On Sunday, Apr. 9, the New Yorker posted a new article by Seymour Hersh on Bush administration intentions with respect to Iran that was widely covered as a news item in its own right. -- Hershs lead sentence conveys the gist of his article: 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. -- Some key points and claims made by Hersh, the best-known investigative reporter in the United States: -- (1) A government consultant . . . said that the President believes that . . . saving Iran is going to be his legacy. -- (2) In recent weeks, the President has quietly initiated a series of talks on plans for Iran with a few key senators and members of Congress, including at least one Democrat. A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee . . . said that no one in the meetings is really objecting to the talk of war. . . . Theres no pressure from Congress not to take military action. -- (3) Last month, in a paper given at a conference on Middle East security in Berlin, Colonel Sam Gardiner . . . provided an estimate of what would be needed to destroy Irans nuclear program. . . . Gardiner estimated that at least four hundred targets would have to be hit. He added: . . . Some of the facilities may be too difficult to target even with penetrating weapons. The U.S. will have to use Special Operations units. -- (4) One of the militarys initial option plans . . . calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. One target is Irans main centrifuge plant, at Natanz. -- (5) 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. -- (6) The Presidents deep distrust of Ahmadinejad has strengthened his determination to confront Iran. -- (7) The threat of American military action has created dismay at the headquarters of the I.A.E.A., in Vienna. -- (8) Iran can be expected to disrupt oil supplies and initiate a terror campaign if attacked, and a Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said: If we go, the southern half of Iraq will light up like a candle, on account of Shiite predominance there. -- Also on Sunday, the Washington Post published a front-page story reporting that the military plans described by Hersh are not an alternative to diplomacy, but rather part of a broader strategy of coercive diplomacy to pressure Tehran to abandon its alleged nuclear development program. -- The Posts article independently corroborated most of Hershs claims, and made a number of additional points. -- (1) [T]he White House, in its new National Security Strategy, last month labeled Iran the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country. -- (2) [T]he administration is also coming under pressure from Israel. -- (3) In response to the threat, Iran 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. -- Neither Hersh nor the Post discusses the domestic political ramifications of an American strike on Iran, but anyone who has been following the slowly intensifying crisis over Irans nuclear program has observed that the pace of its ripening seems to be in sync with Republican party plans for the 2006 elections. -- Hence the recent Velvet Revolution campaign to undermine public support for U.S. strikes on Iran....
Annals of National Security
THE IRAN PLANS
By Seymour Hersh
** Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb? **
April 17, 2006 (posted Apr. 9)
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 Bushs ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change. Irans 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. Thats the name theyre using. They say, Will Iran get a strategic weapon and threaten another world war?
A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do, and that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.
One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government. He added, I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, What are they smoking?
The rationale for regime change was articulated in early March by Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert who is the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and who has been a supporter of President Bush. So long as Iran has an Islamic republic, it will have a nuclear-weapons program, at least clandestinely, Clawson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 2nd. The key issue, therefore, is: How long will the present Iranian regime last?
When I spoke to Clawson, he emphasized that this Administration is putting a lot of effort into diplomacy. However, he added, Iran had no choice other than to accede to Americas demands or face a military attack. Clawson said that he fears that Ahmadinejad sees the West as wimps and thinks we will eventually cave in. We have to be ready to deal with Iran if the crisis escalates. Clawson said that he would prefer to rely on sabotage and other clandestine activities, such as industrial accidents. But, he said, it would be prudent to prepare for a wider war, given the way the Iranians are acting. This is not like planning to invade Quebec.
One military planner told me that White House criticisms of Iran and the high tempo of planning and clandestine activities amount to a campaign of coercion aimed at Iran. You have to be ready to go, and well see how they respond, the officer said. You have to really show a threat in order to get Ahmadinejad to back down. He added, People think Bush has been focussed on Saddam Hussein since 9/11, but, in my view, if you had to name one nation that was his focus all the way along, it was Iran. (In response to detailed requests for comment, the White House said that it would not comment on military planning but added, As the President has indicated, we are pursuing a diplomatic solution; the Defense Department also said that Iran was being dealt with through diplomatic channels but wouldnt elaborate on that; the C.I.A. said that there were inaccuracies in this account but would not specify them.)
