In a week rife with speculation about America’s plans to attack Iran, Vice President Richard Cheney stepped up the pressure on Tehran by declaring that Israel might strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if ongoing diplomatic efforts fail.
In response to a question by radio talk-show host Don Imus about the possibility of Israeli action, Cheney said, “If, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had a significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.”
While some analysts fretted about what they saw as a tacit American acknowledgment of Israeli designs, most Iran policy watchers insisted that the vice president merely was ratcheting up pressure on Iran and European countries as they negotiate Tehran’s nuclear program.
“He made a perfectly reasonable statement, and I think the speculation about it was way out of control,” Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and former director for Persian Gulf affairs at the NSC, told the Forward. “He was just sending a message to the Europeans.” This view also was attributed to an Israeli diplomat quoted in news reports after the program.
Following the disclosure of a secretive nuclear program in the summer of 2002, France, Germany and Great Britain are trying to induce Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for an array of incentives. Tehran, which maintains that it is pursuing a civilian nuclear program, recently agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities during the discussions. The Bush administration has given lukewarm support to the diplomatic effort, and President Bush last week refused to rule out a military option against Iran.
Cheney told Imus that while the American emphasis was now on supporting the European efforts, “at some point, if the Iranians don’t live up to their commitments, the next step will be to take it to the United Nations Security Council and seek the imposition of international sanctions.”
Pollack and others noted that the impact of Cheney’s remarks was magnified by the brouhaha prompted by a New Yorker article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in which he asserted that American Special Forces were operating inside Iran in order to locate suspicious sites and to prepare for combined air and ground strikes.
Hersh also wrote that Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, a pro-Israel hawk, has been working with Israeli planners on a target list.
The Pentagon said that the piece was “riddled with errors” and Iranian officials pointed to it as an example of “psychological warfare.” On Sunday, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that acting against Iran would be a “strategic blunder.” He said that Cheney’s statement was further proof of the influence of the Jewish lobby in Washington.
A former American senior intelligence official said that such Special Forces could in fact be directing foreigners inside Iran — for example, operatives of the Mujahedin e Khalq opposition group. Hawks see the organization, which is listed as a terrorist entity by the American government, as a possible vanguard against the mullah regime, because they mostly are based in neighboring, American-controlled Iraq. The group also has disclosed information about Iran’s nuclear program, although its intelligence is seen as not always accurate.
A Pentagon spokesman said the department’s policy was not to comment on the missions, location and activities of Special Forces.
On Monday, Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee that Iran will reach the “point of no return” in its nuclear weapon technology by the end of this year and will be able to build a nuclear bomb three to four years later.
Israeli officials have said they might turn to military strikes as a last resort. Military experts think, however, that Jerusalem does not have the military means to conduct such an operation because of the long distance between Israel and Iran, and because of the hidden and dispersed location of Iran’s suspicious facilities.
While Cheney seemed to imply that Washington did not have the means to prevent Israel from acting, experts say the reality is different. Israeli planes most likely would need to fly over American-controlled territories, namely Iraq and the Persian Gulf, in order to strike Iran. In other words, Israel would need America’s approval.
“I don’t think the Israelis have any plans for striking Iran, but they clearly would like us to take care of the problem,” a former senior CIA official said. “They have been lobbying with the executive branch and Congress on the need for action against Iran for some time. But given the nature of the Iranian facilities, widely dispersed and underground, probably only U.S. military capabilities… could do the job.”