Israel has been privately pressing Washington to solve the Iran nuclear problem in a hint that Tel Aviv may be left with no choice but to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, defense officials say.
Military analysts say the United States “would have no problem” taking out Iran’s major nuclear facilities should it decide to launch a pre-emptive strike.
The defense officials say Israel isn’t putting its concerns about Iran in the form of a “you attack or we do” ultimatum to the United States. But they said senior Israeli officials often have raised the Iran problem during visits to Washington in the past 18 months.
Tel Aviv’s concerns are one reason the Bush administration in the past year has ratcheted up its rhetoric and its intelligence collection on Iran’s clandestine program to build nuclear weapons, including surveillance flights by unmanned U.S. planes.
The officials said they think President Bush, who has adopted a policy of pre-emption to prevent terrorists from obtaining atomic arms, is on a course to take military action before he leaves office in 2009.
One U.S. option is air strikes, unless Iran’s Islamist rulers renounce nuclear weapons and allow intrusive inspections. The United States has designated Iran as a terror-sponsoring state, and Mr. Bush has labeled it part of an “axis of evil.”
“He doesn’t have any choice,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst. “He understands [the Iranians] are the king of terror right now. They are striving for nuclear weapons that can get into the hands of terrorists, and then it’s too late.”
The Washington Times reported in 2003 that Israel had developed options for bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.
Members of the Israeli parliament publicly have called for pre-emptive strikes now, which Tel Aviv used in 1981 to take out a nuclear reactor being built for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But the greater distances and the more mature Iranian program mean any Israeli mission would be far tougher than the one-target strike on the Osiraq plant.
Iran has developed a ballistic missile, the Shahab III, capable of reaching Israel. A secret Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, estimates Iran will have nuclear weapons before the end of this decade. Israel has a nuclear arsenal of about 85 warheads, the DIA states.
Vice President Dick Cheney raised the Israeli attack scenario on Inauguration Day back in January during an interview with radio host Don Imus.
Said Mr. Cheney: “One of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had 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.”
The vice president added, “You look around the world at potential trouble spots — Iran is right at the top of the list.”
The United States’ increased intelligence collection includes the CIA’s operating Predator spy drones over suspected nuclear sites for the past year — an operation first reported by The Washington Post. A defense source said the Predator has special sensors that analyze the air to detect radiation levels consistent with uranium enrichment.
The U.S. intelligence community does not think Iran has produced a nuclear weapon because it lacks the needed fissile material — either weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.
Iran has at least three sites, including a plant at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf for which Russia is supplying a light-water reactor, which could produce fissile material.
The plant surely would be on a U.S. target list along with perhaps a dozen other sites thought to be involved in building a bomb.
“Iran is likely continuing nuclear weapon-related endeavors in an effort to become the dominant regional power and deter what it perceives as the potential for U.S. or Israeli attacks,” Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the DIA, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week.
“We judge Iran is devoting significant resources to its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. Unless constrained by a nuclear non-proliferation agreement, Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade.”
The earlier DIA written report said Iran would have a nuclear capability before the end of this decade.
Gen. McInerney, a Vietnam War fighter pilot, said B-2 stealth bombers, armed with the huge penetrating bombs commonly called “bunker busters,” would be able to pierce Iran’s aging air defenses and hit 20 or more sites.
“They have not updated that very, very old air defense system,” he said.
Gen. McInerney said that as a colonel in 1977 he went to Iran and conducted a war exercise against various Iranian targets during the rule of the United States’ ally, the Shah of Iran.
“They were not very good then, and they have clearly just gotten worse,” he said. “I can tell you from my personal experience we would have no problem there.”
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said that any mission likely would include F-117 strike fighters, as well as B-2s, prepositioned at airfields in the region.
“As some of the facilities are still under construction and not yet active, the United States may have a window of opportunity that would allow it to destroy those locations without causing the environmental problems associated with the destruction of an active nuclear reactor,” Mr. Pike said. “The window of opportunity for disarming strikes against Iran will begin to close in 2005.”
For now, Mr. Bush is allowing European nations to spearhead negotiations with Iran’s mullahs, and for the International Atomic Energy Agency to handle inspections.
The president told European journalists on Friday, “First of all, you never want a president to say never, but military action is certainly not, is never the president’s first choice.”
He said: “I hear all these rumors about military attacks, and it’s just not the truth. We want diplomacy to work.”
Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, which runs military operations in the Persian Gulf region, told reporters earlier this month that the command routinely is updating war plans, including the one for Iran.
“We are in that process, that normal process, of updating our war plans,” he said.