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Next stop: Iran
Daily News
Originally published on January 17, 2005

WASHINGTON - U.S. commandos are hunting for secret nuclear and chemical weapons sites and other targets in Iran, and have a plan to turn the hard-line Islamic country into the next front in the war on terrorism.

"It's not if we're going to do anything against Iran. They're doing it," an ex-intelligence official tells this week's issue of The New Yorker.

Since at least last summer, the U.S. teams have penetrated eastern Iran, reportedly with Pakistan's help, the magazine said.

"Iraq is just one campaign," the official told investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. "The Bush administration is looking at this as a huge war zone. Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign."

The aim is to rid America and its allies of a major state sponsor of terrorism, Hersh writes.

"We've declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy," the official tells Hersh. "This is the last hurrah - we've got four years and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom President Bush has asked to stay on in his second term, has been jockeying for more power to conduct covert ops without nagging congressional oversight.

"It's a global free-fire zone," said one Pentagon adviser.

Iran has fought tooth and nail demands that it open its nuclear energy program for inspection, fueling suspicion that the charter member of President Bush's "axis of evil" is up to no good.

That same secrecy also has heightened tensions with another axis member with nuclear ambitions, North Korea.

Pentagon neoconservatives - hard-liners who include Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz - believe that surgical strikes on a small list of military targets will minimize civilian casualties and may spark an uprising by reformers against the ruling fundamentalist mullahs, current and ex-officials said.

Hersh told CNN that if targets are lined up by this summer, U.S. attacks could soon follow.

They "want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible," a Pentagon consultant told Hersh.

Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz believe that, just as with some Soviet-bloc countries, "the minute the aura of invincibility the mullahs enjoy is shattered ... the Iranian regime will collapse," the consultant said.

Yet Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.) of the House International Relations Committee said, "I wouldn't assume the Iranian regime will just collapse."

With combat operations still raging in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the hunt for weapons of mass destruction came up empty, Bush would have to explain fully a new call for military action against Iran, King said.

"He'd have to get the people behind it," King told the Daily News. "But you'd have to factor in that the American public would be somewhat suspicious."

But Bush aides are "compulsively optimistic" that the mullahs have a fragile hold on power, and they are sure to strike soon, predicted defense analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

"I think they're going to do it," he told The News. "I'm skeptical that diplomacy will succeed."

While presidential counselor Dan Bartlett complained that Hersh's story was "riddled with inaccuracies," he notably did not outright deny any of it.

"No President at any juncture in history has ever taken military options off the table," Bartlett told CNN's "Late Edition." "What President Bush has shown [is] that he believes we can emphasize the diplomatic initiatives that are under way right now."