Saturday, October 06, 2007

Seymour Hersch on Inside Iraq

On this week's Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English, the first half of the program was a one-on-one interview with Seymour Hersch of The New Yorker magazine. The second half was a discussion with Dr. Seyed Mohammad Marandi, professor of North American Studies at Tehran University, and John Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The topic was the possibility of a U.S. military attack against Iran at some time before the end of George W. Bush's term as President [2009-01-20].

Here is the transcript of the first half of the program, the interview with Seymour Hersch. ©2007, Al Jazeera English, original air date 2007-10-05.

Jasim Azzawi: Hello and welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm Jasim Azzawi. Reports indicate the Pentagon's growing plans to attack Iran. A routine procedure, or an indication of a regional war before President Bush ends his term? If Iran's nuclear dream goes up in smoke, will U.S. soldiers in Iraq become Iran's favorite target, and will the Iraqi government and militias side with the mullahs in Tehran or the Great Satan? Raoui Raggeh reports.
All options are on the table. — Bush
All options are still on the table. — Cheney
If you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target. — [U.S. official]
[correspondent]: If there's one thing the US Administration has made clear in its policy towards Iran, it is: the US has the option of carrying out a military strike on Iran. Recent reports indicate that if the attack were to take place, it's not about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Rather, it's about its alleged role in backing Iraqi fighters and providing weapons that end up killing American soldiers. But can the country currently embroiled in the Iraq war, and the source of so much resentment across the world, carry out another military strike.

[analyst]: Iran is not Iraq. They are different. Iran is not Afghanistan. And at the same time, I really believe the American people [are] fed up with the corpses of their girls and boys coming back from Iraq.

[correspondent]: Reports suggest there's internal dissent within the Bush White House over what course of action the Administration should take against Iran. On one side, proponents of a more aggressive approach, led by Dick Cheney, have recently been able to get the State Department to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. But what would a strike on Iran mean on America's endeavors in Iraq and the broader Middle East in general?

[analyst]: Iran will attack not only Israel, but the American administration in the Gulf. That means Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, all the countries.

[correspondent]: It's highly unlikely that a US strike on Iran could encourage the Iranian regime, or the Revolutionary Guards, to change their ways. In fact, it's likely to cause a surge in sympathy towards Iran around the Arab world, and from Iraqi politicians and clerics. A possible influx of Arab fighters could be expected. If the United States has learned anything from its endeavor in Iraq, there'd better be an idea this time around about what's to follow a possible strike on Iran. Raoui Raggeh on Inside Iraq.
Azzawi: To examine whether a U.S. military strike against Iran is a rumor or hard fact, I am joined from Washington by New Yorker magazine reporter Seymour Hersch. Welcome to Inside Iraq. Mr. Hersch, in your article you said that plans by the Pentagon are being redrawn, perhaps selecting the specific targets for the US military to strike. Is this part of a regular, routine procedure, or is this driven by political consideration in Washington, D.C., as well as hard facts on the ground in Iraq?

Seymour Hersch: Well, it's beyond just normal. There's of course, always, always contingency planning. In other words, my government's always planning for everything, you know, every contingency possible. But in the case of Iran, it's a little more complicated, and it's gone well beyond the normal contingency planning and what the military would call operational planning. This has been going on, you know, I've been writing the same story now for almost 2½ years. The planning traditionally, until recently, the American planning was targeted mostly, largely at the Iranian nuclear facilities, Natans and other places that were very hard targets. Natans, for example, is 75 feet [22 meters] underground. And that was the planning until what I reported in the New Yorker this week, is that there was a sudden change this summer. For a number of reasons, they decided the American government would no longer target primarily Iran's nuclear facilities, but instead go after the Revolutionary Guards.

Azzawi: Wouldn't that be the same for Iran? I mean, if American fighter-bombers come and bomb targets within Iran, does it make much difference to them whether they are hitting the Revolutionary Guards or the nuclear facilities? Wouldn't the response by Iran be the same regardless?

Hersch: Washington's thinking is that they've been telling the world for the last 2 or 3 months that the Revolutionary Guards are responsible — indirectly — with supplies and ammunitions and guidance responsible for the deaths of American soldiers and British soldiers, coalition soldiers, in Iraq. And that has been a new thesis put out by this President since early summer: Iran is directly involved in the problems we're having in Iraq. The British say the same things about the problems they had in Basra; as you know, they're leaving the south gradually, not so gradually, and they blame the Iranians, too. Of course, the case isn't that clear, so the thinking is that the American public would accept a cross-border raid, a raid on revolutionary camps, and some of our allies, Britain in particular, might even go along with the idea of limited raids. So, from the American point of view, this is a huge change from what we call counter-proliferation.

Azzawi: If that is the case, Mr. Hersch, what would be the spark in order to precipitate this military strike? Would it be some sort of miscalculation by Iran? Would it be an increase in the IPF or IED or even the money or training for the militias? Like you said, you've been writing about this for 2½ years, and the last two articles indicated somehow there might be a military strike against Iran. President Bush leaves office January 20, 2009. He's a lame duck, perhaps next year. Will this be indicated or driven by time or driven by other factors like Cheney, as you suggested in your article?

