Richard Moore

Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb?
Issue of 2006-04-17
Posted 2006-04-08

The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order 
to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased 
clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a 
possible major air attack. Current and former American military and 
intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are 
drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have 
been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to 
establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The 
officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian 
regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this 
spring, to enrich uranium.
American and European intelligence agencies, and the International 
Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.), agree that Iran is intent on 
developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. But there are 
widely differing estimates of how long that will take, and whether 
diplomacy, sanctions, or military action is the best way to prevent 
it. Iran insists that its research is for peaceful use only, in 
keeping with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that it will 
not be delayed or deterred.
There is a growing conviction among members of the United States 
military, and in the international community, that President Bush's 
ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime 
change. Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has challenged the 
reality of the Holocaust and said that Israel must be "wiped off the 
map." Bush and others in the White House view him as a potential 
Adolf Hitler, a former senior intelligence official said. "That's the 
name they're using. They say, 'Will Iran get a strategic weapon and 
threaten another world war?' "
A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in 
the Pentagon said that Bush was "absolutely convinced that Iran is 
going to get the bomb" if it is not stopped. He said that the 
President believes that he must do "what no Democrat or Republican, 
if elected in the future, would have the courage to do," and "that 
saving Iran is going to be his legacy."
One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues 
for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was 
premised on a belief that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will 
humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and 
overthrow the government." He added, "I was shocked when I heard it, 
and asked myself, 'What are they smoking?' "
The rationale for regime change was articulated in early March by 
Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert who is the deputy director for 
research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and who has 
been a supporter of President Bush. "So long as Iran has an Islamic 
republic, it will have a nuclear-weapons program, at least 
clandestinely," Clawson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 
on March 2nd. "The key issue, therefore, is: How long will the 
present Iranian regime last?"
When I spoke to Clawson, he emphasized that "this Administration is 
putting a lot of effort into diplomacy." However, he added, Iran had 
no choice other than to accede to America's demands or face a 
military attack. Clawson said that he fears that Ahmadinejad "sees 
the West as wimps and thinks we will eventually cave in. We have to 
be ready to deal with Iran if the crisis escalates." Clawson said 
that he would prefer to rely on sabotage and other clandestine 
activities, such as "industrial accidents." But, he said, it would be 
prudent to prepare for a wider war, "given the way the Iranians are 
acting. This is not like planning to invade Quebec."
One military planner told me that White House criticisms of Iran and 
the high tempo of planning and clandestine activities amount to a 
campaign of "coercion" aimed at Iran. "You have to be ready to go, 
and we'll see how they respond," the officer said. "You have to 
really show a threat in order to get Ahmadinejad to back down." He 
added, "People think Bush has been focussed on Saddam Hussein since 
9/11," but, "in my view, if you had to name one nation that was his 
focus all the way along, it was Iran." (In response to detailed 
requests for comment, the White House said that it would not comment 
on military planning but added, "As the President has indicated, we 
are pursuing a diplomatic solution"; the Defense Department also said 
that Iran was being dealt with through "diplomatic channels" but 
wouldn't elaborate on that; the C.I.A. said that there were 
"inaccuracies" in this account but would not specify them.)
"This is much more than a nuclear issue," one high-ranking diplomat 
told me in Vienna. "That's just a rallying point, and there is still 
time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed 
unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is 
who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten 
A senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror expressed a similar 
view. "This White House believes that the only way to solve the 
problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means 
war," he said. The danger, he said, was that "it also reinforces the 
belief inside Iran that the only way to defend the country is to have 
a nuclear capability." A military conflict that destabilized the 
region could also increase the risk of terror: "Hezbollah comes into 
play," the adviser said, referring to the terror group that is 
considered one of the world's most successful, and which is now a 
Lebanese political party with strong ties to Iran. "And here comes Al 
In recent weeks, the President has quietly initiated a series of 
talks on plans for Iran with a few key senators and members of 
Congress, including at least one Democrat. A senior member of the 
House Appropriations Committee, who did not take part in the meetings 
but has discussed their content with his colleagues, told me that 
there had been "no formal briefings," because "they're reluctant to 
brief the minority. They're doing the Senate, somewhat selectively."
