Comments and Uncertainty about “The Iran Plans”


Seymour Hersh’s article on Bush’s plan for war with Iran has helped confirm the worst suspicions of those on the left scared of another neocon-like and neocon-led war in the Middle East and has bolstered some on the far right who were afraid that the White House had become too weak to take on the next nation in Bush’s Axis of Evil roster.
I’m not going to argue directly with what Hersh has laid out. He’s a brilliant investigative reporter, and I have reported some elements of this story in the past. For one, we have known for some time of a classified Air Force bombing study that has been gathering adherents more quickly over the last six months.
Hersh states that there have been no ‘formal’ briefings of Democratic leaders about our potential war plans with Iran. I have heard differently — though the level of “formality” may be debatable. I have heard that certain Democratic Congressional leaders have received a classified briefing on our military options with Iran.
But here is what concerns me.
First, it is not surprising that America would have a bunch of war plans and targeting options — even including tactical nukes — in the cabinet. And given the considerable rise in tensions, it would not be surprising that the U.S. was working hard to update and enhance target rosters.
But having such war plans in hand does not mean that war is likely, or a decided course by the President.
Now, in the Iraq War, it is clear that Bush had decided very early — and before diplomacy had really moved very far — that he was going to take Saddam Hussein out, and I fear that many neocons and operators around Cheney and Rumsfeld have been using an Iraq “re-tread” strategy with Iran. But what is strange about this build-up is that many of the voices on the inside are not as unified as they were in the Iraq case.
And other thoughtful commentators with stellar reputations disagree with Hersh’s ultimate assessment.
James Fallows has told me privately that he was sure in 2002 we were going to war against Iraq and that he has no such feeling now.
Juan Cole has also counseled many on the left not to hyperventilate too much about the Hersh piece — suggesting that what the administration is cleverly doing is building up the hype to add credibility to America’s threat to Iran if it doesn’t step down.
I need to reprint sections of the Jim Risen book, State of War, which outlines how America’s network of human intelligence operatives and collaborators inside Iran were rolled up after an electronics mistake from CIA headquarters “outed” everyone in the network. We have been flying blind in some ways on what is going on inside Iran.
Secondly, Risen points out that in a botched counter-intelligence effort, America delivered to Iran’s delegation to the IAEA in Vienna nearly perfect plans for a Russian trigger device for a nuclear warhead. We hoped to embed in the plans a few mistakes that would take Iran down a course that would waste several years and a lot of research — but the defector we used actually told the Iranians about some of the defects in the plan.
Another thing that is inconsistent between what I learned recently in Israel and Hersh’s article is that he seems to paint a picture of a completely hawkish Israel and Mossad when it comes to Iran. That is simply not the case.
There may be die-hard “invade Iran” hawks in Israel’s national security circles, but they are in the minority right now. I had the same exact bias about Israel probably trying to prompt America to take action in Iran — but had by bias corrected by working hard to have my bias confirmed and finding instead that the Israeli national security establishment was far better informed and had more confidence many other strategies short of war to deal with Iran.
I spent significant time with Mossad officials in Israel and also the equivalent of Iran-watching State Department INR types — who work in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They simply aren’t as nervous about Iran as we are — not because they don’t think that Iran won’t be a threat down the road but because they know the problem is not imminent and because they seem to have confidence that Ahmadinejad is being deserted by many on the Iranian right who are embarrassed by his brand of populism.
The right strategy might be to act as if the Bush administration is getting wound up for a hot war with Iran — and perhaps a dynamic will be triggered that helps get things on a more rational track. In other words, some irrationality could help.
I just think it’s important to note that there is a split among insiders, whereas most of these same people were on the same page about Bush’s plans before the Iraq invasion.
More later.

— Steve Clemons