The Bush administration is studying options for military strikes against Iran as part of a broader strategy of coercive diplomacy to pressure Tehran to abandon its alleged nuclear development program, according to U.S. officials and independent analysts.
No attack appears likely in the short term, and many specialists inside and outside the U.S. government harbor serious doubts about whether an armed response would be effective. But administration officials are preparing for it as a possible option and using the threat "to convince them this is more and more serious," as a senior official put it.
According to current and former officials, Pentagon and CIA planners have been exploring possible targets, such as the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan. Although a land invasion is not contemplated, military officers are weighing alternatives ranging from a limited airstrike aimed at key nuclear sites, to a more extensive bombing campaign designed to destroy an array of military and political targets.
Iran now tops international agenda
Preparations for confrontation with Iran underscore how the issue has vaulted to the front of President Bush's agenda even as he struggles with a relentless war in next-door Iraq. Bush views Tehran as a serious menace that must be dealt with before his presidency ends, aides said, and the White House, in its new National Security Strategy, last month labeled Iran the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country.
Many military officers and specialists, however, view the saber rattling with alarm. A strike at Iran, they warn, would at best just delay its nuclear program by a few years but could inflame international opinion against the United States, particularly in the Muslim world and especially within Iran, while making U.S. troops in Iraq targets for retaliation.
"My sense is that any talk of a strike is the diplomatic gambit to keep pressure on others that if they don't help solve the problem, we will have to," said Kori Schake, who worked on Bush's National Security Council staff and teaches at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
More than words?
Others believe it is more than bluster. "The Bush team is looking at the viability of airstrikes simply because many think airstrikes are the only real option ahead," said Kurt Campbell, a former Pentagon policy official.
The intensified discussion of military scenarios comes as the United States is working with European allies on a diplomatic solution. After tough negotiations, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement last month urging Iran to re-suspend its uranium enrichment program. But Russia and China, both veto-wielding council members, forced out any mention of consequences and are strongly resisting any sanctions.
U.S. officials continue to pursue the diplomatic course but privately seem increasingly skeptical that it will succeed. The administration is also coming under pressure from Israel, which has warned the Bush team that Iran is closer to developing a nuclear bomb than Washington thinks and that a moment of decision is fast approaching.
Bush and his team have calibrated their rhetoric to give the impression that the United States may yet resort to force. In January, the president termed a nuclear-armed Iran "a grave threat to the security of the world," words that echoed language he used before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Vice President Cheney vowed "meaningful consequences" if Iran does not give up any nuclear aspirations, and U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton refined the formula to "tangible and painful consequences."
Although Bush insists he is focused on diplomacy for now, he volunteered at a public forum in Cleveland last month his readiness to use force if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tries to follow through on his statement that Israel should be "wiped off the map."
"The threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally, Israel," Bush said. "That's a threat, a serious threat. . . . I'll make it clear again that we will use military might to protect our ally Israel."
Regime change seen as ultimate goal
Bush has also been privately consulting with key senators about options on Iran as part of a broader goal of regime change, according to an account by Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker magazine.
The U.S. government has taken some preliminary steps that go beyond planning. The Washington Post has reported that the military has been secretly flying surveillance drones over Iran since 2004 using radar, video, still photography and air filters to detect traces of nuclear activity not accessible to satellites. Hersh reported that U.S. combat troops have been ordered to enter Iran covertly to collect targeting data, but sources have not confirmed that to The Post.
The British government has launched its own planning for a potential U.S. strike, studying security arrangements for its embassy and consular offices, for British citizens and corporate interests in Iran and for ships in the region and British troops in Iraq. British officials indicate their government is unlikely to participate directly in any attacks.
Israel doing its own planning
Israel is preparing, as well. The government recently leaked a contingency plan for attacking on its own if the United States does not, a plan involving airstrikes, commando teams, possibly missiles and even explosive-carrying dogs. Israel, which bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 to prevent it from being used to develop weapons, has built a replica of Natanz, according to Israeli media, but U.S. strategists do not believe Israel has the capacity to accomplish the mission without nuclear weapons.