The House member said that no one in the meetings "is really 
objecting" to the talk of war. "The people they're briefing are the 
same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: 
How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to 
get deep enough?" (Iran is building facilities underground.) "There's 
no pressure from Congress" not to take military action, the House 
member added. "The only political pressure is from the guys who want 
to do it." Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, "The 
most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision."
Some operations, apparently aimed in part at intimidating Iran, are 
already under way. American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from 
carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated 
nuclear-weapons delivery missions-rapid ascending maneuvers known as 
"over the shoulder" bombing-since last summer, the former official 
said, within range of Iranian coastal radars.
Last month, in a paper given at a conference on Middle East security 
in Berlin, Colonel Sam Gardiner, a military analyst who taught at the 
National War College before retiring from the Air Force, in 1987, 
provided an estimate of what would be needed to destroy Iran's 
nuclear program. Working from satellite photographs of the known 
facilities, Gardiner estimated that at least four hundred targets 
would have to be hit. He added:
I don't think a U.S. military planner would want to stop there. Iran 
probably has two chemical-production plants. We would hit those. We 
would want to hit the medium-range ballistic missiles that have just 
recently been moved closer to Iraq. There are fourteen airfields with 
sheltered aircraft. . . . We'd want to get rid of that threat. We 
would want to hit the assets that could be used to threaten Gulf 
shipping. That means targeting the cruise-missile sites and the 
Iranian diesel submarines. . . . Some of the facilities may be too 
difficult to target even with penetrating weapons. The U.S. will have 
to use Special Operations units.
One of the military's initial option plans, as presented to the White 
House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a 
bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against 
underground nuclear sites. One target is Iran's main centrifuge 
plant, at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. Natanz, 
which is no longer under I.A.E.A. safeguards, reportedly has 
underground floor space to hold fifty thousand centrifuges, and 
laboratories and workspaces buried approximately seventy-five feet 
beneath the surface. That number of centrifuges could provide enough 
enriched uranium for about twenty nuclear warheads a year. (Iran has 
acknowledged that it initially kept the existence of its enrichment 
program hidden from I.A.E.A. inspectors, but claims that none of its 
current activity is barred by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.) The 
elimination of Natanz would be a major setback for Iran's nuclear 
ambitions, but the conventional weapons in the American arsenal could 
not insure the destruction of facilities under seventy-five feet of 
earth and rock, especially if they are reinforced with concrete.
There is a Cold War precedent for targeting deep underground bunkers 
with nuclear weapons. In the early nineteen-eighties, the American 
intelligence community watched as the Soviet government began digging 
a huge underground complex outside Moscow. Analysts concluded that 
the underground facility was designed for "continuity of 
government"-for the political and military leadership to survive a 
nuclear war. (There are similar facilities, in Virginia and 
Pennsylvania, for the American leadership.) The Soviet facility still 
exists, and much of what the U.S. knows about it remains classified. 
"The 'tell' "-the giveaway-"was the ventilator shafts, some of which 
were disguised," the former senior intelligence official told me. At 
the time, he said, it was determined that "only nukes" could destroy 
the bunker. He added that some American intelligence analysts believe 
that the Russians helped the Iranians design their underground 
facility. "We see a similarity of design," specifically in the 
ventilator shafts, he said.
A former high-level Defense Department official told me that, in his 
view, even limited bombing would allow the U.S. to "go in there and 
do enough damage to slow down the nuclear infrastructure-it's 
feasible." The former defense official said, "The Iranians don't have 
friends, and we can tell them that, if necessary, we'll keep knocking 
back their infrastructure. The United States should act like we're 
ready to go." He added, "We don't have to knock down all of their air 
defenses. Our stealth bombers and standoff missiles really work, and 
we can blow fixed things up. We can do things on the ground, too, but 
it's difficult and very dangerous-put bad stuff in ventilator shafts 
and put them to sleep."
