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Military Strikes Offered as an Option in Dealing with Iran

April 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Our Iran coverage begins with this background report narrated by NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden.

TOM BEARDEN: With his remarks this morning, President Bush joined a cadre of international leaders trying to dampen talk of a U.S. military strike against Iran.

And the administration followed up this afternoon when White House Spokesman Scott McClellan stressed that diplomacy was the preferred course to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, White House Spokesman: The president has made it very clear that we’re working with the international community to find a diplomatic solution when it comes to the Iranian regime and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

TOM BEARDEN: The comments were in response to stories that emerged over the weekend.

On Sunday, “The Washington Post” reported the Bush administration is studying options for strikes against Iran.

An account by “New Yorker” magazine’s Seymour Hersh said one Pentagon plan included using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran’s underground nuclear sites. Hersh wrote that U.S. planning was spurred by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent threats against Israel and the U.S.

One of Hersh’s sources was quoted as saying that President Bush thinks he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do.”

During an interview today on “Good Morning America,” Hersh elaborated.

SEYMOUR HERSH, “The New Yorker” Magazine: The people I talked to, senior people in and out of the government, that this is really not about the worry about they enrich a little bit of uranium; this is about this president and his vice president wanting regime change.

TOM BEARDEN: The articles prompted reaction from American allies, among them British Foreign Minister Jack Straw who yesterday dismissed out of hand the idea of a nuclear attack.

JACK STRAW, British Foreign Minister: The idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts.

TOM BEARDEN: Back in this country, retired general Anthony Zinni told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer yesterday that a military move against Iran was risky.

GENERAL ANTHONY ZINNI, (Ret.), Fmr. Commander of U.S. Central Command: We should not fool ourselves to think it will just be a strike and then it will be over. The Iranians will retaliate. We’re going to have to be prepared to, in effect, go all the way, whatever that means.

And I don’t think we should kid ourselves that this can be simply ended by one strike. A nuclear-armed Iran is extremely dangerous and I hope we don’t come to that position.

TOM BEARDEN: Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner has studied Air Force targeting scenarios and has run unofficial war gaming on Iran.

COLONEL SAM GARDINER (Ret.), U.S. Air Force: There are about 20 nuke facilities in Iran. An attack on them would probably take place over one night. It would be B-2s and Navy-launched cruise missiles. Some of the targets would use deep-penetrating weapons.

TOM BEARDEN: He thinks if there were an attack, the U.S. would bomb more than just nuclear sites.

COLONEL SAM GARDINER (Ret.), U.S. Air Force: If we’re going to go in there, we should go after the things that could hurt us. So what I would expect is to see targeting of not only the nuclear facilities but of the medium-range ballistic missiles, of the air bases, of the chemical warfare plants — yes, they have WMD — and of the missiles that could control the Gulfs (ph).

Now, this is a bigger strike, probably five or six days or nights.

TOM BEARDEN: Iranian leaders have branded the reports as psychological warfare. And at a rally today, President Ahmadinejad said his country would not give in to pressure from the West.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iranian President (Through Translator): Our enemies know that they cannot stop the Iranian nation from its path with such propaganda, meetings and showing an angry face to us.

TOM BEARDEN: Ahmadinejad added that soon he would have good news about his country’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, inspectors from the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, inspected an Iranian nuclear facility over the weekend, and IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei is expected to pay a visit this week.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner has more on the story.

MARGARET WARNER: We get two views on all this from: Richard Perle, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration and former member of the Defense Policy Board, which advises Secretary Rumsfeld; and Morton Halperin, a former official with the National Security Council and State Department, most recently in the Clinton administration.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Richard Perle, do you think the U.S. should be thinking about attacking Iran as a feasible option for resolving this nuclear situation?

RICHARD PERLE, Former Pentagon Official: Well, every one hopes, of course, that it will be resolved peacefully through a negotiating process and through a decision by the Iranians to terminate their nuclear weapons program.

But no one can be sure that we’ll achieve that result. And, in fact, the lack of progress to date is pretty discouraging.