This is much more than a nuclear issue, one high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna. Thats just a rallying point, and there is still time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten years.
A senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror expressed a similar view. This White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war, he said. The danger, he said, was that it also reinforces the belief inside Iran that the only way to defend the country is to have a nuclear capability. A military conflict that destabilized the region could also increase the risk of terror: Hezbollah comes into play, the adviser said, referring to the terror group that is considered one of the worlds most successful, and which is now a Lebanese political party with strong ties to Iran. And here comes Al Qaeda.
In recent weeks, the President has quietly initiated a series of talks on plans for Iran with a few key senators and members of Congress, including at least one Democrat. A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, who did not take part in the meetings but has discussed their content with his colleagues, told me that there had been no formal briefings, because theyre reluctant to brief the minority. Theyre doing the Senate, somewhat selectively.
The House member said that no one in the meetings is really objecting to the talk of war. The people theyre briefing are the same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to get deep enough? (Iran is building facilities underground.) Theres no pressure from Congress not to take military action, the House member added. The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it. Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.
Some operations, apparently aimed in part at intimidating Iran, are already under way. American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions -- rapid ascending maneuvers known as over the shoulder bombing -- since last summer, the former official said, within range of Iranian coastal radars.
Last month, in a paper given at a conference on Middle East security in Berlin, Colonel Sam Gardiner, a military analyst who taught at the National War College before retiring from the Air Force, in 1987, provided an estimate of what would be needed to destroy Irans nuclear program. Working from satellite photographs of the known facilities, Gardiner estimated that at least four hundred targets would have to be hit. He added:
I dont think a U.S. military planner would want to stop there. Iran probably has two chemical-production plants. We would hit those. We would want to hit the medium-range ballistic missiles that have just recently been moved closer to Iraq. There are fourteen airfields with sheltered aircraft. . . . Wed want to get rid of that threat. We would want to hit the assets that could be used to threaten Gulf shipping. That means targeting the cruise-missile sites and the Iranian diesel submarines. . . . Some of the facilities may be too difficult to target even with penetrating weapons. The U.S. will have to use Special Operations units.
One of the militarys 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 Irans 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 Irans 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.
There is a Cold War precedent for targeting deep underground bunkers with nuclear weapons. In the early nineteen-eighties, the American intelligence community watched as the Soviet government began digging a huge underground complex outside Moscow. Analysts concluded that the underground facility was designed for continuity of government -- for the political and military leadership to survive a nuclear war. (There are similar facilities, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, for the American leadership.) The Soviet facility still exists, and much of what the U.S. knows about it remains classified. The tell -- the giveaway -- was the ventilator shafts, some of which were disguised, the former senior intelligence official told me. At the time, he said, it was determined that only nukes could destroy the bunker. He added that some American intelligence analysts believe that the Russians helped the Iranians design their underground facility. We see a similarity of design, specifically in the ventilator shafts, he said.
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 -- its feasible. The former defense official said, The Iranians dont have friends, and we can tell them that, if necessary, well keep knocking back their infrastructure. The United States should act like were ready to go. He added, We dont 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 its 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. Youve got to know whats underneath -- to know which ventilator feeds people, or diesel generators, or which are false. And theres a lot that we dont 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 Forces planning. Its 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 -- were 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 dont have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out -- remove the nuclear option -- theyre 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.
The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it a juggernaut that has to be stopped. He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries, the adviser told me. This goes to high levels. The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran. The internal debate on this has hardened in recent weeks, the adviser said. And, if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen.
The adviser added, however, that the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in such situations has gained support from the Defense Science Board, an advisory panel whose members are selected by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Theyre telling the Pentagon that we can build the B61 with more blast and less radiation, he said.
