July 02, 2006

Hersh's Latest: Last Stand -- The War Over Iran

[More on these issues here: Our Date with Armageddon.]

Seymour Hersh has a lengthy new article about the Bush administration's plans for Iran. As always with Hersh, you should read the entire piece. Here are some highlights.

Let me begin with what I think is the single most important paragraph. Hersh discusses in detail the various conflicts between the military and the Bush administration about different strategies and the possible outcomes, including profoundly dangerous negative consequences of any action against Iran. But if you thought for one moment that the administration has given up serious planning for an attack of some kind, think again. Perhaps the major reason the military leadership is resisting the administration's plans is their conviction that the administration is determined to do something, and possibly in the near future:
A retired four-star general, who ran a major command, said, “The system is starting to sense the end of the road, and they don’t want to be condemned by history. They want to be able to say, ‘We stood up.’”
"The end of the road" is an attack of some kind. If calamitous economic consequences ensue or a very broad regional war (or even worse), the military wants to able to say they provided ample warnings.

Hersh repeatedly makes the point that no one -- no one, not even the Israelis -- has any good intelligence about Iran and its nuclear plans at all. If and when the hysteria about Iran begins to be deliberately stoked once more, I suggest you keep this fundamental fact in mind and never, ever forget it. Hersh writes:
Inside the Pentagon, senior commanders have increasingly challenged the President's plans, according to active-duty and retired officers and officials. The generals and admirals have told the Administration that the bombing campaign will probably not succeed in destroying Iran's nuclear program. They have also warned that an attack could lead to serious economic, political, and military consequences for the United States.

A crucial issue in the military's dissent, the officers said, is the fact that American and European intelligence agencies have not found specific evidence of clandestine activities or hidden facilities; the war planners are not sure what to hit. "The target array in Iran is huge, but it's amorphous," a high-ranking general told me. "The question we face is, When does innocent infrastructure evolve into something nefarious?" The high-ranking general added that the military's experience in Iraq, where intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was deeply flawed, has affected its approach to Iran. "We built this big monster with Iraq, and there was nothing there. This is son of Iraq," he said.

"There is a war about the war going on inside the building," a Pentagon consultant said. "If we go, we have to find something."
Israeli intelligence, however, has also failed to provide specific evidence about secret sites in Iran, according to current and former military and intelligence officials. In May, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Washington and, addressing a joint session of Congress, said that Iran "stands on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons" that would pose "an existential threat" to Israel. ... But at a secret intelligence exchange that took place at the Pentagon during the visit, the Pentagon consultant said, "what the Israelis provided fell way short" of what would be needed to publicly justify preventive action.
No one should take any consolation from this lack of information: this ignorance is hardly viewed as a deterrent to action by the administration itself. Their "solution" to the complete lack of specificity in knowledge about Iran's nuclear capacity is massive carpet bombing:
"Rumsfeld and Cheney are the pushers on this--they don't want to repeat the mistake of doing too little," the government consultant with ties to Pentagon civilians told me. "The lesson they took from Iraq is that there should have been more troops on the ground"--an impossibility in Iran, because of the overextension of American forces in Iraq--"so the air war in Iran will be one of overwhelming force."
And there is one final piece of very bad news: Hersh provides a lot of new evidence, although the point was already entirely clear to close observers, that the diplomacy the administration has recently indicated it will join is deliberately intended to fail. For example:
On May 31st, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced what appeared to be a major change in U.S. foreign policy. The Bush Administration, she said, would be willing to join Russia, China, and its European allies in direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program. There was a condition, however: the negotiations would not begin until, as the President put it in a June 19th speech at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, "the Iranian regime fully and verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities." Iran, which has insisted on its right to enrich uranium, was being asked to concede the main point of the negotiations before they started. The question was whether the Administration expected the Iranians to agree, or was laying the diplomatic groundwork for future military action.
I hardly think that's a question at all -- especially in light of this:
Several current and former officials I spoke to expressed doubt that President Bush would settle for a negotiated resolution of the nuclear crisis. A former high-level Pentagon civilian official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the government, said that Bush remains confident in his military decisions. The President and others in the Administration often invoke Winston Churchill, both privately and in public, as an example of a politician who, in his own time, was punished in the polls but was rewarded by history for rejecting appeasement. In one speech, Bush said, Churchill "seemed like a Texan to me. He wasn't afraid of public-opinion polls. . . . He charged ahead, and the world is better for it."
Hersh reports one piece of news that some may view with enormous relief, and as a significant achievement:
In late April, the military leadership, headed by General Pace, achieved a major victory when the White House dropped its insistence that the plan for a bombing campaign include the possible use of a nuclear device to destroy Iran's uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. The huge complex includes large underground facilities built into seventy-five-foot-deep holes in the ground and designed to hold as many as fifty thousand centrifuges. "Bush and Cheney were dead serious about the nuclear planning," the former senior intelligence official told me. "And Pace stood up to them. Then the world came back: 'O.K., the nuclear option is politically unacceptable.'" At the time, a number of retired officers, including two Army major generals who served in Iraq, Paul Eaton and Charles Swannack, Jr., had begun speaking out against the Administration's handling of the Iraq war. This period is known to many in the Pentagon as "the April Revolution."

"An event like this doesn't get papered over very quickly," the former official added. "The bad feelings over the nuclear option are still felt. The civilian hierarchy feels extraordinarily betrayed by the brass, and the brass feel they were tricked into it"--the nuclear planning--"by being asked to provide all options in the planning papers."
I don't want to minimize this achievement, assuming the administration has genuinely given up this option. The use of even one tactical nuclear weapon could unleash a regional nuclear exchange, which could then spread to other parts of the world.

But relief about this one instance of the administration backing down (if they have) should not cloud our judgment about the immorality of any attack on Iran in the current situation. As I wrote in "Morality, Humanity and Civilization":
[L]et us be very, very clear on a preliminary issue.

Any military attack by the United States on Iran within the foreseeable future -- even an attack using only conventional weapons -- would be profoundly immoral, and eternally unforgivable. Remember the critical facts: all experts agree that Iran is approximately five to ten years away from having a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran is fully entitled to take the actions it does at present, including the enrichment of uranium it announced yesterday. It is entitled to take those actions under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory. While we condemn Iran and maintain that its actions are "intolerable" and "unacceptable" -- even though they are entirely permissible under the relevant agreements, and are only "intolerable" because we say so without any moral, legal or strategic justification for that stance -- we carve out exceptions for a country like India, which is not a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty. The position of the United States is an entirely unprincipled one, and one which devolves into incoherence.

These central facts lead to only one conclusion: an attack on Iran would represent a blatant, naked act of aggression against a country that does not threaten us. It would not be an act of self-defense, if that term has any meaning at all: there is nothing at present or in the immediate future to defend ourselves against. Of course, the same was true of Iraq. We refuse to learn any lessons at all.
I recommend you read Hersh's article in its entirety.