So it is only natural that contingency planners would think about how force might be applied if it comes to that, but no one is eager to see it come to that.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you persuaded that, in fact, this kind of planning is going on and preparations are?

RICHARD PERLE, Former Pentagon Official: Well, when you say this kind of planning, I think there’s been a lot of exaggeration particularly in the reporting over the weekend.

I do not believe that we are contemplating the offensive use of nuclear weapons, for example, which was the sensationalism in Mr. Hersh’s article that’s now gone all around the world.

I don’t believe we’re considering that.

MARGARET WARNER: Mort Halperin, what’s your view, first of all, on whether this is an option that the United States should be seriously considering if diplomacy fails?

MORTON HALPERIN, Former State Department Official: I think it’s something that you never want to completely take off the table. But it is not something that we should be seriously considering now.

We have not yet begun the kind of serious, direct negotiations with the Iranians that I believe we need to have to try to see if we can resolve the differences with them, nor have we put on the table a serious comprehensive proposal to deal with their right of access to nuclear material for peaceful purposes.

And I think it’s particularly dangerous to think about threatening to use nuclear weapons.

I take the story very seriously. Sy Hersh’s reporting over the last few years and all the way back has been extraordinarily accurate, and I think it would be a mistake to discount those stories.

I think it is incumbent upon the administration now to take the nuclear option off the table. It would be irresponsible to threaten or to use nuclear weapons.

And I think the administration, if it’s serious about wanting to persuade the Iranians to give up their capacity to develop nuclear weapons, that among the things we need to do very clearly is to reaffirm that we will not use nuclear weapons against them.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying on the broader question whether or not it’s nuclear weapons but attacking Iran that you think it would actually be counterproductive, that it would be damaging to U.S. interests?

MORTON HALPERIN, Former State Department Official: Yes.

I think that one doesn’t necessarily want to take the option completely off the table.

I understand the value in diplomacy to leave unstated where you might go eventually if there was not a settlement.

But when we look hard at the question of using military force, I think it is an illusion to think that we can permanently affect the Iranian’s ability to develop nuclear weapons by a bombing campaign. We may be able to slow it down.

On the other hand, most estimates are that it’s still five or 10 years away, so it’s not clear how much we would actually slow it down.

And we may redouble the determination of the Iranians to move forward so that at the end of the day we actually speed up the process. Moreover, as we know from leaked press reports of a couple weeks ago, the assessment of the intelligence community is that Iran will respond to this by attacking the United States where it is vulnerable.

We know Iran is a neighbor of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has troops. And I think we need to expect attacks from forces supported by Iran if we begin a bombing campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: That all sounds pretty dire, Mr. Perle.

RICHARD PERLE, Former Pentagon Official: Well, first of all, nobody is thinking — as far as I know — in terms of an imminent attack on Iran’s sites.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think Iran would react that way, would then would launch attacks, more attacks on U.S. forces, perhaps U.S. personnel elsewhere, cause more trouble in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

RICHARD PERLE, Former Pentagon Official: Well, they are already causing a great deal of trouble in Iraq. We should be under no illusion about that.

With respect to Afghanistan, they believe their interests are rather similar to ours in keeping things stable, at least in the areas close to their own territory. And so they’ve been doing that, but for their own reasons.

Look, I think there’s just a lot of hyperbole here. We are not contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. It is widely irresponsible and wrong for Sy Hersh to suggest we are. And far from having been accurate in the recent past, he’s been wildly inaccurate on any number of occasions.

But the idea that we should now be put in the position of having to offer assurances that would appear to validate the claim because one irresponsible journalist makes unreasonable charges I think is — would be very foolish.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Halperin, if we could separate ourselves from Sy Hersh for a minute and just talk about whether this is even militarily feasible.

There’s been quite a debate about this, about whether even if any country, the United States or anyone else, wanted to take out the facilities, whether we know where they are, whether they’re too spread out, whether they’re hidden.

What is your view of that?

