The U.S. government has strongly denied a report by a prominent American journalist that it has sent small military teams into Iran to identify sites for possible future attacks. But the report and denials have generated a controversy about U.S. policy toward Iran, as President Bush’s second term is beginning.
On Thursday, just before the inauguration ceremony, Vice President Dick Cheney told MSNBC television Iran is at the top of the list of world trouble spots, because of its nuclear program and because it is, in his words, a noted sponsor of terror. But he downplayed the possibility of U.S. military action against the country.
The article in the New Yorker magazine by controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh says the United States intends to make Iran the next battlefront in the war on terrorism, and has already sent military teams into the country to search for nuclear sites that could be targeted by American bombers.
Mr. Hersh said advocates of a strike on Iran, here at the Pentagon and at the White House, want to have proof Iran has a nuclear weapons program before they order any attack. He says they do not want another situation like Iraq, where the war was justified largely on the belief that the former regime had weapons of mass destruction, which later proved to be false.
The United States and European countries accuse Iran of having a secret nuclear weapons program, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has criticized Iran for concealing parts of its nuclear program that could be used to build weapons.
Iran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Iranian officials have also rejected Mr. Hersh's report of U.S. military teams operating in Iran, and say U.S. officials who spoke to the journalist are participating in what they call a "psychological campaign" aimed at Iran's religious leaders. On Thursday, Iran's president said he does not expect a U.S. attack, but that Iran will respond if there is one.
Numerous Bush administration officials have called the Hersh article "inaccurate," but they have not commented directly on his claims about U.S. military teams. Among them was Condoleezza Rice, during a Senate hearing this week about her nomination as secretary of state.
"It is filled with inaccuracies and its credibility is sorely lacking," she said.
Still, when pressed by Senator John Kerry, who lost the November election to President Bush, Ms. Rice would not get into a detailed discussion of what the United States is, or is not, doing to counter the threat it sees from Iran.
KERRY: With respect to Iran, are you also denying or discounting any of the allegations in this article?
RICE: The article has… is inaccurate”
KERRY: With respect to Iran?
RICE: The article is, as [the Department of] Defense said, inaccurate.
KERRY: With respect to Iran?
RICE: Senator, the article does not represent our policies toward Iran, or our expectations of policies toward Iran.
Experts outside the government are divided on what the United States should be doing about Iran. At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson says he would not be surprised if the United States is indeed doing the type of intelligence gathering Mr. Hersh reported. Mr. Clawson says that is normal, good and necessary.
"I would be outraged if the United States isn't collecting information inside Iran about Iran's nuclear program," he said. "I would say that heads should roll at the intelligence agencies if they're not doing things like that."
But the executive director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, Professor Natalie Goldring, disagrees.
"I think it's extraordinarily dangerous for us to have operatives in Iran, if that's the case," he said. "In order to justify violating a country's sovereignty and sending in military operatives in this manner, I believe we would have to have, at a minimum a demonstration of a clear and present danger. I don't believe that's the case with respect to Iran."
Professor Goldring says the United States should be working to gather as much information as possible about Iran's potentially dangerous nuclear program, but she says that should not include the kind of secret military operations Seymour Hersh reports are going on.
Although they disagree on that point, the two experts agree the United States should expect that any attack on Iran, in the absence of a specific provocation, would be likely to unite the country against the United States. Mr. Hersh reports that advocates of the plan in the Bush Administration reject that view, and believe that many Iranians would use a U.S. attack as an opportunity to rise up against their government.
At her Senate confirmation hearings this week, Condoleezza Rice offered this statement of U.S. policy toward Iran, which President Bush has described as part of what he calls an "axis of evil."
"The goal of the administration is to have a regime in Iran that is responsive to the concerns that we have about Iran's policies, which are 180 degrees antithetical to our own interests at this point," she said. "That means that a regime, the regime, would have to deal with its nuclear weapons obligations, deal with the fact that there are al-Qaida leaders who have been there, deal with the fact that they're supporting Hezbollah and terrorism, and Palestinian rejectionism against the Middle East peace process. That's what we're seeking."
Ms. Rice also said the Iranian people, in her words, "suffer under a regime that has been completely unwilling to deal with their aspirations and that has an appalling human rights record."
Two days later, in his second inaugural address on Thursday, President Bush linked the removal of such regimes to the war on terrorism. He said the United States will promote freedom and democracy around the world, even in what he called its "darkest corners," and will not allow repressive regimes to threaten U.S. security.
"My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people from further attacks and emerging threats," said Mr. Bush.
The current debate on Iran policy focuses on how the United States should deal with the "emerging threat" of an Iran with nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials say that, at least for now, the emphasis is on diplomacy, and they support European efforts to negotiate limits on Iran's nuclear program. But in pre-inaugural interviews in recent days, the president specifically declined to rule out military action against Iran if it becomes necessary at some point in the future.