Continued from page 1

A former senior defense official has told The Washington Times that the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George W. Bush administration held a series of discussions about Iran. But no chief, including Adm. Mullen, who then led the Navy, recommended launching strikes. The prime reason was that the top brass feared the Iranian population would rally behind the regime and abandon a fledging democracy movement.

That’s why it’s important, said Gen. McInerney and other advocates of the military option, to have a covert plan in place to try to destabilize Iran’s mullah-run government.

If sanctions fail, Washington faces a dilemma: Let Iran build the bomb, with which it can threaten Israel and other U.S. allies, or launch airstrikes.

“I talk to unintended consequences of either outcome,” Adm. Mullen said, “and it’s those unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is an incredibly unstable part of the world that I worry about the most.”

With the retirement of the F-117 Nighthawk, which flew the first bombing run over Iraq in 2003, the Air Force has two stealth strike aircraft: the B-2 and the F-22 Raptor. The F-22 has not been deployed to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Pentagon did dispatch it to Asia last month as a show of force against North Korea.

A strike on Iran would fit the F-22, if the war plan calls for putting piloted aircraft over the country. Its forte is penetrating heavily defended airspaces to put bombs on target.

“It’s pretty well known if we were going to go after the sites, we would have to go after underground facilities, and we could probably do that. The B-2s could do that,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, the top air commander in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “It would be the key system.”