- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

A military solution

Anyone old enough to remember Israel’s air strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility just before it was to go on line in 1981 cannot help but wonder whether Israel might one day deal with Iran’s nuclear program in the same way.

Speculation to that effect has only grown since this paper’s Pentagon reporter Rowan Scarborough reported a year ago that Israel had already mapped out a route for its aircraft to approach Iran’s nuclear reactor site at Bushehr.

It was with that in mind that our editor-in-chief remarked during an interview with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at our offices 10 days ago that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program might be referred, not to the U.N. Security Council but to the Israeli air force.

It was intended as a light-hearted crack, but the secretary offered a serious, if opaque, answer.

“I don’t want to get too deeply into this,” Mr. Powell said. “But based on what I know about the [Iranian nuclear] program, it is not one that lends itself to a simple military solution.”

A great deal has been written about the pros and cons of a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s capacity to make nuclear weapons, but this was the first time I had seen an official as senior as the secretary of state say — on the record — that it might not be militarily feasible.

However, Mr. Powell did not explain himself further and with all the other pressing matters covered in the interview — ranging from the war in Iraq to relations with Russia — it did not make it into the next day’s story. Nor was it easy to see how to get a follow-up story out of that single ambiguous quote.

Mr. Powell’s comment came into sharper focus a few days later with the publication of last week’s issue of Newsweek magazine. An article co-authored by Dan Ephron, a former freelance writer for The Washington Times, reported that the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency had conducted war games based on an attack on the Iranian program; in those dry runs the conflict had invariably escalated out of control.

Bunker-buster bombs

This might have been what Mr. Powell was thinking of when he made his remark. But it still didn’t lend itself to a story without borrowing more heavily from the Newsweek article than we cared to.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that the third and the fourth shoes dropped. Wire agencies that morning offered two related stories that pushed forward the whole debate and offered a plausible vehicle for getting the Powell comment into the paper.

The first was a story from Tehran in which the Iranian government announced it was going ahead with plans to begin enriching uranium over the objections of the U.N. nuclear agency and, indeed, much of the world.

The second story, from Jerusalem, cited a report in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz saying the United States would soon conclude a $319 million military sale to Israel that included 500 “bunker-buster” bombs suitable for use against an Iranian nuclear site.

We asked State Department reporter Nicholas Kralev to take all these elements and combine them into an article, leading with the Iranian announcement and using the Ha’aretz report to establish the context for Mr. Powell’s remark.

A slight hitch developed when Mr. Kralev began checking the facts: U.S. officials, while declining to comment publicly on the Ha’aretz report, privately suggested there was nothing to it and that it must have been a slow news day in Israel.

With a little more checking, however, Mr. Kralev discovered that the proposed sale was no secret at all. The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency had formally notified Congress on June 1 that it was considering a weapons sale to Israel valued at up to $319 million and had specifically listed the bunker-buster bombs.

The story ran on Wednesday’s front page.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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