Reports prepared by the Pentagon and the Heritage Foundation, a powerful conservative White House-affiliated US think-tank, and shown to Bellona Web, have also confirmed that the US has chosen as many as 1,200 targets within Iran that would be hit in a military strike – and that the strike would include tactical nuclear weapons.
As yet, there is no timetable for a potential attack, said officials who spoke with Bellona Web over a period of several days. But all emphasised that the level of planning one is “advanced.”
The intensity of Washington’s rhetoric and planning seems to be running on its own momentum given the generally positive news to come out of Iran in recent days.
A widely-leaked report by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA), has specified that Iran is well short of being able to generate nuclear fuel – let alone atomic weapons – in its hotly contested uranium enrichment programme.
Iran has furthermore agreed to answer further question the IAEA may have about any of its nuclear activities and has granted access to sites suspected of being part of a weapons push. All were found by IAEA inspectors to be well short of posing even a medium-term threat of producing nuclear weapons
Even the CIA, which has been tasked with verifying Iran’s intentions to build nuclear weapons, has thus far come up empty handed, State and Defence Department officials say. The CIA refused to comment.
Bush speech seen as point of no return
Yet White House aides, State Department officials, Pentagon personnel and other close observers interviewed all pointed to US President George Bush’s speech to a group of veterans last Tuesday as a watershed in the administration’s willingness to lay bare its aggressive stance.
"Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust," Bush told the receptive audience.
Bush made it clear that he had authorised military commanders to confront "Iran’s murderous activities."
This was widely taken by members of Washington officialdom interviewed for this article to mean that Bush is set on a confrontation with Iran that will culminate in a bombing campaign to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, just as Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.
The question, therefore, is have Bush’s words put America on an inevitable path of armed and possibly nuclear conflict with Iran?
Speech had special message for everyone
Washington officials with close links to the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council, say that Bush’s speech last week was designed as a threat not just to Iran, but to America’s Western allies, along with Russia and China, who have been slow to support – or who have opposed – UN sanctions against Iran.
James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation said of Bush’s speech: "It is simultaneously a shot across Iran’s bows and an appeal for the international community to do more to stop or slow Iran’s nuclear programme."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Saturday dismissed threats of military action as "more of a propaganda measure than factual" in a statement sent to Bellona Web by one of his aides.
Protecting the ‘Bush legacy’
According to Washington officials, Bush’s speech spoke to two concerns of the hawkish wing of his administration: the protection of Israel – itself a nuclear weapons possessor – and the more self-serving goal of “enhancing” the legacy of the administration itself, regardless of what the UN Security Council thinks.
"If we get closer to the end of this administration and we are not seeing suitably tough diplomatic action at the UN, and other members of the P5 (the five permanent members of the Security Council) are still resistant to anything amounting to more than a slap on the wrist to the Iranians,” said a State Department official, “then people will start asking the question: how do we stop our legacy being a nuclear-armed Iran?"
The battle-cry against Iran is largely the torch song of the hawkish and largely invisible Vice President Dick Cheney, who – according to staffers who leaked information about a recent White House meeting – has gained the upper-hand over Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, both of whom favour continued diplomacy.
Cheney was said by the aides who were present at the meeting to have reacted with fury when the State Department suggested negotiations with Iran might continue past January 2009, when Bush leaves the White House.
Points of attack
A four-month long war game to gauge the potential effects of an attack on Iran was conducted by the Heritage Foundation with the participation of the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Energy.
Plans for attack, which were leaked from the Pentagon, indicate that B2 bombers and cruise missiles would strike up to 400 sites, only a few dozen of which are linked to the Iranian nuclear programme. Two US aircraft carrier groups and half of America’s 277 warships are currently in the Persian Gulf or nearby.
B61-11 bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapons would be the ultimate weapon against Iran’s heavily fortified installations, according to the attack plan. First in the crosshairs would be the main centrifuge plant at Natanz, 300 kilometres south of Teheran.
One Pentagon source interviewed by Bellona Web confirmed that attack plans against Iran were definitely in “advanced stages,” but was careful to offer context indicating the plans in and of themselves don’t mean an attack is imminent “this week.”
