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Nukes a possibility if U.S. decides to attack Iranian sites, report says
By Seattle Times news services
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, which publicly advocates negotiations to halt Iran's nuclear program, is accelerating military planning for possible attacks against Iran and has not ruled out using tactical nuclear weapons, according to a new article.
The article, by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, asserts that the Pentagon this winter presented the White House with an option to use bunker-buster nuclear bombs against Iran's underground nuclear sites. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff later sought to drop that option, unnamed officials at the White House resisted, the article stated.
Hersh is a well-known journalist credited with uncovering major stories including the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1969 and details of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Some military and political officials have contested details of some of his articles.
The article cites numerous anonymous sources, including former Pentagon and intelligence officials, as well as sources described as having ties to the Pentagon but no direct involvement in its decision-making.
Asked about the article, Frederick Jones, a National Security Council spokesman, said Saturday: "We're not going to discuss military planning. As the president has said repeatedly, we, along with the international community, are pursuing a diplomatic solution to the issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program."
But four Pentagon, military, and administration officials who participate in high-level deliberations on Iran and who were granted anonymity to speak candidly rejected the article's contention that the Bush administration was considering nuclear weapons in a possible strike against Iran.
"I've never heard the issue of nukes taken off or put on the table," a senior Pentagon official said.
The article also states that U.S. combat troops have been ordered to infiltrate Iran to collect target data and to cultivate relationships with indigenous groups who oppose the government in Tehran.
"The article contains information that is inaccurate," said Michele Ness, a CIA spokeswoman. She declined to elaborate.
Senior administration officials stressed their preferred path is diplomatic but have not ruled out military attacks if negotiations should fail.
Senior officers and Pentagon officials said that war planners, in particular Air Force targeting teams, have updated contingencies for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, as they periodically do. But they emphasized that this did not reflect any guidance from the civilian leadership to prepare for military confrontation.
"There have been no operational plans or options presented to the White House," said the senior Pentagon official.
Top commanders say the military options range from bad to unimaginable. None guarantees success, planners say, given that dozens of suspected sites are buried deep underground or near urban centers. Many risk causing not only casualties but a political crisis in the Middle East.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that the Bush administration is studying options for military strikes against Iran as part of a broader strategy of coercive diplomacy to pressure Tehran to abandon its alleged nuclear-development program. It attributed its information to U.S. officials and independent analysts.
According to the Post, no attack appears likely in the short term, and many specialists inside and outside the U.S. government harbor serious doubts about whether an armed response would be effective. But administration officials are preparing for it and using the threat "to convince them this is more and more serious," as a senior official put it.
According to current and former officials, Pentagon and CIA planners have been exploring possible targets, such as the uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz and the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan. Although a land invasion is not contemplated, military officers are weighing alternatives from a limited airstrike aimed at key nuclear sites to a more extensive bombing campaign designed to destroy an array of military and political targets.
Preparations underscore how the issue has vaulted to the front of President Bush's agenda even as he struggles with the war in next-door Iraq. Bush views Tehran as a serious menace that must be dealt with before his presidency ends, aides said, and the White House, in its new National Security Strategy, last month labeled Iran the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country.
Many military officers and specialists, however, view the saber rattling with alarm. A strike at Iran, they warn, would at best just delay its nuclear program by a few years but could inflame international opinion against the United States, particularly in the Muslim world and especially within Iran, while making U.S. troops in Iraq targets for retaliation.
"My sense is that any talk of a strike is the diplomatic gambit to keep pressure on others that if they don't help solve the problem, we will have to," said Kori Schake, who worked on Bush's National Security Council staff and teaches at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Others believe it is more than bluster. "The Bush team is looking at the viability of airstrikes simply because many think airstrikes are the only real option ahead," said Kurt Campbell, a former Pentagon policy official.
The intensified discussion comes as the United States is working with European allies on a diplomatic solution. After tough negotiations, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement last month urging Iran to again suspend its uranium-enrichment program. But Russia and China, both veto-wielding council members, prevented any mention of consequences and are resisting sanctions.
U.S. officials continue to pursue the diplomatic course but privately seem skeptical that it will succeed. The administration is also coming under pressure from Israel, which has warned the Bush team that Iran is closer to developing a nuclear bomb than D.C. thinks and that a moment of decision is fast approaching.
Information from The New York Times
and The Washington Post is included in this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company