The United States government has shifted its Middle East policy in an increasing alliance on Sunni governments to counter the threat from Iran and a developing "Shiite crescent," journalist Seymour Hersh writes in the March 5 edition of "The New Yorker."
Hersh writes that the White House has directed a "redirection" of American policy in the region, bringing the United States "closer to an open confrontation with Iran," and taking a more direct role in a regional sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
In waging war in Iraq, the United States has strengthened the hand of Iraqi Shiites and, by extension, Iran. The United States has allied itself with the predominantly Shiite government of Iraq against what U.S. officials routinely describe as an insurgency led by radical Sunnis allied with the al Qaeda terror network.
Since Iranian revolutionaries toppled the American-backed shah in 1979, U.S. administrations have cultivated closer ties with Sunni leaders in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In a recent heightening of that alliance, Hersh writes, the Bush administration has kept clandestine operations in the region quiet, in part by using Saudi proxies and avoiding congressional notification.
The story names Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams and outgoing Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad as the "key players" in carrying out the pro-Sunni American policy in the region.
"This is all part of the campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran," Hersh quotes Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration NSC official, as saying. "The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the administration will have an open door to strike at them."
The Pentagon is moving ahead with an "intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran" that could be carried out within 24 hours, a project that began in 2006, according to the New Yorker piece. The project is headed by a special planning group established within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the story said.
Senior military officials said the United States has contingency plans for conflict across the globe, including in areas where no conflict is expected, so the mere existence of a contingency plan is not unusual. Yet the story suggests planning has gone beyond the usual contingency preparation.
The piece suggests that two carrier strike groups now in the Arabian Sea, the Eisenhower and the Stennis, could be supplemented early this spring by two more. Hersh cites an unnamed former senior intelligence official as saying current plans allow for an attack order this spring.
"The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told ABC News in a written response to the Hersh story. "To suggest anything to the contrary is simply wrong, misleading and mischievous. The United States has been very clear with respect to its concerns regarding specific Iranian government activities. The president and Secretary Gates have repeatedly stated publicly that this county is going to work with allies in the region and address those concerns through diplomatic efforts."
The Pentagon statement does not directly address much of Hersh's reporting.
The Bush administration has increasingly accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority Shiite Muslim nation, in an apparent effort to foster a like-minded conservative Shiite ally in the region.
Administration officials have often said Iran plays an unproductive role in Iraq. Reporters in Iraq were recently given a background briefing by a senior military official on Iranian involvement and were shown parts of "shape charges" -- sophisticated roadside bombs designed to direct the energy of an explosion so powerfully that they can penetrate an M-1 Abrams tank -- that the military official said was evidence the parts were made in Iran.
But the statements about American intentions toward Iran have been equivocal.
"For the umpteenth time, we are not looking for an excuse to go to war with Iran," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a Feb. 15 news conference at the Pentagon.
But asked about military options for Iran in a recent interview with ABC News' Jonathan Karl, Cheney used harsher phrasing, saying, "We haven't taken any options off the table."
Asked on Friday to square his statement with Cheney's seemingly more bellicose language, Gates said simply, "I think that there's nothing incompatible between those two statements."
The New Yorker article said the administration has kept the Central Intelligence Agency out of the loop out of fear of another Iran-Contra scandal, in which American officials negotiated trading arms for hostages with Iran without required congressional approval.
Hersh cites sources who said Ambassador John Negroponte's decision to resign as national intelligence director were colored in part by that concern.
Hersh said he obtained a rare meeting for the story in December with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon who has been in hiding and has moved frequently since ordering the kidnapping last July of two Israeli soldiers. That kidnapping set off a 33-day war between Israel and Lebanon.
"We just wanted to capture prisoners for exchange purposes," Hersh quotes Nasrallah as saying. "We never wanted to drag the region into war."
Hersh said Nasrallah believes President Bush seeks partition between Sunni and Shiite regions in Iraq, which the Bush administration has said is the opposite of what the president seeks.
"If the United States says that discussion with the likes of us can be useful and influential in determining American policy in the region, we have no objection to talks or meetings," Hersh quotes Nasrallah as saying.
The author also writes that Nasrallah said the Hezbollah militia would operate only within Lebanon unless attacked and would disarm when the Lebanese Army was able to stand up. Hersh said Nasrallah was not eager for another war with Israel, but expected another attack later this year.