Politics with Ron Elving: Planning to Strike at Iran?

Madeleine Brand speaks with Ron Elving, NPR senior editor for Washington, D.C., about the stories likely to dominate national politics this week, including reports that the Bush administration is considering military strikes to end Iran's nuclear program, and the international community's lack of confidence in U.S. assertions concerning the continued occupation of Iraq.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Washington today, Congress has gone on spring break but President Bush still has his hands full. There is a heightened sense of tension over both Iraq and Iran. Published reports over the weekend said the military may be drawing up plans for air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. And today, President Bush gave another speech expressing his frustration with Iraq's leaders, who have yet to form a national unity government.

Joining us to talk about this is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

And Ron, before we get to those two stories, let's talk about what's going on with the Italian elections. What will it mean for the U.S. or, in fact, for the Bush administration if, indeed, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is defeated?

RON ELVING reporting:

It's more bad news for the President, Madeleine. And all roads do seem to lead to Iraq. It's a blow for the U.S. because Italy was one of the few friends that we had in the Mediterranean region or in Europe with regard to our policy. Not that the troop levels will change much. The peak for the Italians was about 3,000. They're down some from that. And they're already drawing them down.

But the President made a big effort to shore up Berlusconi in this election. He had him to the White House. They had a special session of Congress so he could give a speech. It's not good for him to lose one that he's tried to pull out of the fire in this fashion.

BRAND: And now let's talk about those reports about the U.S. possibly planning for war in Iran. How credible are those reports?

ELVING: I think these are highly serious reports. The Pentagon has been told to be ready with contingency plans in case the diplomatic efforts fail. The President said today his priority is still to reach a diplomatic solution with respect to Iran and their nuclear program. But they clearly also want to send a message of there being a military option that's a very much a live option.

BRAND: And these plans include the use of nuclear weapons?

ELVING: Well, the New Yorker report by famous reporter Seymour Hersh says that one of the things they've considered, one of their elements of planning, is to have some kind of a plan for a nuclear attack on these nuclear facilities. But that is not a popular idea in the White House, or even in the Pentagon for that matter. Surely, it would be highly controversial in the United Nations and terribly unpopular with the world community.

Still, I think what you're seeing there is this idea that we want to frighten the Iranians into negotiating. So mentioning something like a nuke attack on their nuke facilities may be useful in a PR sense.

BRAND: Hmm. And that raises the question, a question that never seems to go away, and was raised again last week: the White House PR efforts surrounding the start of the Iraq War. Now, has the President admitted to leaking? Or would he prefer some other word to describe what he did?

ELVING: Indeed, he would. The President said today, yes, he had authorized the declassifying of some intelligence in order to get the truth before the American people. His words. He did not say by whom, or through whom, or exactly when that might have been authorized. But he clearly is not disputing, and neither is the White House, the thrust of the court documents that were released last week talking about the role of the Vice President's former chief of staff in talking to the media about the reasons that the administration thought they were going to find weapons of mass destruction when they invaded Iraq.

So both before and after that invasion, quite a bit of effort was made to use classified information in one way or another to build the case, and build a case for what it turned out, as it turned out not to be a justified reason for us to go in.

BRAND: NPR Washington editor Ron Elving.

Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: And you can see Ron's Watching Washington column at our website, npr.org.

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