Obama administration officials are escalating warnings that the U.S. could join Israel in attacking Iran if the Islamic republic doesn’t dispel concerns that its nuclear-research program is aimed at producing weapons.
Four days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in Washington, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz told reporters the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared military options to strike Iranian nuclear sites in the event of a conflict.
“What we can do, you wouldn’t want to be in the area,” Schwartz told reporters in Washington yesterday.
Pentagon officials said military options being prepared start with providing aerial refueling for Israeli planes and include attacking the pillars of the clerical regime, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Qods Force, regular Iranian military bases and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Pentagon plans are classified.
“There’s no group in America more determined to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon than the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Army General Martin Dempsey told the House Budget Committee yesterday. “I can assure you of that.”
Separately, unnamed U.S. officials told the Washington Post that U.S. military planners are increasingly confident that sustained attacks with the Air Force’s 30,000-pound (13,608 kilograms) “bunker-buster” bombs could put Iran’s deeply buried uranium-enrichment plant at Fordo out of commission.
The latest American warnings of possible military action against Iran come after meetings between top Israeli and Obama administration officials failed to resolve differences over when an attack would become necessary, according to officials of both countries who have participated in the discussions.
Most Israelis oppose a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities if it doesn’t have U.S. support, the Globes financial daily said, citing a survey conducted by the Washington-based Brookings Institute. Only 19 percent of Israelis support their country striking Iran without U.S. backing, Globes said.
Will to Act
“Because there is uncertainty about the administration’s will to act in the Israelis’ minds, and more importantly in the Iranians’ minds, it’s very important that we don’t just say that all options are on the table, but also show that they are, by some overt means,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee and was one of the recent visitors to Israel, said in a phone interview.
Other U.S. officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because the discussions have been private and because the administration is trying to reassure Israel and its American supporters of its determination while also tamping down fears that are helping drive up oil prices.
Iranian leaders are using the bellicose talk to draw voters for tomorrow’s parliamentary elections, the first since a disputed vote in 2009 that sparked mass riots.
The ballot “will be a slap in the face of enemies of the nation,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on his website yesterday, urging voters to “stand tall and show your determination” by taking part. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani last week called the election “a big step to preserve the dignity of the Iranian nation.” Israel declined to comment.
Drawing the Line
About 48 million Iranians are eligible to vote and more than 3,400 candidates have been cleared to compete for the 290 seats in the assembly, known as the Majlis.
The most significant difference between the U.S. and Israel, said American officials, is where to draw the line on Iran’s atomic program. Parliament doesn’t have power over the country’s foreign policy and the outcome of the race is unlikely to affect Iran’s foreign policy.
Obama administration officials have suggested that the trigger for military action should be a decision by Khamenei to enrich uranium beyond a current level of 20 percent that supports nuclear-power generation to a weapons-grade level 85 or 90 percent.
U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials said they agree that such a decision would be hard to detect until sometime after it had been made.
Israel is more concerned about Iran’s missile and nuclear-weapon technology programs while the U.S. is focused on the Persian Gulf nation’s uranium-enrichment activities, the Israeli officials said.
Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Fordo would be difficult to destroy because they were built to withstand air attacks. Israel, which has the 5,000 pound GBU-28 bomb, said its ability to strike is underestimated, according to the officials.
Iran’s warhead and weaponization facilities at the military complexes at Parchin and Bidganeh and elsewhere are more vulnerable, at least for now, the Israeli officials said, according to Americans who met with them.
Iran barred International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from the Parchin site in February, and a still-unexplained Nov. 14 explosion at the Bidganeh missile base killed an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general.
The Israelis said what worries them is that Iran could complete work on warheads, triggers, neutron reflectors and the other ingredients of a nuclear weapon or move that work to harder-to-hit facilities.
A recent U.S. intelligence analysis concluded that if Iran can get its centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium and assemble in different locations the 33-44 pounds of material needed for a weapon, a delivery system and other necessary components, it could build an atomic weapon in two months, said two U.S. officials who have read the analysis.
Further underscoring the timing issue, U.S. and Israeli officials have concluded that Iran may be content with a computer test of a new weapon rather than detonating one in the desert, thanks in part to confidence inspired by what they said is significant North Korean assistance. These officials also spoke only on the basis of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified.
The American officials said their Israeli counterparts are less inclined than the Obama administration is to give the toughening economic sanctions on Iran more time to work for a second reason: They are skeptical that sanctions can ever persuade Iran to abandon its pursuit of an atomic weapon.
In different meetings with American counterparts in Washington, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Tamir Pardo, the head of Israel’s foreign-intelligence service Mossad, argued that only Israeli military action prevented Iraq and Syria from going nuclear.
They also said witnessing the dictators of non-nuclear Iraq and Libya toppled by or with Western assistance, coupled with a deep sense that Shiite Muslim Iran is entitled to a weapon that Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Hindus, Russia and China all possess, may reinforce Iran’s intentions of continuing to develop a weapon.
High-level visitors have included Barak, Pardo, Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director David Petraeus, Dempsey, U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, White House adviser Dennis Ross, Rogers and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.
U.S. Resolve Questioned
These talks have failed to dispel Israeli doubts that President Barack Obama is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, the American officials said. Barak described a meeting with Panetta yesterday only as “important and useful.”
Netanyahu isn’t convinced Obama will alter his emphasis on sanctions as a mean to change Iranian behavior, U.S. officials said.
Responding to a question during a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing yesterday about concerns Israel may attack Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded: “Let’s focus on economic sanctions that we have the world behind right now. We believe we’re making progress on the sanctions front.”
Iran doesn’t believe the U.S. has the resolution to intervene again in the region, according to the Israeli officials, who cited Washington’s abandonment of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the limited support given Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow in Libya. They said Washington succumbed to domestic political pressure in exits from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally, the Israelis told some U.S. officials that the administration’s failure to retaliate against Iran for plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. and its inability to get Egypt to free the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is one of 16 American pro-democracy activists charged with operating without government permission, has reinforced an image of American weakness.
Some Republicans share those doubts. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Obama administration should be “more clear” in its determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
“The intelligence community is uncertain about Iranian intentions,” Graham told reporters at a news conference yesterday. “You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out.”