Administration Gearing Up for Regime Change in Iran?

Sy Hersh claims in a long New Yorker piece that the United States is on the path to war with Iran to stop them from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.

American and European intelligence agencies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.), agree that Iran is intent on developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. But there are widely differing estimates of how long that will take, and whether diplomacy, sanctions, or military action is the best way to prevent it. Iran insists that its research is for peaceful use only, in keeping with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that it will not be delayed or deterred.

There is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President Bush’s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has challenged the reality of the Holocaust and said that Israel must be “wiped off the map.” Bush and others in the White House view him as a potential Adolf Hitler, a former senior intelligence official said. “That’s the name they’re using. They say, ‘Will Iran get a strategic weapon and threaten another world war?’ “

Hersh has been making these claims for well over a year now, so either he is on to something, obsessed, or both. Certainly, the administration has not done much to dispell the notion that they are prepared to use military force as a last option to prevent Iran’s less-than-stable government from acquiring nuclear weapons, a result that almost all agree would be unacceptable.

Still, as I have discussed numerous times (see the Related links below) there does not appear to be much propsect that an easy, Osirik-style military operation would be adequate to task. Regime change would certainly be required–and desirable if troops are put on the ground — but it might make the War on Iraq look like the Grenada operation by comparison.

There is, apparently, another option on the table:

One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. One target is Iran’s main centrifuge plant, at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. Natanz, which is no longer under I.A.E.A. safeguards, reportedly has underground floor space to hold fifty thousand centrifuges, and laboratories and workspaces buried approximately seventy-five feet beneath the surface. That number of centrifuges could provide enough enriched uranium for about twenty nuclear warheads a year. (Iran has acknowledged that it initially kept the existence of its enrichment program hidden from I.A.E.A. inspectors, but claims that none of its current activity is barred by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.) The elimination of Natanz would be a major setback for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the conventional weapons in the American arsenal could not insure the destruction of facilities under seventy-five feet of earth and rock, especially if they are reinforced with concrete.


A former high-level Defense Department official told me that, in his view, even limited bombing would allow the U.S. to “go in there and do enough damage to slow down the nuclear infrastructure—it’s feasible.” The former defense official said, “The Iranians don’t have friends, and we can tell them that, if necessary, we’ll keep knocking back their infrastructure. The United States should act like we’re ready to go.” He added, “We don’t have to knock down all of their air defenses. Our stealth bombers and standoff missiles really work, and we can blow fixed things up. We can do things on the ground, too, but it’s difficult and very dangerous—put bad stuff in ventilator shafts and put them to sleep.”

But those who are familiar with the Soviet bunker, according to the former senior intelligence official, “say ‘No way.’ You’ve got to know what’s underneath—to know which ventilator feeds people, or diesel generators, or which are false. And there’s a lot that we don’t know.” The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. “Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,” the former senior intelligence official said. ” ‘Decisive’ is the key word of the Air Force’s planning. It’s a tough decision. But we made it in Japan.” He went on, “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout—we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”—remove the nuclear option—”they’re shouted down.”

The attention given to the nuclear option has created serious misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he added, and some officers have talked about resigning. Late this winter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the evolving war plans for Iran—without success, the former intelligence official said. “The White House said, ‘Why are you challenging this? The option came from you.’ “

When there are no good option, one considers all the options. Militarily, a limited nuclear strike might indeed be feasible. Politically, however, the idea has long been essentially off the table as nuclear weapons were sold as only a deterrent.

Update: Dan Riehl argues, “No reasonable nation has gone on record as suggesting stopping [Iran] is a bad thing, most find it necessary. Planning for that is the prudent step. Characterizing it as demon, warmongering Bush taking up nuclear arms to confront Iran is not only silly, it’s harmful and misleading for the necessary discussion at hand.”

Kevin Drum points out, too, “As usual, Hersh’s piece is based almost entirely on anonymous sources, so take it for what it’s worth.”

Yep. And, presuming they weren’t intentionally planted with Hersh as part of a plan to bluff Iran, I would say this is the type of leak President Bush complains about.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    As long as we have a mad man as president the leadership of countries like Iran see no option but to protect themselves with nuclear weapons.

    Bush is going to launch a war on Iran just like he did on Iraq.

    Bush is insane.

  2. Herb says:

    ” Bush is Insane”

    What a joke. It’s about time that someone has the guts to put the skids to those towel headed Camels rear ends in Iran. If it takes a tactical nuke to do the job, It’s about time the American people gets some payout for the Billions of Dollars spent over the years for Nuclear weaponry.

    As for Ken, I guess he’s on another trip way out there, where he gathers his thoughts and ideas.

    Tell us Ken, what do the “Little Green Men” think of using a Nuke on Iran.

  3. Roger says:

    An herb is nothing but a tiny shrub. Ken is right about the big shrub being wacked. Nonetheless, the prospect of Iran with nukes is a big problem. Our weak position from which to deal with it having tied ourselves down in Iraq just provides one more example of how idiotic the neo-con fantasy world has been. Pre-emptively attacking Iraq was a bad call all around as becomes ever more clear. Where is Bin Laden, by the way? Idiots.

  4. Richard Gardner says:

    I was only on the second sentence into your quote of the piece when I saw a GCE � Gross Conceptional Error, �Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets.� In 1970, the USAF may have drawn up lists of targets, but post Goldwater-Nichols that is the responsibility of CENTCOM, with probably USSTRATCOM and DIA in support of the CINC. Has Hersh heard of Jointness? There is no Strategic Air Command anymore!

    The sentence continues, �teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data.� Combat troops to gather targeting data? Special forces maybe, and maybe CIA, but not the general �combat troops.� And the targeting data would better be acquired through National Technical Means, rather than troops on the ground. Continuing the sentence, �and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups,� the enrichment is nowhere near the Kurds. Quick, name another ethnic-minority group in Iran? So is Hersh pulling a race/ethnic minority card here, where there is none? The reality is that there are numerous Persian/Iranian non-minority groups that oppose the theocracy of Iran, supporting a free Iran. Some want a true democracy, others a restoration of the monarchy. Go here for details – End of the first quoted paragraph, just too many errors so far.

    �Reporting� like this gets readers, and creates controversy. But there is much less here than is apparent.

    I think the “Rods from God” would be a simple solution to this mess.

  5. Richard Gardner says:

    Moving Type got me above, as I made my comment in MS Word, and the quotes marks did not display properly (but came out fine in the preview). The � means a quote mark, sorry.

  6. Herb says:


    Good to know that Ken has a traveling companion.

    You must be one of the takers of our freedom, like Ken, without ever doing anything to defend or serve the country.

    I guess you are one who wants Iran to send its terrorist to the US, so you can join them in another 9/11 style attack.

    Guys like you are sickening with your HATE towards the President and the entire country

  7. McGehee says:

    Moving Type got me above, as I made my comment in MS Word, and the quotes marks did not display properly (but came out fine in the preview).

    It’s not MS-Word, Richard. I see that happen whenever quote marks are copied-and-pasted into an OTB comment window, even if the excerpt is C&P’d right from OTB.

    Of course, it may be my browser responsible for most of it that I see…

  8. Roger says:

    Little shrub, I served in the US military. Have you? I said Iran is a problem. Are you illiterate? Nope, don’t want no more 9/11s. Hate the Big Shrub’s incompetence. Love our country.

  9. anjin-san says:

    It is unfourtunate that Bush’s mission chasing windmills in Iraq has left us with a greatly overburdened military to deal with an what may be an actual threat in Iran.

    As for “terrorists from Iran”, actually, the terrorists that attacked our country came from the President’s good friend Saudi Arabia.