MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're going to begin this hour with a question that is near, if not at, the top of the international agenda. Is Washington planning air strikes against Iran to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon? In a moment, we'll hear from the author of a magazine article that says yes.

This morning at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, President Bush was asked whether the U.S. will allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, and he said the U.S. does not want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon or the capacity or knowledge to acquire one. But he said that other countries agree with Washington, and as for preventing Iran from going nuclear, this is what he said.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The doctrine of prevention is to work together to prevent the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon. I know, I know we're here in Washington, you know, prevention means force. It doesn't mean force necessarily. In this case it means diplomacy. And, by the way, I read the articles in the newspapers this week and it was just wild speculation, by the way. What you're reading is wild speculation, which is kind of a, you know, happens quite frequently here in the nation's capitol.

SIEGEL: Well, one article the president was alluding to was Seymour Hersh's piece in The New Yorker magazine. It's called The Iran Plans. Seymour Hersh joins us. Welcome, once again.

Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH (Author, journalist): Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: The subtitle of your article is Would President Bush Go to War to Stop Tehran From Getting the Bomb? And what's your answer to that question?

Mr. HERSH: Absolutely. I think there's no question. And I hope the president --it's great news that he said it's wild speculation. Maybe he's changed his mind in the last few days. But as of last week I can tell you there are many people high up in the military and civilian bureaucracy who really don't know what he'll do but think he's prepared to go to war.

SIEGEL: What's the difference between a plan at the Pentagon which provides for the contingency that conceivably, if things don't work out, it might come to use of force against Iran, so have some plan on the shelf, and a plan that the president actually takes seriously?

Mr. HERSH: We have contingency plans for everything. In this case, the difference is my people on the inside say it's moved to the next stage, which is called operational planning. This by no means indicates that the president has made a final decision. But you state you're not doing contingency planning. You're really specifically looking at serious ways to take down the weapons systems, how many bombs you're going to put here, how many bombs you're going to put there.

The next step would be for the president to make a decision, perhaps a warning order to the forces to start accumulating the assets, move planes around, get the bombs and ordnance, etc. in the stockpile, and then he will give an execute. So we're not near it, but this is much more than contingency planning.

SIEGEL: The White House spokesman today, in addition to calling your article wild speculation, also pointed out that the sources are anonymous. You've characterized the sources. What's the motive of somebody inside the administration or the Pentagon or close to it to start telling you anonymously about plans to bomb Iran?

Mr. HERSH: Fear. Fear that it'll happen. Fear that there's a disconnect right now that's very acute in the Pentagon between the military leadership and the civilian leadership. It's not only a problem between Donald Rumsfeld and the generals, about which there's been quite a bit written, but there's also a disconnect between the White House and the military on this. And what I wrote about in some detail in particular was the fact that there's a nuclear option in the plan.

What's amazing to the military officers, it was inevitably, if you're going to give the president an option plan, one option is doing nothing, another option to guarantee that you're going to get rid of an underground, let's say, in Iran, the major nuclear facility is believed to be in Natanz, which is 75 feet under hard rock. To get it, they say, with 100 percent accuracy, you need nuclear weapons. Of course, that was just an option.

What happened is a month ago the joint chiefs tried to walk back that option. They went to the White House and said let's get it out of here because it's crazy, and they would not do so. The people in the White House, the president and vice president's office said no way.

SIEGEL: So they want the option to use tactical nuclear weapons to be on the table to be a conceivable part of the plan.

Mr. HERSH: Well, the president, although he said what he said today at Johns Hopkins, if you listen to what he's been saying publicly, and also his vice president, Mr. Cheney, he's been saying two things. Every option's on the table, he says. And he also says Iran will not be permitted to enrich any uranium. They're planning to do so in a very small pilot project. And he also says that Iran should not even be able to accumulate the knowledge to get a weapon.

And that's an interesting sort of red line. Nobody inside, as far as I can tell, nobody believes they're within -- the Israelis say maybe two years from developing a weapon. The American intelligence community thinks eight to ten. And so what's the rush? And that's one of the things that people on the inside are saying to me. Are we really going to go to war because they begin a small pilot project?

SIEGEL: Do you think that any of the people who shared information with you about, say, the tactical nuclear option would like to see the story out so that it might be part of a deterrent to Iran, say, let's tell the Iranians how serious President Bush is about war, regardless of how serious he might be, so that they might come down politically on the stance over nuclear weapons.

Mr. HERSH: One of the great considerations I had in doing this story is that I would become a funnel, sort of a psychological war game or information operation. But in fact the people I talked with, I initiated the conversations in every case. Nobody volunteered things to me. And I have, I guess you could call it, my regulars. I have a group of people that I've been able to talk to for dozens of years. And so, no, I don't think that's the issue.

I think the issue is there are people in the White House who don't mind stories like this because it does put the pressure on the Iranians. But the other side of that is really simple, which is Iran is not going to back off. We're in a situation where the president has set a red line. Iran has said that we're going to cross the red line. And as somebody very much a wise man said to me, he said, Sy, something bad is going to happen.

SIEGEL: Seymour Hersh, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. HERSH: Always glad to be here.

SIEGEL: Sy Hersh is the author most recently of the article in The New Yorker magazine The Iran Plans: Would President Bush Go to War to Stop Tehran From Getting the Bomb?

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