The chairman of the Defense Science Board is William Schneider, Jr., an Under-Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration. In January, 2001, as President Bush prepared to take office, Schneider served on an ad-hoc panel on nuclear forces sponsored by the National Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. The panels report recommended treating tactical nuclear weapons as an essential part of the U.S. arsenal and noted their suitability for those occasions when the certain and prompt destruction of high priority targets is essential and beyond the promise of conventional weapons. Several signers of the report are now prominent members of the Bush Administration, including Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; and Robert Joseph, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
The Pentagon adviser questioned the value of air strikes. The Iranians have distributed their nuclear activity very well, and we have no clue where some of the key stuff is. It could even be out of the country, he said. He warned, as did many others, that bombing Iran could provoke a chain reaction of attacks on American facilities and citizens throughout the world: What will 1.2 billion Muslims think the day we attack Iran?
The Presidents deep distrust of Ahmadinejad has strengthened his determination to confront Iran. This view has been reinforced by allegations that Ahmadinejad, who joined a special-forces brigade of the Revolutionary Guards in 1986, may have been involved in terrorist activities in the late eighties. (There are gaps in Ahmadinejads official biography in this period.) Ahmadinejad has reportedly been connected to Imad Mughniyeh, a terrorist who has been implicated in the deadly bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, in 1983. Mughniyeh was then the security chief of Hezbollah; he remains on the F.B.I.s list of most-wanted terrorists.
Robert Baer, who was a C.I.A. officer in the Middle East and elsewhere for two decades, told me that Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard colleagues in the Iranian government are capable of making a bomb, hiding it, and launching it at Israel. Theyre apocalyptic Shiites. If youre sitting in Tel Aviv and you believe theyve got nukes and missiles -- youve got to take them out. These guys are nuts, and theres no reason to back off.
Under Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards have expanded their power base throughout the Iranian bureaucracy; by the end of January, they had replaced thousands of civil servants with their own members. One former senior United Nations official, who has extensive experience with Iran, depicted the turnover as a white coup, with ominous implications for the West. Professionals in the Foreign Ministry are out; others are waiting to be kicked out, he said. We may be too late. These guys now believe that they are stronger than ever since the revolution. He said that, particularly in consideration of Chinas emergence as a superpower, Irans attitude was To hell with the West. You can do as much as you like.
Irans supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is considered by many experts to be in a stronger position than Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad is not in control, one European diplomat told me. Power is diffuse in Iran. The Revolutionary Guards are among the key backers of the nuclear program, but, ultimately, I dont think they are in charge of it. The Supreme Leader has the casting vote on the nuclear program, and the Guards will not take action without his approval.
The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said that allowing Iran to have the bomb is not on the table. We cannot have nukes being sent downstream to a terror network. Its just too dangerous. He added, The whole internal debate is on which way to go -- in terms of stopping the Iranian program. It is possible, the adviser said, that Iran will unilaterally renounce its nuclear plans -- and forestall the American action. God may smile on us, but I dont think so. The bottom line is that Iran cannot become a nuclear-weapons state. The problem is that the Iranians realize that only by becoming a nuclear state can they defend themselves against the U.S. Something bad is going to happen.
The threat of American military action has created dismay at the headquarters of the I.A.E.A., in Vienna. The agencys officials believe that Iran wants to be able to make a nuclear weapon, but nobody has presented an inch of evidence of a parallel nuclear-weapons program in Iran, the high-ranking diplomat told me. The I.A.E.A.s best estimate is that the Iranians are five years away from building a nuclear bomb. But, if the United States does anything militarily, they will make the development of a bomb a matter of Iranian national pride, the diplomat said. The whole issue is Americas risk assessment of Irans future intentions, and they dont trust the regime. Iran is a menace to American policy.
In Vienna, I was told of an exceedingly testy meeting earlier this year between Mohamed ElBaradei, the I.A.E.A.s director-general, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, and Robert Joseph, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control. Josephs message was blunt, one diplomat recalled: We cannot have a single centrifuge spinning in Iran. Iran is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and our allies, and we will not tolerate it. We want you to give us an understanding that you will not say anything publicly that will undermine us.
Josephs heavy-handedness was unnecessary, the diplomat said, since the I.A.E.A. already had been inclined to take a hard stand against Iran. All of the inspectors are angry at being misled by the Iranians, and some think the Iranian leadership are nutcases -- one hundred per cent totally certified nuts, the diplomat said. He added that ElBaradeis overriding concern is that the Iranian leaders want confrontation, just like the neocons on the other side -- in Washington. At the end of the day, it will work only if the United States agrees to talk to the Iranians.