Hersch: Well, one of the things that would certainly trigger it would be if the Iranians did something across the border, made a serious raid. I quote one American general as saying it would take 10 American — 10 dead soldiers and 4 burned trucks, and that would be enough of a casus belli. That would be a justification. There's no evidence that Iran has done any military action across the border. There's also no evidence — there's a great dispute, as I said — about the extent to which the Iranian arms and et cetera aid is any different than it was over the last 20 years.

Azzawi: They are not that stupid, are they, Mr. Hersch, to give Mr Bush the casus belli as you said, for Cheney and Cole to start, you know, driving the President, as well as the other establishment, to say, "This is it. This is what we've been looking for. Let's go after them"? The Iranians so far have been extremely careful. Their calculus is very meticulous. While it's true they are supporting the militias with military training and arms and money, and yet, even commanders on the ground are saying that it is not very explicit.

Hersch: Well, you know, there is always Ahmadinejad. The Americans can always fall back on him, but I don't think his statements are going to be enough of a driving force. It certainly doesn't help Iran's position in America when he does things like challenge the Holocaust; that's quite foolish in my book, but that isn't a military action. I think you're right: so far, the Iranians have been very, very careful about what they do, and the aid they provide, particularly to their fellow Shi'ites in the South, is essentially the same aid they've been providing since Saddam was in power and putting his foot on the neck of the Shias all the time, so there's always been a tremendous tie, as everybody in your audience knows, between the Shias of Iran and the Shias of Iraq, and there, unfortunately, is America's dilemma.

Azzawi: I don't know whether President Bush is a poker player or not, but when you play poker and pretty much, as the game comes to a close and you lose all your money, oftentimes poker players double down, they put the last chip they have on the table with a view of recouping their earlier losses. Is the President perhaps that kind of a guy? The dominant thinking in this region is, since the President made a huge, calamitous gamble in Iraq and he lost, the only way he can recoup his credibility and perhaps some interest for the United States is by going up to Iran. Does that play in Washington?

Hersch: Well, that's certainly the concern of some of the people with whom I talk. That is, there's a fear that the President — this may not be necessarily a rational act — there's a tremendous opposition, but, you know, I just happened to have breakfast with somebody this morning who knows the Pentagon, who described people there, worried in the military, worried about what they see as a messianic President. I have no idea what George Bush is really thinking on the inside. I can just tell you, I've been watching this President for a long time, and the one thing that's interesting about George Bush is, I do believe him when he says things. He said he was going to go into Iraq, and he's making threats to Iran right now, he's constantly threatening them, and he's saying in private, he's making clear in private, that he would very much like to go. I report some of that in the article in the New Yorker this week.

Azzawi: Political analysts, including Mr Antony Cordesman, have this theory that right now it does not make sense for the US to attack Iran, especially its nuclear facilities, simply because we don't know the extent of that facility, how far advanced it is, perhaps about 5 to 7 years away, as Mr El-Baradei of the IAEA says, so, why attack it now? Why not let the Iranians spend the energy and the money and bring it to almost fruition, to about 90% or 95%, and then the next President has the luxury of attacking it and get Iranians to spend another 20, 30 years in order to bring it back again. What do you think of that theory? Because, simply, the military and strategic assets right now do not exist in the region. Most of the carriers have gone.

Hersch: You know, you can ask me questions, hypothetical questions, all week. What I do in my articles and my basic, when I do interviews, I try to stick — I'm not a theorist, and when it comes to guessing about what's going to happen, I will tell you that I think it's very likely, and from what I understand, this President, George Bush, sees himself as "The Man," and he's not sure that the next President, whether Democrat or Republican, would have the integrity, in his view, or the courage, in his view, in his belief, to do what he can do.

Azzawi: Given the fact that this final act by President Bush might not be played according to some sort of calculus and logic, I was surprised and fascinated by a quote you have in the article, "Shifting Targets," by somebody saying, "Cheney does not give a rat's ass about the Republicans," so this is above and beyond politics right now? This is driven by some sort of a special agenda within a certain group within the White House and the executives?

Hersch: Oh, yes. I don't think there's any question there are many people who believe any rational assessment of the situation would preclude going to Iran. There's just too many things. Iran has too much potential to strike back. I saw some senior — for this article, I saw some senior European intelligence officials, who believe Iran would not strike back at America or Israel, but would strike asymmetrically other targets, perhaps oil targets and gas targets in the Gulf, to drive the price up, perhaps go back to terrorism and even trigger activities against Americans or Europeans in Europe or even Latin America, bring in Hezbollah, perhaps.

Azzawi: Mr. Seymour Hersch of The New Yorker magazine, thank you for being a guest on Inside Iraq.

[voiceover]: No President, at any juncture in history, has ever taken military options off the table. — Dan Bartlett, White House spokesman
I very much agree with Jasim's point that Bush is like a gambler who has been losing big and is ready to go all-in. The problem is, our soldiers and our grandchildren's taxes are the chips. No sane person would order an attack on Iran, but it remains to be seen whether or not George W. Bush will.

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