Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist at The New Yorker magazine. His latest piece is Iran and the Bomb: How Real is the Nuclear Threat?
Veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh assesses the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa amidst ongoing U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Despite touted gains and an upcoming U.S. military withdrawal deadline in Iraq, Hersh says, "Whatever you’re hearing, Iraq is going bad... It’s sectarian war. And the big question is going to be whether we pull out or not." On the uprisings, Hersh says Saudi Arabia, fearing an overthrow of the regional order, is driving the embattled regimes’ attempts to crush the protests. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Sy, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned earlier the uprisings in the Arab world, and I wanted to ask you about the impact of those uprisings both on the theocracy in Iran and also on Israel’s attempts to constantly encircle Iran or portray it as the source of danger to the rest of the world and to the region.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, just to get away from Iran for a second, what you’re having now is you’re having a — you had it in Tunisia, and you had Egypt, spontaneous people’s revolts, if you will. Your former colleague was in Tahrir Square doing great stuff on it, and still in Cairo, I understand.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, yes.
SEYMOUR HERSH: And so, you had something amazing — yes, you had something amazing going on. And what you have now — and that of course spread. That spread throughout the Gulf regions. And what you have now is a very, very — it’s sort of unremarked upon by the press here in America — you have a counterrevolution going on, fueled largely by the Saudis and their panic. You see the implication of that in Bahrain, where the unbelievable things are happening to the Shiites, the minority Shiites there. They may be a majority in terms of population, but certainly a minority in terms of power. And you have that regime brutalizing its people in a way that’s beyond, I would argue, anything going on elsewhere, including in Syria. As bad as it is in Syria, it’s much worse in Bahrain. And the United States, of course, for a lot of reasons, is ignoring that.
You have the Gulf states in a state of sort of controlled panic now. They’re all sort of locally owned oil combines, owned by various one-time Bedouin — you know, Bedouin desert livers, now suddenly owners of huge complexes of oil billionaires, all of them, and they want to stay in power in the Gulf — Oman, even Qatar. You can see a lot of problems with Al Jazeera’s coverage, particularly of Bahrain. Al Jazeera, for example, is always calling me, didn’t call me for this story because everybody wants to point fingers at Iran. The United States has essentially equated Iran’s upset and encouragement of some of the — encouragement of the stuff going on with Bahrain as — for the United States, this is as much of a sin as the Al Khalifa family beating the hell out of everybody and doing worse than that — particularly doctors and nurses —- in Bahrain. So there’s a huge -—
AMY GOODMAN: And it’s the home of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, Sy.
SEYMOUR HERSH: — counterrevolution going on.
Yes, absolutely, it is the home. And, of course, the Fifth Fleet often, wisely, will move a lot of their vehicles offshore when trouble gets going. Yes, it’s the home of our — Bahrain is an important base. It’s an important facility. But we could go other places, too, I’m sure. It’s just we have a lot of things there.
So you have the American response to — you have this GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Community or Committee. It’s probably the only defense organization in the world that’s designed for all the countries getting together to ward against internal dissent, not external threat, but internal threats. And so, we have this amazing institution. Morocco just joined the GCC. So, this is going on before our eyes, and we’re not paying enough attention to it.
And what we do is we focus on Iran as the bad guy: Iran is responsible, they’re shifting gear to the Syrians to help the Syrian Mukhabarat control its society, as if the Baathist Party in Syria needs outside help in doing that. They’re pretty good at it. We’ve made Iran into a bogeyman. And my own guess is, the reason we’re so intent on the sanctions and keeping them going, when there’s no evidence of any weaponization, there’s no real threat at all — even the Israelis — I was in Israel last in June — rather, in April, two months ago now. And I can’t — they have crazy, strange rules, ground rules, on what you can report. But I can tell you right now, the Israelis understand, the more sophisticated ones and serious people in the intelligence community there, they understand that that Iran doesn’t have a bomb now. If it decides to get one and they get a bomb, they’re not going to throw it against Tel Aviv, because they know that’s annihilation. They understand that, despite the fact they say different things and they raise the threat. So we’re making the Iranians sort of the people responsible for what’s going on, in terms of the revolutions, and we’re really on the wrong side of history on that, the United States.
It’s really the Saudis we should be looking at quite a bit. And when you get to that question, you then say, here are the Saudis, who obviously — we know from reports and from everything I’ve been told — are very angry at us. They feel that our support for Mubarak undercut them. You know, they like to keep rigid control over a population that includes, certainly in Saudi Arabia, many Shiites who work the oil fields. And so, you have the Saudis in full panic, refusing — in anger at us, refusing to increase the oil output, so the price of oil stays — gasoline is $4 or more a gallon. And then, here we have a president whose reelection is going to depend not on killing Osama bin Laden — hooray, he did it — but more on what the price of gasoline is going to be next year. And we have the Saudis stiffing us.
