Let’s calm down. Messianic Bush isn’t about to rain down nukes on Iran

By David Aaronovitch (THE TIMES, 11/04/06):

SEYMOUR HERSH was on a roll — top of the news. “It’s ten past eight,” John Humphrys told a million or more BBC listeners yesterday morning. “President Bush is making plans for a military attack on Iran.” That made me look up from my porridge. Last set of Yanks I met were decidedly and encouragingly downbeat on the prospects for a military strike. Humphrys continued: “That is what the respected New Yorker magazine reports in this month’s edition. The report has been written by Hersh, who has a record going back 40 years of breaking stories at the top level of American politics . . .”, ie, the story had sufficient legs — in the view of the BBC editorial team — to run as No 1 story yesterday morning.

As I understood it, Hersh’s claim, reported by the BBC, was that the White House, while talking diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear programme, was preparing for war, and that military action included the possibility of a nuclear strike. Hersh himself was interviewed, and was reminded that the stated position of the Bush Administration was the need for continuing diplomacy. To which Hersh replied: “There is a tremendous unease inside the British Government about what Bush will do. They won’t say this publicly but I will tell you there is.” (Incidentally, in Hersh’s article there is no mention of any contact with British sources. The following passage, however, does appear: “ ‘The Brits think this is a very bad idea,’ Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staff member who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, told me, ‘but they’re really worried we’re going to do it.’ ”)

Hersh’s next words were: “There’s a messianic sense to this, that George Bush is simply gonna do what no Democrat or Republican would do: resolve this problem, get rid of this issue.” So was it the Brits who thought President Bush was messianic? On the BBC online website Hersh tells his interviewer re Bush and Iran: “It’s messianic, I quote somebody as saying.”

Actually that somebody, should you read the 6,000-word New Yorker article, turns out to be “a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee” (his party is not disclosed), a man who has not attended briefings on the Iran topic in the White House, but who has spoken to others who have, and who told Hersh: “The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.” So the word “messianic”, so widely used yesterday morning, may well come from an anonymous political opponent of Mr Bush.

But if everyone knows that Mr Bush is Count Dracula, then everyone also knows that the British PM is his fly-nibbling Renfield. “There is a wild card in this,” added Hersh, “and this is what I’m hearing here in Washington, and that’s one Tony Blair. One does not know what Tony Blair, despite his political troubles of today, would do if directly pushed by the President on this issue.” So Mr Blair could be about to commit Britain to supporting a US nuclear strike on Iran.

JH: “And finally to Jeremy Bowen, our Middle East editor, what do you make of all this, Jeremy?” “Well, John, Seymour Hersh’s sources are very good. Now the question is are they telling him the truth or is this some kind of disinformation operation?”

How Bowen knows whether Hersh’s sources for this are good or not is anyone’s guess. As well as the unnecessarily reticent House member, there are in the article, as described by Hersh, the following: a former senior intelligence official, a government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, one former defence official, one military planner, one high-ranking diplomat, a senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror, a discouraged former International Atomic Energy Agency official, a former high-level Defence Department official, one recently retired high-level Bush Administration official, one former senior UN official, a senior Israeli intelligence official, a European intelligence official, another diplomat in Vienna and a Western ambassador there. Some offer the most sensational information, and others just give punchy quotes of great narrative usefulness.

The problem here is that we simply have to take Hersh and his judgment on trust. This is awkward, because he’s done a lot of good stuff in his career, and some pretty bad stuff. And there’s no way at all of knowing which this is. It just seems a pity that with so much at stake, not even his “formers” are prepared to speak on the record.

After the BBC made this its top tale, the Foreign Policy Centre think-tank issued a press release complaining that “hyping up a military attack on Iran is damaging diplomatic negotiations”. “We are in danger,” the FPC said, “of talking ourselves into a war.” Then it added, in what seemed to be self-contradiction, that a plan to attack Iran with nuclear weapons “smacks not just of a deranged strategic miscalculation but of sheer hypocrisy and idiocy”. The FPC was particularly worried about the idea “amongst some neoconservatives in the United States that a military air assault would cause the people of Iran to rise up against their oppressors”. So I called the FPC and asked them who these barmy neocons were, and where they’d said this. I was referred back to the Hersh article, and another anonymous quote.

My own uninformed guess is that there’s a lot of contingency planning going on about Iran, just as we plan for the unlikely eventuality of an avian flu pandemic, and that you can drive yourself crazy with the implications of ever having to use military action against such a complex and important country, just as you can with speculating on how we will bury 500,000 flu fatalities. Someone in a room somewhere needs a plan for every possibility — the rest of us need to deal with the likely world. Hersh reminds us that “there is a Cold War precedent for targeting deep underground bunkers with nuclear weapons”. My point is that we didn’t use it.

Next week, having hopefully calmed down a bit, the FPC will launch a much needed discussion about the real, and not the imagined, Iran. It’ll be talking about Iran’s complicated power structure, the dangers presented by its President (you wanna talk messianic?), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and also the constraints upon him. It will be examining the world’s dilemma that, when it comes to Iran’s nukes, tails we seem to lose and heads the hardliners still win. Act tough, and Mr Ahmadinejad benefits from increased nationalism, act soft and the regime gets the bomb and the idea that we’re unable to enforce even the most well-supported rules.

As of now we are nearly two weeks into the 30 days that the UN Security Council has given Iran to stop its nuclear research programme, or face the possibility of action, including sanctions. At this minute we ought to discussing what sanctions need to be imposed, or indeed whether any would work at all. For that discussion to happen the focus needs to move from Washington to Tehran, and at ten past eight some morning soon I hope to hear a discussion that does just that. God, I wish the Today programme was less obsessed with America!