Pentagon Must Sharpen Iran Strategy to Counter Arms Buildup, Congress Says

Congress is demanding that the Pentagon prepare a “national military strategic plan” for countering Iran’s nuclear and conventional arms build-up, and to brief lawmakers on it.

The Pentagon additionally must inform lawmakers of “any resources, capabilities, or changes to current law” that officials believe “are necessary to address the gaps identified in the strategy,” according to a congressional joint statement accompanying the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill which President Barack Obama’s signed on Friday.

The provision is the second in as many years directing the military leaders to initiate a specific task pertaining to Iran. Congress last year, in its fiscal 2010 defense bill, required an unclassified report on Iran’s current military capabilities and strategy.

The new section goes further and “appears to reflect the views of those who believe a more well-developed military option” is needed to counter Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program, said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

The new congressional provision also “appears to suggest there is a belief the U.S. military may need some new systems or equipment to counter that threat,” Katzman said.

The Obama administration has said it wants to stick to diplomacy and non-military pressure, such as economic sanctions, to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium.

Iran’s Setbacks

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that international sanctions and technical difficulties have slowed Iran’s nuclear progress.

The sanctions “have made it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions,” Clinton said at a town hall meeting at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University. “Technological problems” have also slowed Iran’s progress, she said. “Their program from our best estimate has been slowed down, so we have time, but not a lot of time.”

Israel’s outgoing head of intelligence, Meir Dagan, said last week that Iran wouldn’t be able to produce a nuclear weapon before 2015. Earlier Israeli estimates put Iran one to two years away from achieving such a capability. Iran’s leaders say the program is meant for peaceful purposes, including medical research.

U.S. military leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have said military action would only delay Iran’s nuclear program and inflame an unstable region.

All Options ‘on the Table’

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen repeated last month that with Iran “all options have been on the table and remain on the table.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon said in a statement to Bloomberg News that the provision was prompted in part by reports Gates complained in January 2010 to officials that the U.S. lacked an effective Iranian strategy.

“Gates urged development of military alternatives to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course,” said McKeon, a California Republican.

“The military option must mean something, and Congress has a role in explaining and developing what the military option means,” he said.

McKeon’s panel will conduct hearings and require Pentagon officials and outside experts “to lay out the full range of possible military activities and operations to counter Iran’s capabilities,” he said.

Contingency Planning

“If these plans do not exist, our efforts will hopefully spur the Obama administration,” McKeon said. “I will not prejudge what this range of options should look like. However, I believe the phrase ‘Keep all options on the table’ should not be a throwaway line or a stale talking point.”

“It must be an integral part of our contingency planning in the unfortunate event international diplomacy and sanctions fail to deter Iranian proliferation,” McKeon said.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by the website WikiLeaks give context to U.S. and Israeli views on striking Iranian nuclear facilities.

Gates, in a February 8, 2010 meeting with French Foreign Minister Herve Morin, said a conventional weapons strike “by any nation,” including Israel and the U.S., “would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker.”

‘Collateral Damage’

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a June 2, 2009 meeting with U.S. lawmakers, “estimated a window between six and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable.

‘‘After that, any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage,’’ he was quoted as saying.

Israeli officials in a November 2009 meeting reiterated to U.S. officials that they viewed 2010 as a ‘‘critical year -- if the Iranians continue to protect and harden their nuclear sites, it will be more difficult to target and damage them,’’ said another cable.

‘‘Both sides then discussed the upcoming delivery of GBU-28 bunker busting bombs to Israel, noting that the transfer should be handled quietly to avoid any allegations the U.S. government is helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran,’’ the cable said.

The GBU-28 is a 5,000-pound bomb that’s the U.S.’s top air- dropped weapon for penetrating deeply buried facilities. The bomb was first sold to Israel in 2005.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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