But those who are familiar with the Soviet bunker, according to the 
former senior intelligence official, "say 'No way.' You've got to 
know what's underneath-to know which ventilator feeds people, or 
diesel generators, or which are false. And there's a lot that we 
don't know." The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military 
planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little 
choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. "Every 
other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a 
gap," the former senior intelligence official said. " 'Decisive' is 
the key word of the Air Force's planning. It's a tough decision. But 
we made it in Japan."
He went on, "Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn 
the technical details of damage and fallout-we're talking about 
mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over 
years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is 
the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don't have a clue, 
and whenever anybody tries to get it out"-remove the nuclear 
option-"they're shouted down."
The attention given to the nuclear option has created serious 
misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he added, 
and some officers have talked about resigning. Late this winter, the 
Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the 
evolving war plans for Iran-without success, the former intelligence 
official said. "The White House said, 'Why are you challenging this? 
The option came from you.' "
The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the 
Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked 
to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among 
Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it "a juggernaut 
that has to be stopped." He also confirmed that some senior officers 
and officials were considering resigning over the issue. "There are 
very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing 
nuclear weapons against other countries," the adviser told me. "This 
goes to high levels." The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he 
said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a 
formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to 
considering the nuclear option for Iran. "The internal debate on this 
has hardened in recent weeks," the adviser said. "And, if senior 
Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive 
nuclear weapons, then it will never happen."
The adviser added, however, that the idea of using tactical nuclear 
weapons in such situations has gained support from the Defense 
Science Board, an advisory panel whose members are selected by 
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "They're telling the Pentagon 
that we can build the B61 with more blast and less radiation," he 
The chairman of the Defense Science Board is William Schneider, Jr., 
an Under-Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration. In January, 
2001, as President Bush prepared to take office, Schneider served on 
an ad-hoc panel on nuclear forces sponsored by the National Institute 
for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. The panel's report 
recommended treating tactical nuclear weapons as an essential part of 
the U.S. arsenal and noted their suitability "for those occasions 
when the certain and prompt destruction of high priority targets is 
essential and beyond the promise of conventional weapons." Several 
signers of the report are now prominent members of the Bush 
Administration, including Stephen Hadley, the national-security 
adviser; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for 
Intelligence; and Robert Joseph, the Under-Secretary of State for 
Arms Control and International Security.
The Pentagon adviser questioned the value of air strikes. "The 
Iranians have distributed their nuclear activity very well, and we 
have no clue where some of the key stuff is. It could even be out of 
the country," he said. He warned, as did many others, that bombing 
Iran could provoke "a chain reaction" of attacks on American 
facilities and citizens throughout the world: "What will 1.2 billion 
Muslims think the day we attack Iran?"

With or without the nuclear option, the list of targets may 
inevitably expand. One recently retired high-level Bush 
Administration official, who is also an expert on war planning, told 
me that he would have vigorously argued against an air attack on 
Iran, because "Iran is a much tougher target" than Iraq. But, he 
added, "If you're going to do any bombing to stop the nukes, you 
might as well improve your lie across the board. Maybe hit some 
training camps, and clear up a lot of other problems."
The Pentagon adviser said that, in the event of an attack, the Air 
Force intended to strike many hundreds of targets in Iran but that 
"ninety-nine per cent of them have nothing to do with proliferation. 
There are people who believe it's the way to operate"-that the 
Administration can achieve its policy goals in Iran with a bombing 
campaign, an idea that has been supported by neoconservatives.
