Only the Shadow Knows: Seymour Hersh on Iran and the neocons
Seymour Hersh, who's hardly ever met a source he was willing to name, has written an article about Iran, the nuclear threat it represents, and what Hersh alleges are the Bush Administration's plans to bomb it with nuclear weapons. The article appears in the current (April 17) New Yorker.
The Hersh piece is written in an especially flat style, with sentence after plain declarative sentence and not a whole lot of analysis: a sort of Dragnet-speak, as it were. It is somewhat impenetrable at first, but then Hersh's agenda (or at least, part of his agenda) slowly emerges: the thing is the fault of those jumpy trigger-happy neocons again, looking for the shootout at the OK Corral.
It's a curious article, because even Hersh seems unable to deny that the current leaders of Iran are dangerous nutcases, talking trash about wasting Israel and the US. And, as with most Hersh articles, it's virtually impossible to evaluate the truth or falsehood of the unsourced assertions he piles up: is the Bush administration actually intending to carry out such an attack and, if so when? And would such as attack consist of a minimal number of bunker busters that would cause relatively few casualties, or would it be much more than that? Or is this all merely one of countless contingency plans that any administration would draw up while brainstorming, in order to be prepared for anything and everything?
Only the Shadow knows--or rather, Hersh's shadowy but nevertheless opinionated sources.
The thrust of Hersh's article is that Bush and the neocon cowboys are jumping the gun in order to effect their real goal, regime change in Iran, and that "all the cooler heads are saying, is give diplomacy a chance" [emphasis mine in the following quote]:
“This is much more than a nuclear issue,” one [nameless] high-ranking diplomat told me [Hersh] in Vienna. “That’s just a rallying point, and there is still time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten years.”
A [nameless] senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror expressed a similar view. “This White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war,” he said. The danger, he said, was that “it also reinforces the belief inside Iran that the only way to defend the country is to have a nuclear capability.” A military conflict that destabilized the region could also increase the risk of terror: “Hezbollah comes into play,” the adviser said, referring to the terror group that is considered one of the world’s most successful, and which is now a Lebanese political party with strong ties to Iran. “And here comes Al Qaeda.”
Hezbollah comes into play? And here comes Al Qaeda? And where have they all been until now? Biding their time, just waiting peacefully until Bush (courtesy of Seymour Hersh's article) declares that he might bomb Iran's nuclear facilities?
More on the evil neocons:
The [nameless] Pentagon adviser said that, in the event of an attack, the Air Force intended to strike many hundreds of targets in Iran but that “ninety-nine per cent of them have nothing to do with proliferation. There are people who believe it’s the way to operate”—that the Administration can achieve its policy goals in Iran with a bombing campaign, an idea that has been supported by neoconservatives.
Yes indeed, the speaker knows the administration is planning to bomb random sites which clearly have nothing to do with a weapons program that is, after all, secret, in order to effect regime change--just like those mean old neocons did with Saddam, whom everybody knew at the outset didn't have any WMDs.
The following passage illustrates what things have come to, these days (and includes a rare named source of Hersh's):
Robert Gallucci, a former government expert on nonproliferation who is now the dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, told me [Hersh], “Based on what I know, Iran could be eight to ten years away” from developing a deliverable nuclear weapon. Gallucci added, “If they had a covert nuclear program and we could prove it, and we could not stop it by negotiation, diplomacy, or the threat of sanctions, I’d be in favor of taking it out. But if you do it”—bomb Iran—“without being able to show there’s a secret program, you’re in trouble.”
It seems that the burden of proof is on us to prove something that by definition cannot be proven--the existence of a secret program, as with Saddam. Nowadays, intelligence is required to be perfect. It matters not that an obviously insane regime is making wild threats that indicate it is developing a bomb and will use it once it has gained the capacity, or even provide it to terrorists. No, that's not enough; we must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the program is in place and the bomb actually developed before we are allowed to even consider--or, apparently, to even make contingency plans for the possibility of--defending ourselves and others against it.
The fact that by then it may be too late seems irrelevant to this argument. At the present time, all dictators are innocent till proven guilty.
Then there are those neocons again, causing so much trouble, and even causing bombmaker-in-captivity Khan to lie to please them:
In the most recent interrogations, [the Pakistani bombmaker] Khan has provided information on Iran’s weapons design and its time line for building a bomb. “The picture is of ‘unquestionable danger,’ ” the [unnamed] former senior intelligence official said. (The [unnamed] Pentagon adviser also confirmed that Khan has been “singing like a canary.”) The concern, the former senior official said, is that “Khan has credibility problems. He is suggestible, and he’s telling the neoconservatives what they want to hear”—
And here it is, the heart of the Hersh article (you knew it was coming, didn't you?):
The Administration’s case against Iran is compromised by its history of promoting false intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Note the clever phrasing--"history of promoting false intelligence." It stops short of saying "lying," although it leaves room for the insinuation. And the fact is that, unfortunately, the failure to find clear evidence of WMDs in Iraq has had this very effect--that any later claims of the same sort would be subject to a sky-high burden of proof, and would be met with "it's just those neocon boys crying wolf again" skepticism. This was always going to be part of the fallout of any errors made on that score--and even if some think the jury is still out on the subject of Saddam and WMDs, there has been no smoking gun found in Iraq as yet, and probably never will be.
