it certainly isn’t a human rights policy or the price of bread or milk, which has gone up — it’s the nuclear program. The idea that the United States could tell the Iranians, this Persian empire, Cyrus the Great, what to do, is very — it’s anathema to the Iranian people, and this is an issue that runs the gamut of the population. So we’re asking the Iranian clerics who run the country, who aren’t popular, to give up the one issue that’s the most popular one for them, before they sit down at the table.

If you are worried, as many in Iran are, that the United States’ real goal is regime change, to end the rule of the clerics, the Islamic government there, this is a no-brainer. You’re not going to agree to this. So we’re talking about a precondition that’s basically not going to take place. They’re not going to accept it. And that’s why there’s so much trouble going on right now setting a date and beginning the talks.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, of course, the allegations, weapons of mass destruction, repeated over and over again. You write in your piece “Last Stand” in the New Yorker that we’re, in a sense, seeing the same thing again. What is the evidence of Iran having nuclear weapons?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Only what they’ve announced themselves, and we have some reports that are increasingly unreliable from dissident groups. The cult, the MEK, have been saying — making allegations that we cannot verify. What my friends tell me inside the government is simply this: that there is a consensus that Iran may have an intention to develop an understanding of the nuclear fuel cycle so they can enrich uranium up to the 90% requirement for making a warhead. That may be true. They may have that intention. But what we can see is only what they’ve shown us so far.

There’s no secret program that we know of, and we have been looking very hard. Recently the military, aided by some of our allies — I would presume the Israelis, but I don’t this for sure — we have, as I’ve written earlier in the New Yorker, we have our forces inside the country. We have intelligence operatives, etc. And we have been unable simply to find — you know, where’s the beef?, as, you know, that wonderful line of a few years ago, a decade ago. There is no beef. We cannot find a facility that would indicate Iran has been secretly working to master — build the bomb, let’s put it that way.

Therefore, even if they do want to do something and have the intention, which we believe they have, that is, the Bush administration does. What are they five, ten, fifteen years away? Who knows how far away they are? What is the rush?

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your article, you talk about the quiet war before the war within the administration, especially vis-a-vis the generals in the Pentagon and Secretary Rumsfeld, and you describe what’s increasingly an extremely bitter and hostile battle going on between the generals and the secretary. Could you explain a little further on that?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I think really what happens is a lot of the senior generals and admirals have realized — do realize now that they didn’t fulfill their obligations before the Iraqi war. The same concerns existed before Iraq. I quote some very senior officer of saying — I can’t identify him, of course — but a senior officer of saying this is “son of Iraq,” in the sense that, you know, I think in his language was, when does innocent infrastructure become something nefarious? That is, when do you decide that a building may have a nuclear capability without any evidence, and that’s what we certainly did in the case of Iraq. We now know — it’s to our great embarrassment — how badly we performed. I do believe that most of the people in the community thought there was something there in Iraq, and they’re ashamed at their performance, or at least — I shouldn’t say “ashamed.” They don’t want to do it again.

So this time what they’re saying to the President, the alternative, of course, to Iran defying us and refusing to sit down at the table and refusing to concede the one issue that we’re talking about, to negotiate that away before they sit down at the table, which they’re not going to do, is we’re going to go to the U.N. and demand sanctions. I don’t know if we’ll get it, because Russia and China, both of whom do a lot of business with Iran, will probably prevent it. But assuming we did, the next step would be to get a resolution from the United Nations that would authorize force.

And then the United States — the President has authorized extensive planning by the Air Force for a major assault on Iran, which I don’t think is going to take place certainly before the November elections. But people in the other services, not the Air Force, of course — the Marines, the Army and the Navy — are increasingly edgy about the Air Force planning. At one point, as your audience may know, I wrote earlier that there was even a nuclear option, which nobody thought would be real or was on the table, and the White House refused to take it off the table. A few months ago, they did. There’s no longer a nuclear option in the plan for Iran, but it includes, you know, in some cases, a thousand targets. What are we talking about here?

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of this possible air assault on Iran, you spoke to some people who wondered what the impact would be on the war already going on in Iraq and how Iran might conceivably then react by moving volunteers into Iraq.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, that would be tricky. I mean, Iran would have to do things very carefully. They couldn’t be a major movement because if we start the bombing, of course, we would see them and bomb them. But there’s no question that Iran has enormous influence with some elements of the Shia community, Moqtada al-Sadr and others, as there is some closeness. There are many elements in Iraq, among the Shias, and certainly the Sunnis and Kurds, who despise Iran. Don’t forget, they had a war in the ’80s. They sought to kill each other for almost eight years. But still, Iran has enormous influence inside Iraq among certain Shias, certain militias, and we have an awful lot of forces at risk there.

The American position — right now, I think, literally thousands of American and Brits and other coalition forces are now working as trainers all over the country, even in the south, in Basra and that area, working with largely Shia-dominated Iraqi military and police units, and all those forces could be at risk of being apprehended, killed in a moment’s notice, if Iran chose to.

The other concern you have, and this is something — what’s the most amazing thing to some of my friends inside is the JCS, at the highest levels, the Chairman Peter Pace, the Marine, his people, have actually been warning the White House — and here, you have a military man warning the White House about the political economic consequences of bombing Iran. This is not something that happens every day, when you have generals telling the White House, “Hey, guys, you know, the price of oil, which is — I think it’s above 75 now, may end up at 200.”

Iran may respond asymmetrically. There’s a lot of reason to believe that Iran would not hit Israel or begin attacking American facilities around the world, but instead hit the hanging overripe fruit, hanging in the Gulf, which is all of the oil and gas production facilities in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar. They’re all out there unprotected. Iran could simply lob a few missiles into some of those facilities and cause horrific consequences for us. We would go dark. We wouldn’t be able to fly our planes as much, our commercial airliners. Gasoline would go up to enormous prices. Iran has that capability.

So this is a White House that’s doing an awful lot of talking, as they have in the past, and one just doesn’t know what the President wants to do. My friends increasingly see him as messianic, in terms of his desire, at some point, to do something about Iran. And if you ask me what I really think, the time to be frightened is when he’s a lame duck after the November elections, whether the Democrats grab the House or Senate or not. I think this president, with two years to go and the end of his presidency coming up, and Cheney still around and Rumsfeld still around, will be a really most interesting figure.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Vice President Cheney in this?

SEYMOUR HERSH: You know, none of us really know. This is — we’re supposed to be a democracy, but the Vice President has 50 people in his office. I know six, eight of them. You can’t get a list of who works for him. You can’t get interviews with his people. He runs an office that is completely — we’re blinded by. We can’t see what he does. We don’t really know whether he’s — you know, there’s a lot of debate of whether Condoleezza Rice has gone to the ascendancy or not. I didn’t write about that in my story, because I have no firsthand information. But I seriously, I think, I doubt that Cheney has lost any of his position. I don’t think Rumsfeld has, either. I think both of those men, they’re like a triad with the President, and they’re all together. And that’s the real force. I don’t think Rice is necessarily nearly as powerful as are Cheney or Rumsfeld, in terms of the inter-deliberations. But we don’t know. We have a presidency that is really opaque, at best, to us.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His piece is in the New Yorker this week; it’s called “Last Stand: The Military’s Problem with the President’s Iran Policy.”

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