Despite denials, Pentagon plans for possible attack on nuclear sites are
*Ewen MacAskill in Washington*
*Saturday February 10, 2007*
US preparations for an air strike against Iran are at an advanced stage,
in spite of repeated public denials by the Bush administration,
according to informed sources in Washington.
The present military build-up in the Gulf would allow the US to mount an
attack by the spring. But the sources said that if there was an attack,
it was more likely next year, just before Mr Bush leaves office.
Neo-conservatives, particularly at the Washington-based American
Enterprise Institute, are urging Mr Bush to open a new front against
Iran. So too is the vice-president, Dick Cheney. The state department
and the Pentagon are opposed, as are Democratic congressmen and the
overwhelming majority of Republicans. The sources said Mr Bush had not
yet made a decision. The Bush administration insists the military
build-up is not offensive but aimed at containing Iran and forcing it to
make diplomatic concessions. The aim is to persuade Tehran to curb its
suspect nuclear weapons programme and abandon ambitions for regional
Robert Gates, the new US defence secretary, said yesterday: "I don't
know how many times the president, secretary [of state Condoleezza] Rice
and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran."
But Vincent Cannistraro, a Washington-based intelligence analyst, shared
the sources' assessment that Pentagon planning was well under way.
"Planning is going on, in spite of public disavowals by Gates. Targets
have been selected. For a bombing campaign against nuclear sites, it is
quite advanced. The military assets to carry this out are being put in
He added: "We are planning for war. It is incredibly dangerous."
Mr Cannistraro, who worked for the CIA and the National Security
Council, stressed that no decision had been made.
Last month Mr Bush ordered a second battle group led by the aircraft
carrier USS John Stennis to the Gulf in support of the USS Eisenhower.
The USS Stennis is due to arrive within the next 10 days. Extra US
Patriot missiles have been sent to the region, as well as more
minesweepers, in anticipation of Iranian retaliatory action.
In another sign that preparations are under way, Mr Bush has ordered oil
reserves to be stockpiled.
The danger is that the build-up could spark an accidental war. Iranian
officials said on Thursday that they had tested missiles capable of
hitting warships in the Gulf.
Colonel Sam Gardiner, a former air force officer who has carried out war
games with Iran as the target, supported the view that planning for an
air strike was under way: "Gates said there is no planning for war. We
know this is not true. He possibly meant there is no plan for an
immediate strike. It was sloppy wording.
"All the moves being made over the last few weeks are consistent with
what you would do if you were going to do an air strike. We have to
throw away the notion the US could not do it because it is too tied up
in Iraq. It is an air operation."
One of the main driving forces behind war, apart from the
vice-president's office, is the AEI, headquarters of the
neo-conservatives. A member of the AEI coined the slogan "axis of evil"
that originally lumped Iran in with Iraq and North Korea. Its influence
on the White House appeared to be in decline last year amid endless bad
news from Iraq, for which it had been a cheerleader. But in the face of
opposition from Congress, the Pentagon and state department, Mr Bush
opted last month for an AEI plan to send more troops to Iraq. Will he
support calls from within the AEI for a strike on Iran?
Josh Muravchik, a Middle East specialist at the AEI, is among its most
vocal supporters of such a strike.
"I do not think anyone in the US is talking about invasion. We have been
chastened by the experience of Iraq, even a hawk like myself." But an
air strike was another matter. The danger of Iran having a nuclear
weapon "is not just that it might use it out of the blue but as a shield
to do all sorts of mischief. I do not believe there will be any way to
stop this happening other than physical force."
Mr Bush is part of the American generation that refuses to forgive Iran
for the 1979-81 hostage crisis. He leaves office in January 2009 and has
said repeatedly that he does not want a legacy in which Iran has
achieved superpower status in the region and come close to acquiring a
nuclear weapon capability. The logic of this is that if diplomatic
efforts fail to persuade Iran to stop uranium enrichment then the only
alternative left is to turn to the military.
Mr Muravchik is intent on holding Mr Bush to his word: "The Bush
administration have said they would not allow Iran nuclear weapons. That
is either bullshit or they mean it as a clear code: we will do it if we
have to. I would rather believe it is not hot air."
Other neo-cons elsewhere in Washington are opposed to an air strike but
advocate a different form of military action, supporting Iranian armed
groups, in particular the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), even though the
state department has branded it a terrorist organisation.
Raymond Tanter, founder of the Iran Policy Committee, which includes
former officials from the White House, state department and intelligence
services, is a leading advocate of support for the MEK. If it comes to
an air strike, he favours bunker-busting bombs. "I believe the only way
to get at the deeply buried sites at Natanz and Arak is probably to use
bunker-buster bombs, some of which are nuclear tipped. I do not believe
the US would do that but it has sold them to Israel."
Another neo-conservative, Meyrav Wurmser, director of the centre for
Middle East policy at the Hudson Institute, also favours supporting
Iranian opposition groups. She is disappointed with the response of the
Bush administration so far to Iran and said that if the aim of US policy
after 9/11 was to make the Middle East safer for the US, it was not
working because the administration had stopped at Iraq. "There is not
enough political will for a strike. There seems to be various notions of
what the policy should be."
In spite of the president's veto on negotiation with Tehran, the state
department has been involved since 2003 in back-channel approaches and
meetings involving Iranian officials and members of the Bush
administration or individuals close to it. But when last year the
Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sent a letter as an overture,
the state department dismissed it within hours of its arrival.
Support for negotiations comes from centrist and liberal thinktanks.
Afshin Molavi, a fellow of the New America Foundation, said: "To argue
diplomacy has not worked is false because it has not been tried.
Post-90s and through to today, when Iran has been ready to dance, the US
refused, and when the US has been ready to dance, Iran has refused. We
are at a stage where Iran is ready to walk across the dance floor and
the US is looking away."
He is worried about "a miscalculation that leads to an accidental war".
The catalyst could be Iraq. The Pentagon said yesterday that it had
evidence - serial numbers of projectiles as well as explosives - of
Iraqi militants' weapons that had come from Iran. In a further sign of
the increased tension, Iran's main nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani,
cancelled a visit to Munich for what would have been the first formal
meeting with his western counterparts since last year.
If it does come to war, Mr Muravchik said Iran would retaliate, but that
on balance it would be worth it to stop a country that he said had
"Death to America" as its official slogan.
"We have to gird our loins and prepare to absorb the counter-shock," he
*War of words*
"If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our
troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly"
*George Bush, in an interview with National Public Radio*
"The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they
have the initiative, that they are in position to press us in many ways.
They are doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point"
"I think it's been pretty well-known that Iran is fishing in troubled
*Dick Cheney *
"It is absolutely parallel. They're using the same dance steps -
demonise the bad guys, the pretext of diplomacy, keep out of
negotiations, use proxies. It is Iraq redux"
*Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counter- terrorism specialist, in Vanity
Fair, on echoes of the run-up to the war in Iraq *
"US policymakers and analysts know that the Iranian nation would not let
an invasion go without a response. Enemies of the Islamic system
fabricated various rumours about death and health to demoralise the
Iranian nation, but they did not know that they are not dealing with
only one person in Iran. They are facing a nation"
*Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei*
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