Hersh's article is filled with multiple and varied estimates of how close Iran might be to actually having the bomb. But they are all just guesses; it's fairly clear that, in reality, no one has a clue. But our foreign policy must always rely on this sort of imperfect knowledge.
Unfortunately, the potential penalties for a wrong guess in either direction are extremely large: international condemnation and perhaps retaliation if we were to bomb Iran prematurely, especially with any sort of nuclear weaponry (and how could we ever prove ourselves to have been correct in our estimate of their nuclear capacity, ex post facto?); the destruction of Israel, and/or of several US cities, if we were to get it wrong in the other direction. (Oh, but at least, in the latter case, we'd occupy the moral high ground, wouldn't we?)
Here's one of my favorite passages, from an unnamed diplomat:
All of the [IAEA] inspectors are angry at being misled by the Iranians, and some think the Iranian leadership are nutcases—one hundred per cent totally certified nuts,” the diplomat said. He added that ElBaradei’s overriding concern is that the Iranian leaders “want confrontation, just like the neocons on the other side”—in Washington. “At the end of the day, it will work only if the United States agrees to talk to the Iranians.”
How this passage manages to go from the thought expressed in the first sentence ("the Iranian leadership is nuts") to that of the second (they are like the neocons, who want confrontation) and then on to the third (negotiation with the Iranian leadership can work, if only the US is willing to talk) is--well--it's practically nuts, as well. I fail to see even a semblance of logic here. Just to recap: murderous apocalyptic madmen in charge of a country are the equivalent of the people who are eager to stop them, and the latter are to be faulted for not engaging in negotiation with said madmen, which of course would work if attempted.
The Europeans seem to be every bit as dedicated to the maintenance of the current Iranian regime as they were to that of Saddam--which is to say, very dedicated indeed:
The Europeans are rattled, however, by their growing perception that President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney believe a bombing campaign will be needed, and that their real goal is regime change.
The rest of the article explains all the dire consequences of attacking Iran, assuming that any attack would unleash forces that would otherwise be held in check. The idea that diplomacy and sanctions can work--against a regime that has shown itself to be profoundly uninterested in either--is not a compelling one. But hope springs eternal, does it not?:
One reason for pursuing diplomacy was, [an unnamed diplomat] said, Iran’s essential pragmatism. “The regime acts in its best interests,” he said. Iran’s leaders “take a hard-line approach on the nuclear issue and they want to call the American bluff,” believing that “the tougher they are the more likely the West will fold.” But, he said, “From what we’ve seen with Iran, they will appear superconfident until the moment they back off.”
"Iran's essential pragmatism." Oh yes. Of course. Right. This unnamed diplomat knows the minds of the mullahs, and that they are just bluffing, and can be worked with. Nutcases and madman who threaten to destroy other states, and who seem to care nothing about the survival of their own people, are like that: very pragmatic, very amenable to sanctions and diplomacy.
Look, the Iranian situation is profoundly terrifying. It is far from clear that there is any solution that wouldn't be catastrophic, although to my way of thinking the best thing to do would be to encourage regime change clandestinely, from within (although the likelihood of success for such an option is unclear--and, unfortunately, time may be running out). But the entire Hersh piece, from beginning to end, is nothing more than a host of mostly nameless people playing guessing games.
The truth is that we may once again be facing (now, or at some unspecified date in the not-too-distant future) the need to make some very hard choices among crazinesses. Which of these is the least crazy--adopting a "wait-and-see" attitude, relying on diplomacy with madmen--or attacking, and dealing with the consequences? I think no one should pretend the answer is either easy or obvious.
In World War II, the "good guys" got the bomb first and then used it to shorten the war, with catastrophic loss of life for the Japanese of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (this was the "choice among crazinesses" that the US leadership made at the time). Some say that, by dropping those bombs on the Japanese, we forfeited our claim to be the good guys, but the argument that those bombings prevented even further bloodshed is quite compelling (I discuss the matter in this post, and in this one as well).
We may soon be facing a similar moral and tactical dilemma in which there is no good solution, although I profoundly hope not. But make no mistake about it: if we do, the fault lies with the Iranian leaders. Their intentions have never really been hidden; it's only now that they appear to be on the verge of acquiring the means to achieve their long-stated aims.
[ADDENDUM: The White House responds to the Hersh article, here, calling such reports "wild speculation." Here's the basic stance:
The White House sought Monday to minimize new speculation about a possible military strike against Iran while acknowledging that the Pentagon is developing contingency plans to deal with Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The Pentagon has refused to describe its planning further.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to confirm or deny The New Yorker report. "Those who are seeking to draw broad conclusions based on normal military contingency planning are misinformed or not knowledgeable about the administration's thinking," he said.]
[ADDENDUM II: Ralph Peters weighs in with this interesting analysis (via Austin Bay).]