The central question -- whether Iran will be able to proceed with its plans to enrich uranium -- is now before the United Nations, with the Russians and the Chinese reluctant to impose sanctions on Tehran. A discouraged former I.A.E.A. official told me in late March that, at this point, theres nothing the Iranians could do that would result in a positive outcome. American diplomacy does not allow for it. Even if they announce a stoppage of enrichment, nobody will believe them. Its a dead end.
Another diplomat in Vienna asked me, Why would the West take the risk of going to war against that kind of target without giving it to the I.A.E.A. to verify? Were low-cost, and we can create a program that will force Iran to put its cards on the table. A Western Ambassador in Vienna expressed similar distress at the White Houses dismissal of the I.A.E.A. He said, If you dont believe that the I.A.E.A. can establish an inspection system -- if you dont trust them -- you can only bomb.
Any American bombing attack, Richard Armitage told me, would have to consider the following questions: What will happen in the other Islamic countries? What ability does Iran have to reach us and touch us globally -- that is, terrorism? Will Syria and Lebanon up the pressure on Israel? What does the attack do to our already diminished international standing? And what does this mean for Russia, China, and the U.N. Security Council?
Iran, which now produces nearly four million barrels of oil a day, would not have to cut off production to disrupt the worlds oil markets. It could blockade or mine the Strait of Hormuz, the thirty-four-mile-wide passage through which Middle Eastern oil reaches the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, the recently retired defense official dismissed the strategic consequences of such actions. He told me that the U.S. Navy could keep shipping open by conducting salvage missions and putting mine- sweepers to work. Its impossible to block passage, he said. The government consultant with ties to the Pentagon also said he believed that the oil problem could be managed, pointing out that the U.S. has enough in its strategic reserves to keep America running for sixty days. However, those in the oil business I spoke to were less optimistic; one industry expert estimated that the price per barrel would immediately spike, to anywhere from ninety to a hundred dollars per barrel, and could go higher, depending on the duration and scope of the conflict.
Michel Samaha, a veteran Lebanese Christian politician and former cabinet minister in Beirut, told me that the Iranian retaliation might be focussed on exposed oil and gas fields in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. They would be at risk, he said, and this could begin the real jihad of Iran versus the West. You will have a messy world.
Iran could also initiate a wave of terror attacks in Iraq and elsewhere, with the help of Hezbollah. On April 2nd, the Washington Post reported that the planning to counter such attacks is consuming a lot of time at U.S. intelligence agencies. The best terror network in the world has remained neutral in the terror war for the past several years, the Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said of Hezbollah. This will mobilize them and put us up against the group that drove Israel out of southern Lebanon. If we move against Iran, Hezbollah will not sit on the sidelines. Unless the Israelis take them out, they will mobilize against us. (When I asked the government consultant about that possibility, he said that, if Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel, Israel and the new Lebanese government will finish them off.)
The adviser went on, If we go, the southern half of Iraq will light up like a candle. The American, British, and other coalition forces in Iraq would be at greater risk of attack from Iranian troops or from Shiite militias operating on instructions from Iran. (Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, has close ties to the leading Shiite parties in Iraq.) A retired four-star general told me that, despite the eight thousand British troops in the region, the Iranians could take Basra with ten mullahs and one sound truck.
If you attack, the high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna, Ahmadinejad will be the new Saddam Hussein of the Arab world, but with more credibility and more power. You must bite the bullet and sit down with the Iranians.
The diplomat went on, There are people in Washington who would be unhappy if we found a solution. They are still banking on isolation and regime change. This is wishful thinking. He added, The window of opportunity is now.
U.S. IS STUDYING MILITARY STRIKE OPTIONS IN IRAN
By Peter Baker, Dafna Linzer, and Thomas E. Ricks
** Any Mix of Tact, Threats Alarms Critics **
April 9, 2006
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.
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.
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."
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 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 explosives-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 government.
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.
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."
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."