If the order were to be given for an attack, the American combat 
troops now operating in Iran would be in position to mark the 
critical targets with laser beams, to insure bombing accuracy and to 
minimize civilian casualties. As of early winter, I was told by the 
government consultant with close ties to civilians in the Pentagon, 
the units were also working with minority groups in Iran, including 
the Azeris, in the north, the Baluchis, in the southeast, and the 
Kurds, in the northeast. The troops "are studying the terrain, and 
giving away walking-around money to ethnic tribes, and recruiting 
scouts from local tribes and shepherds," the consultant said. One 
goal is to get "eyes on the ground"-quoting a line from "Othello," he 
said, "Give me the ocular proof." The broader aim, the consultant 
said, is to "encourage ethnic tensions" and undermine the regime.
The new mission for the combat troops is a product of Defense 
Secretary Rumsfeld's long-standing interest in expanding the role of 
the military in covert operations, which was made official policy in 
the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, published in February. 
Such activities, if conducted by C.I.A. operatives, would need a 
Presidential Finding and would have to be reported to key members of 
" 'Force protection' is the new buzzword," the former senior 
intelligence official told me. He was referring to the Pentagon's 
position that clandestine activities that can be broadly classified 
as preparing the battlefield or protecting troops are military, not 
intelligence, operations, and are therefore not subject to 
congressional oversight. "The guys in the Joint Chiefs of Staff say 
there are a lot of uncertainties in Iran," he said. "We need to have 
more than what we had in Iraq. Now we have the green light to do 
everything we want."

The President's deep distrust of Ahmadinejad has strengthened his 
determination to confront Iran. This view has been reinforced by 
allegations that Ahmadinejad, who joined a special-forces brigade of 
the Revolutionary Guards in 1986, may have been involved in terrorist 
activities in the late eighties. (There are gaps in Ahmadinejad's 
official biography in this period.) Ahmadinejad has reportedly been 
connected to Imad Mughniyeh, a terrorist who has been implicated in 
the deadly bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks 
in Beirut, in 1983. Mughniyeh was then the security chief of 
Hezbollah; he remains on the F.B.I.'s list of most-wanted terrorists.
Robert Baer, who was a C.I.A. officer in the Middle East and 
elsewhere for two decades, told me that Ahmadinejad and his 
Revolutionary Guard colleagues in the Iranian government "are capable 
of making a bomb, hiding it, and launching it at Israel. They're 
apocalyptic Shiites. If you're sitting in Tel Aviv and you believe 
they've got nukes and missiles-you've got to take them out. These 
guys are nuts, and there's no reason to back off."
Under Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards have expanded their power 
base throughout the Iranian bureaucracy; by the end of January, they 
had replaced thousands of civil servants with their own members. One 
former senior United Nations official, who has extensive experience 
with Iran, depicted the turnover as "a white coup," with ominous 
implications for the West. "Professionals in the Foreign Ministry are 
out; others are waiting to be kicked out," he said. "We may be too 
late. These guys now believe that they are stronger than ever since 
the revolution." He said that, particularly in consideration of 
China's emergence as a superpower, Iran's attitude was "To hell with 
the West. You can do as much as you like."
Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is considered by 
many experts to be in a stronger position than Ahmadinejad. 
"Ahmadinejad is not in control," one European diplomat told me. 
"Power is diffuse in Iran. The Revolutionary Guards are among the key 
backers of the nuclear program, but, ultimately, I don't think they 
are in charge of it. The Supreme Leader has the casting vote on the 
nuclear program, and the Guards will not take action without his 
The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said that "allowing Iran to 
have the bomb is not on the table. We cannot have nukes being sent 
downstream to a terror network. It's just too dangerous." He added, 
"The whole internal debate is on which way to go"-in terms of 
stopping the Iranian program. It is possible, the adviser said, that 
Iran will unilaterally renounce its nuclear plans-and forestall the 
American action. "God may smile on us, but I don't think so. The 
bottom line is that Iran cannot become a nuclear-weapons state. The 
problem is that the Iranians realize that only by becoming a nuclear 
state can they defend themselves against the U.S. Something bad is 
going to happen."

While almost no one disputes Iran's nuclear ambitions, there is 
intense debate over how soon it could get the bomb, and what to do 
about that. Robert Gallucci, a former government expert on 
nonproliferation who is now the dean of the School of Foreign Service 
at Georgetown, told me, "Based on what I know, Iran could be eight to 
ten years away" from developing a deliverable nuclear weapon. 
