Jeffrey LewisHersh Article on Covert Ops in Iran

Seymour Hersh suggests Washington is gearing up for an attack on Iran.

Or, at least, that is the headline. As far as I can tell, the news is

The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

Now that is a big deal. Some of the countries Hersh lists—Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Malaysia, and Tunisia—are at least tepid allies in the GWOT who may become a lot more so now that this story is out.

Hersh also notes that much of the capability and authority to conduct such missions has been centralized under the control of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Then Hersh breaks the story that Iran is also a target:

The Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical, and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids.

This would presumably include installations like Iran’s Bushehr light water reactor (above right).

Some of these missions, Hersh claims, operate out of Pakistan—in exchange for Islamabad’s cooperation, the US continues stifle the IAEA investigation of the A.Q. Khan network.

But does continency planning—and extensive documentation of a war party inside the Pentagon and Vice-President’s office—really add up to a military strike?

Its hard to find a smoking gun anywhere in the article—though there is nothing to rule it out either.

Late Update: Well, the inevitable Pentagon denial has been issued and … it doesn’t actually deny any of the important parts of the story.


View from an Israeli F-16 during the strike on the
Osirak reactor (source).

Hersh obviously thinks such a strike would be foolish, but he repeats a myth that is at least partially responsible for the ardor of proponents of a strike against Iranian facilities:

In 1981, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, setting its nuclear program back several years.

Dan Reiter, a professor at Emory University, has written The Osiraq Myth and the Track Record of Preventive Military Attacks arguing that “closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not susbantially delay the Iraqi nuclear [weapons] program and may have even hastened it.” [Emphasis, mine.]

After e-mailing Dan, I did a little research myself.

I think that he is probably right:

  • In memoirs and interviews, largely published after Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqi nuclear scientists have been unanimous in stating that Osirak was not part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The reason is simple: the two strategies for using the reactor in this manner—diverting HEU or secretly producing Pu—would have been detectable by IAEA inspectors and produced relatively small amounts of fissile material. A technical analysis by the IAEA in 1981 supports these accounts.
  • The scientists were also unanimous in dating Saddam’s pre-Gulf War effort to acquire a nuclear weapon through a clandestine uranium enrichment program to the days immediately following the Israeli attack. The effect of the attack was probably to transform a “virtual” bomb program into a very real one that may or may not have succeeded without the intervention of the Operation Desert Storm.

If Tehran is pursuing a virtual bomb, as I and others have suggested, then the military option will likely collapse diplomatic efforts, further radicalize the Iranian regime, and guarantee a crash program for the bomb.

Come to think of it, that does kind of sound like something Rumsfeld would do …


  1. Brian Konash (History)

    With 23 out of 26 US Army combat brigades committed to preparing, serving, or returning from Iraq / Afghanistan for the forseeable future, I am not sure where Rumsfeld would expect to find the boots to follow up a jump into the Persian rabbit hole. Unless airstrikes-only are under consideration… Wasn’t it the current leadership who decried the use of airstrikes-only in Kosovo? Boots were eventually applied, and KFOR is still there.