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Pursuing Iran

The Bush administration still has the long-range goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East, writes Seymour Hersh in "The New Yorker" magazine. Despite the burden of the Iraq war, he says U.S. special forces have moved secretly into Iran in search of nuclear and missile sites that could be targeted in a military strike. A U.S. government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon told Mr. Hersh: " The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible."

President Bush's reelection made this military plan possible, writes Mr. Hersh. The White House feels it has popular backing for its Middle East policies and continues to assert more control over the military and the CIA. He adds it is also striving to reduce oversight of its actions by the U.S. Congress.

Some kind of U.S. attack on Iran is likely, contends Philip Giraldi, a former CIA clandestine officer and co-publisher of "Intelligence Brief."

Mr. Giraldi says, "Probably the wind has gone out of the sails of the people that would be inclined toward a full-scale invasion after what has happened in Iraq. Iran is after all much bigger and more populous than Iraq. I think basically what we are going to see is an escalating covert campaign."

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that considering the setbacks in Iraq, covert action makes sense from both U.S. and Israeli points of view. Israeli leaders have said repeatedly they cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. Vice President Richard Cheney warns that if diplomacy does not work, Israel might decide to bomb Iran.

Responding to the Hersh article, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita says it fails to grasp the Iranian global challenge and is riddled with so many errors it lacks credibility. He adds it is based on rumor, innuendo and meetings that never happened.

Former military intelligence officer and author Ralph Peters also finds the article baseless.

Says Mr. Peters, "Any military plans ahead for all options. You even plan for some extreme options because if you do not plan, you are not prepared. So it would be foolish if the United States military were not conducting intelligence surveillance of Iranian nuclear facilities, potential sites where the Iranian mullahs might be developing an atomic bomb."

Events like 9/11 show the need for eternal vigilance, says Mr. Peters. We have to know what friends and enemies alike are up to.

"What I see is that we probably are doing exactly what we should be doing - taking care of our global security by watching potential enemies," says Mr. Peters. "But the fact that you are conducting intelligence operations does not mean by any means that you are going to go to war. We conduct intelligence operations against our allies, and they conduct them against us. That is the way the real world works."

There is the additional problem of Iranian reaction to military attack. In 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, but Iranian facilities are more hidden and dispersed. There is no guarantee all could be hit. Iran, too, has missiles that can reach Israel and it could make exceeding trouble in neighboring Iraq.

Mr. Giraldi says if the aim of an attack is to overthrow the current regime, Iranians are not likely to oblige:

"They will react as almost any country would react," says Mr. Giraldi. "There are considerable political divisions in Iran currently between moderates and conservatives, but everyone will rally around the flag when a foreign invader shows up."

Mr. Giraldi notes Iran is a danger to its neighbors and beyond, but it should be kept in perspective. He fears some elements of the Bush Administration seek a wider war on terrorism whatever the risks.

"For them, there is an overriding issue, which is that the war on terrorism has broken all the rules," says Mr. Giraldi. "It means they can rewrite the rule book. There are many people in the administration and among its supporters that precisely would like to see this morphed into a bigger war, conceivably a world war, led by the United States against Islam."

The war on terrorism was not of our choosing, says Ralph Peters. It was thrust on us. And our goal is not just to win it. With our help, Iraq is about to have the first genuine election in the Middle East, hopefully launching a democratic trend in the region.

Mr. Peters says, "Despite the threats of attack, of intimidation, of bombs, of guns, of kidnappings, millions of Iraqis are going to take the first chance they have ever had to participate in free and fair elections. Certainly we make mistakes, as do other countries, but on the whole our efforts to expand freedom, to enable people to build their own democracies where democracies have never existed is a noble and worthwhile cause."

Ralph Peters says the best way to spread democracy is to set a good example.