And here you have Iran, which is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the world, also has a lot of oil — its fields are diminishing, but it’s got a lot of stuff. The sanctions aren’t working. The Iranians are selling stuff to India, to China, Pakistan. They’re doing a lot of business. You think — I mean, dumb and dumber. You think maybe we would start doing what a lot of people in the article I published — Tom Pickering, the former secretary — under secretary of state, a longtime ambassador, very serious guy, is among those who’s been doing — involved in secret contacts with the Iranians and has been telling us for years, he and his group, "Get off this nuclear business. There’s a lot of other issues you could deal with the Iranians. They want to be respected. You could really get some progress," and maybe even getting to the point where we can — we don’t have to — we’re not interested in changing the regime there. That’s impossible. We do know that. Unlike Bush and Cheney, Obama doesn’t want to. Maybe we can get to the point where you can start getting some of the energy that they have to produce. Instead, we’re trying to keep them from the market. It just doesn’t make sense. And sanctions, you know, go ask Castro how well they work. We’ve been sanctioning Cuba, what, since 1960, ’61, ’62, and, you know — and as far as I know, Cuba is still there, and so is Castro.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, very quickly, we haven’t spoken to you in a while, and —
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I’m sorry, my earphone popped out. Hold on a second.
AMY GOODMAN: OK, we’re talking to —
SEYMOUR HERSH: Say again.
AMY GOODMAN: — the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh. Sy, we haven’t talked to you in a while. Your assessment of President Obama’s war in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
SEYMOUR HERSH: A disaster. Stupid. I do think that the White House really wanted the bin Laden raid, about which I’ve been doing a lot of work. There’s always — things are always more interesting than they seem. I’m not suggesting he wasn’t killed or anything like that, but just more interesting. And I think the getting of bin Laden will give Obama the freedom to make a serious cut in this war in Afghanistan that everybody on the inside — everybody on the inside, believe me — I don’t know about Petraeus, General Petraeus, who for some reason is going to the CIA, just as for some reason Panetta, who doesn’t really know much about the Pentagon is going to the Pentagon. I don’t quite understand what they’re doing.
But this is a war that has nothing to do with American national security. And the obvious way out is to actually find a way to start talking to Mullah Omar. Instead, we keep on isolating him. And we’re driving Pakistan crazy with this war. We’re increasing the jihadism there. We’re increasing the terrorism there. We’re sticking it to the Paks in very direct ways. It’s a totally counterproductive system. We have our guys going out doing night raids. We always call them NATO, and the press goes along with calling them NATO. But our Joint Special Operations Command is still going out. I don’t fault the guys doing it. Let me make it clear, they’re very, very competent guys. They’re under orders, and they do what they do. They just do it very well. But there’s no way you’re going to make strikes at night and not kill an awful lot of noncombatants — "collateral damage," they call it. And it’s just — we’re hated. We’re outsiders. We don’t have to be doing the bombs to be hated by the Pashtun. That’s been the society all along. The Pakistanis are in terrible fear of what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. They always see Afghanistan as bulwark against India. They’re afraid of our relationship with India.
And I’ll tell you the biggest problem he has, as awful as those things are, as counterproductive, and as much as he’s following, oh, yes, Bush and Cheney in those policies — and I think the President — I’ll be writing about this — I think he was really sandbagged by the Pentagon after he got into office, when he was new and innocent. And I still think — I think right now — I would almost use the word "cult" to describe what’s going on in the White House. Everything is political. He’s isolated. Very good people say they’ve never seen a president this isolated, in terms of being unable to get to him with different opinions, etc. So here’s really captive of a few people there. I know this may sound strange, but I know what I’m talking about. You can’t get to the guy — and even, for example, Pickering, as competent as he is. And Pickering has done some wonderful stuff for the United States intelligence community undercover, and so he’s known as a trusted guy. Those guys who have been involved in talking to Iran off the record, Track II policy talks, for years can’t get to the President. He may not even know they’re looking for him. I just don’t know.
And so, here we have this very bright guy continuing insane policies that are counterproductive, do nothing for the United States, and meanwhile the real crisis is going to be about Iraq, because, whatever you’re hearing, Iraq is going bad. Sunnis are killing Shia. It’s sectarian war. And the big question is going to be whether we pull out or not. And there’s going to be a lot of pressure to keep them — we’ve got 40,000 or 50,000 Americans there — to keep them there. I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but I’ll tell you right now, there are Sunni Baathist groups in Damascus, in various places, in the United Kingdom — Leeds is one place — ready, as soon as we get out, to declare an alternative government, a provisional government, and announce that they’re going to retake Iran from the Shiites and from — Iraq from the Shiites, who they believe are totally tied in to the Iranians, which probably isn’t true, but that’s always been the fiction we have, or the fear we have: Iran controls Iraq. There’s a mutuality of interests, but Maliki is a very tough customer. You know, Maliki worked for 21 years in Syria as a cop for the Mukhabarat, for the secret police. He was working as a sergeant there for 21 years in Syria, before he went back as an exile after we kicked out Saddam. He is nobody’s patsy. But there’s going to be a holy hell there. It’s going to be probably the biggest problem the President has next year, along with gas, along with the crazy Republicans that are running against him. He’s going to — and along with Afghan and along with Iran, it’s going to be Iraq. We’re going to be back looking at Iraq, as that country goes berserk.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Sy Hersh, I want to —
SEYMOUR HERSH: That’s very cheerful. I’m really Mr. Happy News, huh?
JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to get back to the Arab Spring for a moment and ask you, do you think that in Egypt — for example, the uprisings that led to the overthrow of Mubarak and now to the trial, apparently, the trial of Mubarak, it is understandable why the Egyptian people would want to put this ruthless leader on trial. But do you think that the trying of Mubarak has had repercussions throughout the rest of the region, with all these other dictators who say, "Well, I better fight to the end, because if not, I will end up like Mubarak, will be immediately put on trial by my people"?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, I can’t say that about the trial, because I haven’t actually talked to anybody about whether the trial makes a difference. But before that, I would say what you’re saying is absolutely right. The moment the United States — the waffling that the President did — if you remember, he was with the kids, he was against the kids, and we had the Secretary of State saying the same thing, with, against. There’s no question that the fear — there’s an enormous fear in the Arab world, in the Gulf, in the Gulf region. And right now they’re very angry at us. They’re terrified of Iran. And they’re very worried about internal security.
They’re worried about — what’s going on in Bahrain is, I’m telling you, it’s a sensationally underreported story. The brutality there is beyond — it’s shocking. And again, the Saudis are directly involved, sort of with our OK. Again, if you don’t think Saudi Arabia has enormous control over Saleh in Yemen, you’re not paying attention. He’s got enormous control over him. The Saudis — if the Saudis wanted to, they could play a very positive role there. They’re not. He’s their guy. And so, you have this counterrevolution fed by the Saudi billions. And the Saudis went recently in the — Prince Bandar, my favorite dark prince, was recently in Pakistan, and the Pakistanis are supplying some thuggery, some arms, some muscle, in Bahrain. And I think the Pakistanis are also helping out in internal security inside Saudi Arabia itself. And so, everybody is muscling up now to beat up the kids who want to do something.
And meanwhile, if you look at it, the single biggest blow against al-Qaeda, I would argue — bin Laden, of course, was great, wonderful, I’m glad he’s gone and all that stuff — but the other big blow was the Arab Spring, because once you lose the sense of humiliation among the Arab population and the sense of fear — you’re seeing that in Syria right now, although that’s also complicated, because the Saudis are deeply involved in trying to get rid of — or certainly make it more difficult for Bandar — for Bashar Assad to exist. That’s a more complicated position. But once the fear is gone, al-Qaeda is gone.
So, the one thing we had going for ourselves, in terms of getting rid of these terrorists who prey on the frustrations of the Arab young, wow, instead, we’re going the wrong way. And it’s a horrible mistake. It’s happening right in front of us. It’s not being seen, but it’s right there to be seen. And it’s just this country, this president — traditionally, we’ve been unable to pull the trigger on the Saudis. Even now, when confronted with heinous activity, we still can’t pull the trigger on the Saudis, because of the need for oil. And again, this is a country, Saudi Arabia, that is not lifting — not agreeing to lift two or three more billion barrels a day. They’re at eight-and-a-half billion. We’d love them to go to 11, 10-and-a-half and 11. That would take pressure off the price. And it’s politically useful for the President not to — for the President to have it happen. It’s not going to happen.
So, Arab Spring is being undercut enormously. There’s still some hope in Egypt, because the kids are so strong, the movement there is so strong. But I can tell you, Suleiman, the leader of the intelligence service, is still there. I think an awful lot — I would look at Libya as part coming out of Arab Spring. An awful lot of it comes out of Libyan intervention. There’s been a longstanding American CIA role and opposition to Gaddafi. And one of the things Gaddafi drove everybody crazy with, just to show you how silly the world is, every oil deal he wanted 20 percent on the top of. And so, there was a lot of corporate anger at him, too. He was getting 20 percent kickback. Even Saddam, in the heyday, only wanted 10 percent. It all comes down sometimes to money. And I don’t know what’s going to happen there.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy, we have 30 seconds.
SEYMOUR HERSH: I just don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t quite —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.
SEYMOUR HERSH: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: But I want to ask you a last question. You made headlines a few years ago when you said President Bush operated an executive assassination ring. Has that policy continued under President Obama?
SEYMOUR HERSH: What I said was that in the early days under Cheney, in the first days after — you know, '03, ’04, ’05, yes, there was a direct connection between the vice president's office and individuals getting hit. That got institutionalized later in a more sophisticated way. There’s no question that — look, there’s an enormous military apparatus out there that isn’t seen. That’s what I’m writing about. We’re not seeing it. We don’t know it exists. Cheney built up a world that still exists. And it’s a very ugly, frightening world that has not much to do with what the Constitution calls for.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much, Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. His piece appears in The New Yorker magazine, and we will link to it. It’s called "Iran and the Bomb."