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Hersh: U.S. mulls nuclear option for Iran

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh says sources tell him Bush is "messianic" about Iran.


CNN Access

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, in an article in the April 17 edition of The New Yorker magazine, writes that President Bush wants regime change in Iran.

Citing a former senior intelligence official, Hersh says the administration views Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "potential Adolf Hitler."

Among the options U.S. military officials have been asked to examine is the use of nuclear weapons against underground facilities for Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Hersh talked with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Sunday about the article.

BLITZER: Here's, among other things, what you write in the article: "A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was "absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb" if it is not stopped. He said that the president believes that he must do "what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do," and that "saving Iran is going to be his legacy."

So what's your bottom line? Do you believe, based on the reporting you did for this article, that the president of the United States is now aggressively plotting military action, a pre-emptive strike against Iran?

HERSH: The word I hear is "messianic." He thinks, as I wrote, that he's the only one now who will have the courage to do it. He's politically free. I don't think he's overwhelmingly concerned about the '06 elections, congressional elections. I think he really thinks he has a chance, and this is going to be his mission.

BLITZER: So your sources have concluded basically that the diplomatic option as it's going forward is not necessarily going to work?

HERSH: That's the fear. The fear is that we're back to the pre-Iraqi invasion game when we went through the U.N. exercise. The fear is that the White House, there's some people in the White House who aren't really, no matter what happens diplomatically, they don't believe Iran's going to give up its ambitions.

BLITZER: Given the enormous military headaches the United States now has in Iraq, does the U.S. military have the wherewithal to launch another pre-emptive strike, this time against Iran?

HERSH: Oh, sure. We have plenty of air power. We can do it. We have great precision bombings. There's been a lot of planning going on. It's more than planning, it's operational planning. It's beyond contingency planning. There's serious, specific plans. Nobody's made a decision yet. There hasn't been a warning order or an execute order. But the planning's gotten much more intense and much more focused.

I can't tell you. Nobody can say what's going to happen in the future. But I can just tell you there are people in the Pentagon and people, our allies, the allies involved with us diplomatically, the French, the Germans and the Brits, who don't really know what the president is thinking.

BLITZER: Here's the most explosive item in your new article in The New Yorker magazine. And I'll read it: "The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites," the nuclear sites in Iran, "little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. 'Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,' the former senior intelligence official said. 'Decisive' is the key word of the Air Force's planning. It's a tough decision, but we made it in Japan."

Now, this is an explosive charge, an explosive revelation, if true, that the United States is seriously considering using a tactical nuclear bomb or bombs to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities.

HERSH: What you just read says this. If you're giving the White House a series of options, and the option is to get rid of an underground facility -- the facility I'm talking about is Natanz, 75 feet under hard rock -- if you want to tell the White House one sure way of getting it in a range of options is nuclear, what happened in this case is they gave that option, the JCS, the Joint Chiefs [of Staff].

And then, of course, nobody in their right mind would want to use a nuclear weapon in the Middle East, because it would be, my God, totally chaotic. When the JCS, the Joint Chiefs, and the planners wanted to walk back that option, what happened is about three or four weeks ago, the White House, people in the White House, in the Oval Office, the vice president's office, said, no, let's keep it in the plan.

That doesn't mean it's going to happen. They refuse to take it out. And what I'm writing here is that if this isn't removed -- and I say this very seriously. I've been around this town for 40 years -- some senior officers are prepared to resign. They're that upset about the fact that this plan is kept in. Again, let me make the point, you're giving a range of options early in the planning. To be sure of getting rid of it, you give that option.

BLITZER: Your point being, or at least the points of some experts, that a conventional bomb, even a bunker-busting conventional bomb, would not be big enough to go that deep under the ground to assure the destruction of Iran's capabilities. Is that why you would need, theoretically, a nuclear bomb?

HERSH: What I write about is this, and, you know, it's a 7,000-word article, so it's easy to -- it's hard to summarize in a sentence. We learned in the -- three decades ago during the Cold War that we saw a lot of digging outside of Russia.

We didn't know what it was. It turned out to be an underground contingency of government facilities, 75 feet underground, hard rock.

And at that time, our planners -- if you want to have an all-out war with the Russians and decapitate, destroy the leadership, the only sure way, they said, 30 years ago, was nukes.

So when they looked at the underground facility in Iran -- as I said, this place, the main place is 75 hard feet underground, the only way you can tell the White House for sure, folks, you have to use a tac[tical] nuke.

But that isn't what they were -- they were just giving the range. But it's the fact that the White House wouldn't let it go that has got the JCS in an uproar.

BLITZER: And you're saying that some senior military officers are prepared to resign?

HERSH: I'm saying that, if this isn't walked back and if the president isn't told that you cannot do it -- and once the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or some senior members of the military say to the president, let's get this nuclear option off the table, it will be taken off. He will not defy the military in a formal report. Unless something specific is told to the White House that you've got to drop this dream of a nuclear option -- and that's exactly the issue I'm talking about -- people have said to me that they would resign.