Iran appears to be taking the threat seriously. The government, which maintains its nuclear activity is only for peaceful, civilian uses, has launched a program to reinforce key sites, such as Natanz and Isfahan, by building concrete ceilings, tunneling into mountains and camouflaging facilities. Iran lately has tested several missiles in a show of strength.
Israel points to those missiles to press their case in Washington. Israeli officials traveled here recently to convey more urgency about Iran. Although U.S. intelligence agencies estimate Iran is about a decade away from having a nuclear bomb, Israelis believe a critical breakthrough could occur within months. They told U.S. officials that Iran is beginning to test a more elaborate cascade of centrifuges, indicating that it is further along than previously believed.
"What the Israelis are saying is this year -- unless they are pressured into abandoning the program -- would be the year they will master the engineering problem," a U.S. official said. "That would be a turning point, but it wouldn't mean they would have a bomb."
But various specialists and some military officials are resisting strikes.
"The Pentagon is arguing forcefully against it because it is so constrained" in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist. A former defense official who stays in touch with colleagues added, "I don't think anybody's prepared to use the military option at this point."
As the administration weighs these issues, two main options are under consideration, according to one person with contacts among Air Force planners. The first would be a quick and limited strike against nuclear-related facilities accompanied by a threat to resume bombing if Iran responds with terrorist attacks in Iraq or elsewhere. The second calls for a more ambitious campaign of bombing and cruise missiles leveling targets well beyond nuclear facilities, such as Iranian intelligence headquarters, the Revolutionary Guard and some in the ruling regime.
Any extended attack would require U.S. forces to cripple Iran's air defense system and air force, prepare defenses for U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and move Navy ships to the Persian Gulf to protect shipping. U.S. forces could launch warplanes from aircraft carriers, from the Diego Garcia island base in the Indian Ocean and, in the case of stealth bombers, from the United States. But if generals want land-based aircraft in the region, they face the uphill task of trying to persuade Turkey to allow use of the U.S. air base at Incirlik.
Political, logistical challenges
Planners also are debating whether launching attacks from Iraq or using Iraqi airspace would exacerbate the political cost in the Muslim world, which would see it as proof that the United States invaded Iraq to make it a base for military conquest of the region.
Unlike the Israeli air attack on Osirak, a strike on Iran would prove more complex because Iran has spread its facilities across the country, guarded some of them with sophisticated antiaircraft batteries and shielded them underground.
Pentagon planners are studying how to penetrate eight-foot-deep targets and are contemplating tactical nuclear devices. The Natanz facility consists of more than two dozen buildings, including two huge underground halls built with six-foot walls and supposedly protected by two concrete roofs with sand and rocks in between, according to Edward N. Luttwak, a specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The targeteers honestly keep coming back and saying it will require nuclear penetrator munitions to take out those tunnels," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst. "Could we do it with conventional munitions? Possibly. But it's going to be very difficult to do."
Hundreds of ‘aim points’
Retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, an expert in targeting and war games who teaches at the National Defense University, recently gamed an Iran attack and identified 24 potential nuclear-related facilities, some below 50 feet of reinforced concrete and soil.
At a conference in Berlin, Gardiner outlined a five-day operation that would require 400 "aim points," or targets for individual weapons, at nuclear facilities, at least 75 of which would require penetrating weapons. He also presumed the Pentagon would hit two chemical production plants, medium-range ballistic missile launchers and 14 airfields with sheltered aircraft. Special Operations forces would be required, he said.
Gardiner concluded that a military attack would not work, but said he believes the United States seems to be moving inexorably toward it. "The Bush administration is very close to being left with only the military option," he said.
Others forecast a more surgical strike aimed at knocking out a single "choke point" that would disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. "The process can be broken at any point," a senior administration official said. "But part of the risk is: We don't know if Natanz is the only enrichment facility. We could bomb it, take the political cost and still not set them back."
Joseph Cirincione, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said a more likely target might be Isfahan, which he visited last year and which appeared lightly defended and above-ground. But he argued that any attack would only firm up Iranian resolve to develop weapons. "Whatever you do," he said, "is almost certain to accelerate a nuclear bomb program rather than destroy it."