Thursday, August 31, 2006

The U.S. military is operating under the assumption that Iran is five to eight years away from being able to build its first nuclear weapon, a time span that explains a general lack of urgency within the Bush administration to use air strikes to disable Tehran’s atomic program.

Defense sources familiar with discussions of senior military commanders say the five- to eight-year projection has been discussed inside the Pentagon, which is updating its war plan for Iran. The time frame is generally in line with last year’s intelligence community estimate that Iran could have the capability to produce a nuclear weapon by the beginning or middle of the next decade.

But the sources said that while the five-year window provides President Bush additional time to decide on whether to launch military strikes, they suspect it underestimates Iran’s determination to build a bomb as quickly as possible.

Iran faces a United Nations Security Council deadline today to stop enriching uranium or face economic sanctions.

Advocates of stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions point to gaps in what the U.S. intelligence community really knows about Iran’s secretive process. They also point to the fact that Iraq was much closer to building the bomb than the U.S. thought in 1991, when Operation Desert Storm air strikes destroyed much of Baghdad’s atomic capability.

Some of this impatience was revealed in a bipartisan report Aug. 23 from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The report, which dealt with Iran’s support for terrorism and quest for weapons of mass destruction, chastised the U.S. intelligence community for not devoting sufficient resources to Tehran. It also indirectly criticized current intelligence reporting on Iran as too timid.

“An important dimension of the detection of Iran’s WMD program is how intelligence analysts use intelligence to characterize these programs in their analysis,” the report said. “Intelligence community managers and analysts must provide their best analytic judgments about Iranian WMD programs and not shy away from provocative conclusions or bury disagreements in consensus assessments.”

Concerning intelligence resources for Iran, the report said, “The national security community must dedicate the personnel and resources necessary to better assess Iran’s plans, capabilities and intentions, and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) must identify, establish, and report on intelligence goals and performance metrics to measure progress on critical fronts.”

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a prominent proponent in Washington of air strikes against Iran, said that whether the estimate is five years or 10 years, the time span instills complacency in war planning. He said that Mr. Bush is now following the State Department’s diplomatic path, without a clear policy.

“Everyone is in the Jergens lotion mode — ‘woe is me.’ Wringing our hands,” the former fighter pilot said.

Gen. McInerney advocates using B-2 stealth bombers, cruise missiles and jet fighters to conduct a one- or two-day bombing campaign to take out Iran’s air defenses, military facilities and about 40 nuclear targets, which includes a Russian-built reactor and an enrichment plant.

The Washington Times has previously reported that Israel has drafted plans for air strikes using long-range versions of the F-15 and F-16 fighters. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has often threatened to destroy Israel, which is within range of Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missile.

The Times also reported that U.S. Central Command is updating a target list for Iran.

The House report said Iran owns the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, and is also working on a missile re-entry vehicle that could carry a nuclear warhead.

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