MORTON HALPERIN, Former State Department Official: Well, I think the first thing to say is that we don’t know what we don’t know. And that’s a fundamental problem here.

I have no doubt that American intelligence has identified some facilities. By definition, we do not know of facilities that we have not identified. And there’s no way to be sure that you have identified all the facilities.

The Iranians have moved forward knowing that the Israelis had attacked an Iraqi facility. They know that there has been a risk of an American attack.

I think we have to assume that they have proceeded in a way that has taken account of the possibility of an attack.

But even if you destroy some particular sites, you have to ask yourself, what does that do to the American position in the world? What does it do to Iraq?

Yes, it may be true that the Iranians are causing trouble in Iraq. I assure you they can cause a great deal more trouble, and I think most people would agree they would do so if we attack.

Now, they may have some common interest in us with Afghanistan, but they can still cause us a great deal of trouble within that context.

And if we attack them, their incentives and their attitude toward cooperation in those areas will change.

Moreover, you cannot affect the long-run ability of that country to develop nuclear weapons, and you make it much more likely that it will try to do so if the message we send to them is if a country doesn’t have nuclear weapons, we will feel free to bomb it whenever we decide it is in our interest to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Perle, respond on those points.

One, that — one, our intelligence is rarely good enough to know exactly where these installations are; and, two, that it would definitely spur Iran to go all out and try to develop a nuclear weapon if this ever happened.

RICHARD PERLE, Former Pentagon Official: I think they’re going all out now and they’re paying a very high price in order to pursue nuclear weapons.

They’ve put themselves in a pariah-like position. Even the Europeans are fed up with them now. They could rejoin the international community and probably usher in some prosperity which they’ve been missing — the country’s in pretty desperate straits.

And of course, we may not know where everything is. But we do know where some of the large and critical installations are and they are vulnerable.

But if we don’t know where others are, if there are others that are hidden, then I don’t see how we can expect a diplomatic solution to solve the problem, because the Iranians are not about to say, oh, and by the way, in addition to abandoning the sites you know about, we have these other secret sites and we’ll throw those into the bargain. That’s not going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me conclude by asking you both, starting with you, Mr. Halperin, why do you think these stories are suddenly bubbling up now? It wasn’t just Sy Hersh in “The New Yorker.” There have been other other articles quoting unnamed people inside the administration.

Who do you think is behind this and why?

MORTON HALPERIN, Former State Department Official: I think it’s the people who fear that we are close to a military attack and are close to a nuclear attack.

We had the leak a few weeks ago about the intelligence estimates of what would happen if we attacked. And then we had the stories in The New Yorker and in The Washington Post over the weekend about assertions that there is serious planning for attack.

I think many people did not believe that the president would go into Iraq when he did. And they do not believe now that we are contemplating an attack.

My sense is that these are people inside the government who have been fighting this, who now fear that the president has made up his mind, is going to attack, and they’re trying to bring the Congress and the public into a debate in an effort to stop the president.

MARGARET WARNER: And what’s your assessment as an old Washington hand?

RICHARD PERLE, Former Pentagon Official: Well, there are undoubtedly people on all sides who were leaking. That seems to be all that happens in Washington these days.

There is a better solution than bombing — we should have started work on it years ago — and that is recognizing that the Iranian regime is an extremely unpopular regime, particularly among the — half the population that’s youthful.

And we should be supporting the democratic opposition to the regime of the mullahs, which crushes human rights and would be overthrown in a heartbeat if the opposition had the means to do it or not.

I trust that Mort with his interest in human rights and individual freedom would find that a better alternative than using bombs.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you want a brief rejoinder, Mr. Halperin?

MORTON HALPERIN, Former State Department Official: Yes.

I think certainly promoting democracy there is the key solution in the long run to this problem.

I am doubtful that our attempt now to provide assistance to the democratic opposition there would do anything but discredit that opposition.

MARGARET WARNER: OK.

Mort Halperin, Richard Perle, thank you both.

HALPERIN: Thank you.