BLITZER: Do you want to name names?

HERSH: Are you kidding?

BLITZER: I'm giving you the opportunity.

HERSH: No. You know why? Because this is a punitive government right now. This is a government that pretty much has its back against the wall, as you've been saying all morning, in Iraq.

And in the military -- you know, one thing about our military is they're very loyal to the president, but they're getting to the edge. They're getting to the edge with not only [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld but also with [Vice President Dick] Cheney and the president.

BLITZER: The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was asked earlier today about this nuclear option, if you will, to deal with Iran's potential nuclear program. ... He didn't mince any words: "[The idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is] completely nuts" in his words. You want to react to that?

HERSH: Well, what he didn't say -- he didn't deny that there's serious planning about the military strike is the point. I mean, he's absolutely right about a nuclear option, but there is serious planning for a conventional war.

BLITZER: Here are some of the comments we've gotten from top Pentagon officials, reacting to your article in the New Yorker.

Larry DiRita, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs: "We will not, other than to remind people that Sy Hersh has a single anonymous source who is not in government, and both Hersh and the source have made fantastic, unverified, and wrong allegations before."

You want to react to Larry DiRita?

HERSH: I think the last time that he was talking about was when I wrote about Abu Ghraib. I think the phrase they used in the Pentagon -- I was throwing "crap against the wall to see what will stick" at that point, when I first began to report that there were serious abuses in Abu Ghraib two years ago.

BLITZER: Another Pentagon spokesman, Brian Whitman says this in reaction to your article, and I'll read it: "The United States government has been very clear about its approach to dealing with Iran. The president and the State Department are working diligently with the international community to include organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations to address diplomatically the troublesome activities of the Iranian government."

Whitman goes on to say, "This reporter" -- referring to you -- "has a solid and well-earned reputation for making dramatic assertions based on thinly sourced, unverifiable anonymous sources. It should be noted that Mr. Hersh never sought any comment, clarification or interviews with responsible and knowledgeable officials of the Defense Department."

HERSH: The New Yorker sent a long, detailed memorandum to the Pentagon on Tuesday. I e-mailed other people in the government, getting no response, other responsible high-level officials, not getting a response.

And all I can tell you is that the response was given -- a very churlish response -- was given to us on Thursday night or Friday that didn't respond, as he doesn't, to the issue.

The question: Is there serious military planning going on? And all of this talk doesn't evade the issue. The answer is yes and they're not actually denying it.

BLITZER: Here's the other explosive item in your piece, and I'll read it: "The Bush administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups."

Bottom line, what you're saying here is that there are American forces, clandestinely, already inside of Iran.

HERSH: That's what I'm saying.

BLITZER: You want to elaborate on that?

HERSH: Well, I'll tell you one thing that is very interesting to me about it. They're not Special Forces; they're regular military. And that's part of the Rumsfeld notion that all military guys are potentially Special Forces. And I think it's fraught with danger. But they're there.

And we're not saying any more specifically about where they are or what they're doing. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt. But they are there and the American public should know it because, I assure you, the Iranian government knows it.

BLITZER: The official U.S. intelligence estimate is the Iranians are still years away from developing a nuclear bomb.

The Israelis are much more concerned. They think it's -- perhaps this year could be a decisive turning point in whether they go forward with it.

What is your bottom-line assessment, based on the reporting you've done? How close are the Iranians to actually building a bomb?

HERSH: You know, the point is, we don't know. It's not tomorrow. I've heard up to as long as 10 years. And as you know, the official estimate, intelligence estimate, of the government that was published -- leaked last year or obtained by The Washington Post said 8 to 10 years. And that's the best guess.

Here's the real, critical point. The critical point, it seems to me, is that we're not talking. This president is not talking to the Iranians. They are trying very hard to make contact, I can assure you of that, in many different forms.

And he's not talking. And there's no public pressure on the White House to start bilateral talks. And that's what amazes everybody.

When I was in Vienna [Austria], seeing officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the one thing they all said is everybody knows Iran is trying to do something. They're cheating. They're not near. There's plenty of time. And instead of talking about bombing, let's talk about talking.

Let's see if we can do something to begin a bilateral conversation. And it's amazing to me, not only that the president doesn't but there's no pressure on him from Congress or anybody else.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran: A lot of people think the guy is nuts. What do you think, based on all the reporting you've done?

HERSH: He certainly was a very rough customer. He was in the special operations force of the Revolutionary Guards in the '80s. He's been linked to a lot of very bad stuff, including assassination plotting abroad.

The real issue is who in control. And there's a lot of debate about it. Most people believe the supreme leader, [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, still has enough of the force and power.

But again, it's very nerve-wracking that we keep on pushing people that are volatile. They're not crazy. This is not Saddam Hussein. They're not going to sit there and let something happen. They're going to do something in response.

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