Gallucci added, "If they had a covert nuclear program and we could 
prove it, and we could not stop it by negotiation, diplomacy, or the 
threat of sanctions, I'd be in favor of taking it out. But if you do 
it"-bomb Iran-"without being able to show there's a secret program, 
you're in trouble."
Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, told 
the Knesset last December that "Iran is one to two years away, at the 
latest, from having enriched uranium. From that point, the completion 
of their nuclear weapon is simply a technical matter." In a 
conversation with me, a senior Israeli intelligence official talked 
about what he said was Iran's duplicity: "There are two parallel 
nuclear programs" inside Iran-the program declared to the I.A.E.A. 
and a separate operation, run by the military and the Revolutionary 
Guards. Israeli officials have repeatedly made this argument, but 
Israel has not produced public evidence to support it. Richard 
Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State in Bush's first term, told 
me, "I think Iran has a secret nuclear-weapons program-I believe it, 
but I don't know it."
In recent months, the Pakistani government has given the U.S. new 
access to A. Q. Khan, the so-called father of the Pakistani atomic 
bomb. Khan, who is now living under house arrest in Islamabad, is 
accused of setting up a black market in nuclear materials; he made at 
least one clandestine visit to Tehran in the late nineteen-eighties. 
In the most recent interrogations, Khan has provided information on 
Iran's weapons design and its time line for building a bomb. "The 
picture is of 'unquestionable danger,' " the former senior 
intelligence official said. (The Pentagon adviser also confirmed that 
Khan has been "singing like a canary.") The concern, the former 
senior official said, is that "Khan has credibility problems. He is 
suggestible, and he's telling the neoconservatives what they want to 
hear"-or what might be useful to Pakistan's President, Pervez 
Musharraf, who is under pressure to assist Washington in the war on 
"I think Khan's leading us on," the former intelligence official 
said. "I don't know anybody who says, 'Here's the smoking gun.' But 
lights are beginning to blink. He's feeding us information on the 
time line, and targeting information is coming in from our own 
sources- sensors and the covert teams. The C.I.A., which was so 
burned by Iraqi W.M.D., is going to the Pentagon and the 
Vice-President's office saying, 'It's all new stuff.' People in the 
Administration are saying, 'We've got enough.' "
The Administration's case against Iran is compromised by its history 
of promoting false intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass 
destruction. In a recent essay on the Foreign Policy Web site, 
entitled "Fool Me Twice," Joseph Cirincione, the director for 
nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 
wrote, "The unfolding administration strategy appears to be an effort 
to repeat its successful campaign for the Iraq war." He noted several 
The vice president of the United States gives a major speech focused 
on the threat from an oil-rich nation in the Middle East. The U.S. 
Secretary of State tells Congress that the same nation is our most 
serious global challenge. The Secretary of Defense calls that nation 
the leading supporter of global terrorism.
Cirincione called some of the Administration's claims about Iran 
"questionable" or lacking in evidence. When I spoke to him, he asked, 
"What do we know? What is the threat? The question is: How urgent is 
all this?" The answer, he said, "is in the intelligence community and 
the I.A.E.A." (In August, the Washington Post reported that the most 
recent comprehensive National Intelligence Estimate predicted that 
Iran was a decade away from being a nuclear power.)
Last year, the Bush Administration briefed I.A.E.A. officials on what 
it said was new and alarming information about Iran's weapons program 
which had been retrieved from an Iranian's laptop. The new data 
included more than a thousand pages of technical drawings of weapons 
systems. The Washington Post reported that there were also designs 
for a small facility that could be used in the uranium-enrichment 
process. Leaks about the laptop became the focal point of stories in 
the Times and elsewhere. The stories were generally careful to note 
that the materials could have been fabricated, but also quoted senior 
American officials as saying that they appeared to be legitimate. The 
headline in the Times' account read, "RELYING ON COMPUTER, U.S. SEEKS 
I was told in interviews with American and European intelligence 
officials, however, that the laptop was more suspect and less 
revelatory than it had been depicted. The Iranian who owned the 
laptop had initially been recruited by German and American 
intelligence operatives, working together. The Americans eventually 
lost interest in him. The Germans kept on, but the Iranian was seized 
by the Iranian counter-intelligence force. It is not known where he 
is today. Some family members managed to leave Iran with his laptop 
and handed it over at a U.S. embassy, apparently in Europe. It was a 
classic "walk-in."
