Once more, the heat's on IranIs Iran the next US target for regime change? That is the bombshell of a question that investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has raised in the latest issue of New Yorker magazine. The White House's response: Hersh's essay is "riddled with inaccuracies".
Hersh claims that US special forces are operating from bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, conducting reconnaissance missions in Iran for the past six months. Their potential objective includes "identifying target information for three dozen or more suspected nuclear, chemical and missile sites" in that country. The special forces are reportedly leaving behind remote detection devices called "sniffers" that have the technical capability to test for radioactive emissions in the atmosphere. One US government official told Hersh, "The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible."
The alleged use of special forces in such an operation, according to Hersh, is evidence that President George W Bush will continue to downgrade the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). What is also alarming, if true, is his claim that Bush has "signed a series of top-secret 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 10 nations in the Middle East and South Asia." By depicting such operations as military rather than intelligence, writes Hersh, "will enable the administration to evade legal restrictions imposed on the CIA's covert activities overseas".
What is in it for Pakistan? According to Hersh, Pakistan has made a devilish bargain with the US. In exchange for allowing US special forces to operate from its territory, Washington will not demand that Islamabad hand over Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, A Q Khan, for interrogation about his role in nuclear proliferation. In addition, the special forces are reportedly working closely with a group of Pakistani scientists who had cooperated with their counterparts in Iran. Needless to say, Pakistan has promptly denied such collaboration as "far fetched".
The question now is what are the chances that Hersh's story is right? The story may be right in the sense that the US is badly in need for evidence of Iran's nuclear intentions. There is little doubt that the Bush administration suffers from a serious credibility gap about making future claims regarding Iran's aspirations to develop nuclear weapons without hard evidence. The necessity of hard evidence might be driving any alleged penetration of special forces into Iran, rather than the objective of another regime change. Once such evidence is at hand, Bush may be able to go to the world community and demand that sanctions be placed on Iran.
It is also possible that the US is of the view that Iran might be closer to developing nuclear weapons than anyone - including the nuclear watchdog entity, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has anticipated or speculated. Thus, it does not want to encounter another terrible surprise, as was the case when India and Pakistan brought their nuclear programs out of the closet, or when North Korea made some bold claims about its own nuclear weapons development capabilities.
What are chances that Pakistan is cooperating with the US? It is possible that Pakistan is busy making the best out of the worst situation related to Khan's involvement in nuclear proliferation. More to the point, considering the fact that there is ample suspicion in Washington that Khan might not have acted as a loose canon on his own, and that the government of Pakistan might have tacitly approved his activities at least in the case of North Korea, Musharraf cannot afford to become a target of US sanctions in the future.
Besides, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's unilateral decision to take a "tell-all" approach regarding his own nuclear aspirations has shaken up Pakistan's own nostalgic and starry-eyed perspectives regarding Islamic solidarity. So, establishing a clear distance between itself and Iran might have been just a Machiavellian approach of Pakistan to save its own hide.
If the US really wanted to seek hard evidence about Iran's nuclear intentions, one wonders how much damage Hersh's story has done. Considering that its platter is currently full with the problems related to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration might not want to create another unmanageable mess by destabilizing Iran. There is also an outside chance that Hersh might have been given this story as a larger campaign of the US to forewarn Iran about the consequences of developing nuclear weapons.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.