U.S. Officials Are Mulling Iran Strikes, Experts Say

Plans Stepped Up as Tehran Tests Weapons

By Marc Perelman

Published April 07, 2006, issue of April 07, 2006.
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Key players in the Bush administration think a military confrontation with Iran is an unavoidable, leading to stepped up military planning for such a prospect, according to several experts and recently departed senior government officials.

Some of these observers stressed that military strikes against Iran are not imminent and speculated that the escalated war chatter could be a deliberate ploy to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Still, they made clear, the tone in Washington has changed drastically.

“In recent months I have grown increasingly concerned that the administration has been giving thought to a heavy dose of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear sector without giving enough weight to the possible ramifications of such action,” said Wayne White, a former deputy director at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. White, who worked in the bureau’s Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, left government in early 2005 and is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Several experts and former officials interviewed by the Forward pointed to Vice President Dick Cheney as one of the key figures who has concluded that the ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring Iran before the United Nations Security Council and eventually slap the Islamic regime with sanctions will come to naught, forcing Washington to resort to force to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

Cheney’s office responded that he was “supporting the administration’s position” of seeking a diplomatic solution while keeping all options on the table.

Iran, meanwhile, has also taken several public steps to suggest that it is preparing for a confrontation. Iranian officials recently announced with great fanfare that the military had tested several new weapons, including three new missiles and two new torpedoes, during maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. After Tehran successfully tested its second new torpedo, General Mohammad Ebrahim Dehghani told Iranian state television Monday that the weapon is powerful enough to “break a heavy warship” in two. The torpedo was tested in the Straits of Hormuz, a vital corridor for oil supplies.

A day earlier, Iran announced it had tested a high-speed missile, the Fajr-3, that allegedly can avoid radar and hit several targets simultaneously. General Hossein Kargar, said Monday that the purpose of the maneuvers was to prepare for an attack by the United States.

Bush administration officials repeatedly have stated that a diplomatic solution to the international crisis over Iran’s nuclear program would be preferable, although they would not rule out a military option. Last week, the U.N. Security Council adopted a non-binding statement urging Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment activities. Tehran has rejected the demand, repeating its claim that the sole aim of the country’s nuclear program is to generate electricity.

According to Laurent Murawiec, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, the Bush administration’s contingency plans were being upgraded “because the diplomatic solution has lost credibility.” Murawiec said that while he feared several years ago that some officials in Washington seemed to be relying on Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, “I don’t fear this anymore.” He added that two European defense ministries were also working on military contingency plans, but declined to identify them.

The Sunday Telegraph of London reported April 2 that a high-level meeting of British military and government officials was to take place to weigh the consequences of an American-led attack on Iran, which is considered “inevitable” if Tehran fails to comply with U.N. demands to freeze its uranium enrichment program. British officials forcefully denied the story, one of several that have appeared in recent months in the British press describing stepped-up American preparations for war against Iran.

Such articles, coupled with consultations between senior Israeli and American military officials, repeated statements by top Bush administration officials about the imminent threat of Iran and its links to terrorism, and the growing tensions with Tehran have fueled speculation of potential confrontation in recent weeks.

“Up until recently, I dismissed talk of military strikes against Iran as posturing or left-wing conspiracy theories,” said Joseph Cirincione, the director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment. “But I recently changed my mind after friends close to the White House and the Pentagon told me that some people in government have already decided the military option was the only one and there was active military planning.”

Kenneth Katzman, an expert with the Congressional Research Service, noted that there was a growing belief in government that eventually a choice will come between military action and acquiescence of a nuclear Iran. “There is a broad range of people in government examining the military option,” he added.

Other experts dismissed such talk, saying that any military planning taking place is simply part of the usual contingency phase. They also argued that war fatigue, concerns about oil prices and the lack of available troops rendered a decision to go to war unlikely in the near future.

“Obviously diplomatic pressure works best with an implicit military threat in the background; nobody I know is interested in taking that off the table,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And tea-leaf readers can try to infer subtle ups or downs in the salience of the implicit military threat that is always in the background on this issue. But I don’t see any major change in policy ongoing here.”

One possibility is that the war talk is part of a strategy to squeeze Iran, according to Graham Fuller, a retired CIA officer who worked for years in the Middle East.

“In my opinion,” Fuller wrote in an e-mail, “the proliferation of all these articles on war plans, attack strategies, U.S. generals visiting Turkey to talk of military ‘preparations,’ etc., increasingly shows the fine hand of U.S. (maybe U.K. too) disinformation and psychological warfare against Iran using a variety of newspapers to plant stories of rising threats, time running out, and the urgency of the need to use force to stop Iran. Indeed this campaign may now be intensified, perhaps out of frustration that the ‘real thing’ is not, in fact, on the table any more.”

A former senior CIA official said that the United States was conducting a disinformation campaign that was part of a wider set of covert operations intended to destabilize the Islamic regime. He declined to be identified or to be more specific. The Bush administration recently allocated $85 million to upgrade television and radio broadcasting into Iran, and to support pro-democracy activists there.

Looking ahead, “the greatest danger is Iran’s overconfidence,” said Michael Rubin, a scholar at the conservative American Entreprise Institute who worked on Iran policy at the Pentagon until his departure in 2004. “They believe we’re bogged down in Iraq. They may believe we’re stymied in the U.N. by the Russians and Chinese. They may believe oil prices are too high for action. But the administration is deadly serious. Any military action would likely involve the air force and navy, not the troops in Iraq. And while everyone recognizes the problems of any military action, there is a real belief that the consequences of Iran going nuclear would be worse.”

But others believe that Iran is sending a message to Washington that it could retaliate to a military strike not only by activating its terrorist networks but also by forcing the United States into a protracted, bloody and costly war, according to White, the former State Department intelligence official.

“People have to stop thinking in terms of ‘surgical’ strikes instead of a far messier scenario that could evolve into something more akin to war,” White said. “Hostilities could potentially involve elements of Iran’s air force, Iranian attempts to take pot shots at American fleet units in the Gulf, and much stepped-up — and perhaps more direct — Iranian trouble-making directed against us and our allies in Iraq. All of this would, among other things, drive up world oil prices still farther, perhaps for a considerable period of time.”

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