A European intelligence official said, "There was some hesitation on 
our side" about what the materials really proved, "and we are still 
not convinced." The drawings were not meticulous, as newspaper 
accounts suggested, "but had the character of sketches," the European 
official said. "It was not a slam-dunk smoking gun."

The threat of American military action has created dismay at the 
headquarters of the I.A.E.A., in Vienna. The agency's officials 
believe that Iran wants to be able to make a nuclear weapon, but 
"nobody has presented an inch of evidence of a parallel 
nuclear-weapons program in Iran," the high-ranking diplomat told me. 
The I.A.E.A.'s best estimate is that the Iranians are five years away 
from building a nuclear bomb. "But, if the United States does 
anything militarily, they will make the development of a bomb a 
matter of Iranian national pride," the diplomat said. "The whole 
issue is America's risk assessment of Iran's future intentions, and 
they don't trust the regime. Iran is a menace to American policy."
In Vienna, I was told of an exceedingly testy meeting earlier this 
year between Mohamed ElBaradei, the I.A.E.A.'s director-general, who 
won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, and Robert Joseph, the 
Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control. Joseph's message was 
blunt, one diplomat recalled: "We cannot have a single centrifuge 
spinning in Iran. Iran is a direct threat to the national security of 
the United States and our allies, and we will not tolerate it. We 
want you to give us an understanding that you will not say anything 
publicly that will undermine us. "
Joseph's heavy-handedness was unnecessary, the diplomat said, since 
the I.A.E.A. already had been inclined to take a hard stand against 
Iran. "All of the inspectors are angry at being misled by the 
Iranians, and some think the Iranian leadership are nutcases-one 
hundred per cent totally certified nuts," the diplomat said. He added 
that ElBaradei's overriding concern is that the Iranian leaders "want 
confrontation, just like the neocons on the other side"-in 
Washington. "At the end of the day, it will work only if the United 
States agrees to talk to the Iranians."
The central question-whether Iran will be able to proceed with its 
plans to enrich uranium-is now before the United Nations, with the 
Russians and the Chinese reluctant to impose sanctions on Tehran. A 
discouraged former I.A.E.A. official told me in late March that, at 
this point, "there's nothing the Iranians could do that would result 
in a positive outcome. American diplomacy does not allow for it. Even 
if they announce a stoppage of enrichment, nobody will believe them. 
It's a dead end."
Another diplomat in Vienna asked me, "Why would the West take the 
risk of going to war against that kind of target without giving it to 
the I.A.E.A. to verify? We're low-cost, and we can create a program 
that will force Iran to put its cards on the table." A Western 
Ambassador in Vienna expressed similar distress at the White House's 
dismissal of the I.A.E.A. He said, "If you don't believe that the 
I.A.E.A. can establish an inspection system-if you don't trust 
them-you can only bomb."

There is little sympathy for the I.A.E.A. in the Bush Administration 
or among its European allies. "We're quite frustrated with the 
director-general," the European diplomat told me. "His basic approach 
has been to describe this as a dispute between two sides with equal 
weight. It's not. We're the good guys! ElBaradei has been pushing the 
idea of letting Iran have a small nuclear-enrichment program, which 
is ludicrous. It's not his job to push ideas that pose a serious 
proliferation risk."
The Europeans are rattled, however, by their growing perception that 
President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney believe a bombing 
campaign will be needed, and that their real goal is regime change. 