"We have a targeting list and there are plans, but then there are also plans for repelling an invasion from Canada,” he wrote in an email interview. “We don’t know where everything is (in Iran) but we do know where enough is to cause them enough damage to set back the programme."
There are credible reports that the US has stepped up clandestine activities in Iran over the past 18 months, using special forces to gather intelligence about military targets – nuclear infrastructure and air bases.
By using military special forces, rather than the CIA, the administration does not have to sign a Presidential Finding, required for covert intelligence activity, or report to oversight committees in Congress, Pentagon officials said.
Yet it is unclear if special forces have been able to locate proof-positive evidence of an atomic weapons programme that has apparently eluded the CIA, State Department officials said.
A collision of propaganda and fact could light a nuclear fuse
Bush’s remarks come at a tense crossroads: No sooner had the leaked IAEA report given more backbone to those nations arguing for more diplomacy with Iran then Ahmadinejad announced Friday that his country had reached the milestone of 3,000 working uranium centrifuges – considered by the IAEA to be the point of no-return for an industrial-scale production of enriched uranium.
The concern over 3,000 working centrifuges, as pointed out in a recent International Institute for Strategic Studies report, is that should Iran operate 3,000 centrifuges smoothly, one bomb could be produced within nine to 11 months.
But Iran’s assertion about its 3,000 centrifuges is unverified. To the contrary, the IAEA indicates Iran has 1,968 operational centrifuges – significantly short of the breakthrough Ahmadinejad announced.
CIA reports question efficacy of an attack
One problem militating against an attack for its US architects is that the CIA, apparently, does not have enough intelligence to guarantee that the nuclear programme could be permanently crippled – and little way of knowing after the event how much time against the creation of an Iranian nuclear device they have bought with a raid, a Pentagon source said.
Popular opinion in the US, weary from nearly five years of protracted fighting in Iraq, is unpredictable. The latest polls show that just one in five Americans would support the bombing of Iran now, but that three out of four US voters want to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Just as critically, US government officials say that the CIA has failed to come up with a "smoking gun" that would persuade the international community to back military action. Last autumn, the CIA told the White House that while it believes Iran is running a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, it does not have conclusive proof, State Department and Pentagon officials said.
What the diplomats say
After the IAEA leaked its report indicating the Iranian enrichment programme was far short of Western fears, many nations breathed a sign of relief.
Suspicious of the IAEA’s findings – and UN findings that might cast a bad light on aggressive US foreign policy decisions in general – the US has redoubled its efforts to find support for more sanctions against Iran.
A State Department source confirmed a push would be made to advance the case for sanctions this autumn, but the hopes of progress were mixed.
"The Russians and Chinese are still stonewalling, and the Europeans don’t want to get involved," he said.
The one bright light for American hawks was a speech from the French President Nicolas Sarzoky, fast becoming Washington’s favourite European, who, while ruling out French involvement in air strikes, did warn that Iran could face military action unless it abandoned the enrichment programme, presenting the world with a "catastrophic choice" between "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran".
Still, the prospect of support for a full scale US attack from the world community looks dim.
Some have therefore suggested that if Bush cannot secure support for attacking Iran, he can at least try to infuriate it into a misstep that the US could exploit as an act of war.
Joseph Cirincione, of the Centre for American Progress, accused Bush of "taunting Iran." He told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper that: "Like the similar campaign for war with Iraq, this effort seems to be designed to find a casus belli, perhaps by provoking Iran into some action that could justify a military assault."
Right wing congratulates itself with a war game well done
The Heritage Foundation war gamers, however, are satisfied that their scenarios support an attack on yet another Middle Eastern country by the Bush regime.
James Carafano, a former lecturer at West Point, the American military academy, who led the war game, said: "It’s not about making the case for war. I have yet to meet a government official who says: ‘I’ve just come from a fierce debate about whether to bomb Iran.’"
But in Teheran they are waiting. Abbas Abdi, a reformist political activist, told the Sunday Telegraph: "The style of the Americans is that they go forward with the political dialogues, get a couple of resolutions and then they wait to see what the circumstances are. They have no problems in attacking Iran, for sure."