"Everyone is on the same page about the Iranian bomb, but the United 
States wants regime change," a European diplomatic adviser told me. 
He added, "The Europeans have a role to play as long as they don't 
have to choose between going along with the Russians and the Chinese 
or going along with Washington on something they don't want. Their 
policy is to keep the Americans engaged in something the Europeans 
can live with. It may be untenable."
"The Brits think this is a very bad idea," Flynt Leverett, a former 
National Security Council staff member who is now a senior fellow at 
the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, told me, "but they're 
really worried we're going to do it." The European diplomatic adviser 
acknowledged that the British Foreign Office was aware of war 
planning in Washington but that, "short of a smoking gun, it's going 
to be very difficult to line up the Europeans on Iran." He said that 
the British "are jumpy about the Americans going full bore on the 
Iranians, with no compromise."
The European diplomat said that he was skeptical that Iran, given its 
record, had admitted to everything it was doing, but "to the best of 
our knowledge the Iranian capability is not at the point where they 
could successfully run centrifuges" to enrich uranium in quantity. 
One reason for pursuing diplomacy was, he said, Iran's essential 
pragmatism. "The regime acts in its best interests," he said. Iran's 
leaders "take a hard-line approach on the nuclear issue and they want 
to call the American bluff," believing that "the tougher they are the 
more likely the West will fold." But, he said, "From what we've seen 
with Iran, they will appear superconfident until the moment they back 
The diplomat went on, "You never reward bad behavior, and this is not 
the time to offer concessions. We need to find ways to impose 
sufficient costs to bring the regime to its senses. It's going to be 
a close call, but I think if there is unity in opposition and the 
price imposed"-in sanctions-"is sufficient, they may back down. It's 
too early to give up on the U.N. route." He added, "If the diplomatic 
process doesn't work, there is no military 'solution.' There may be a 
military option, but the impact could be catastrophic."
Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, was George Bush's most 
dependable ally in the year leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 
But he and his party have been racked by a series of financial 
scandals, and his popularity is at a low point. Jack Straw, the 
Foreign Secretary, said last year that military action against Iran 
was "inconceivable." Blair has been more circumspect, saying publicly 
that one should never take options off the table.
Other European officials expressed similar skepticism about the value 
of an American bombing campaign. "The Iranian economy is in bad 
shape, and Ahmadinejad is in bad shape politically," the European 
intelligence official told me. "He will benefit politically from 
American bombing. You can do it, but the results will be worse." An 
American attack, he said, would alienate ordinary Iranians, including 
those who might be sympathetic to the U.S. "Iran is no longer living 
in the Stone Age, and the young people there have access to U.S. 
movies and books, and they love it," he said. "If there was a charm 
offensive with Iran, the mullahs would be in trouble in the long run."
Another European official told me that he was aware that many in 
Washington wanted action. "It's always the same guys," he said, with 
a resigned shrug. "There is a belief that diplomacy is doomed to 
fail. The timetable is short."
A key ally with an important voice in the debate is Israel, whose 
leadership has warned for years that it viewed any attempt by Iran to 
begin enriching uranium as a point of no return. I was told by 
several officials that the White House's interest in preventing an 
Israeli attack on a Muslim country, which would provoke a backlash 
across the region, was a factor in its decision to begin the current 
operational planning. In a speech in Cleveland on March 20th, 
President Bush depicted Ahmadinejad's hostility toward Israel as a 
"serious threat. It's a threat to world peace." He added, "I made it 
clear, I'll make it clear again, that we will use military might to 
protect our ally Israel."

Any American bombing attack, Richard Armitage told me, would have to 
consider the following questions: "What will happen in the other 
Islamic countries? What ability does Iran have to reach us and touch 
us globally-that is, terrorism? Will Syria and Lebanon up the 
pressure on Israel? What does the attack do to our already diminished 
international standing? And what does this mean for Russia, China, 
and the U.N. Security Council?"
Iran, which now produces nearly four million barrels of oil a day, 
would not have to cut off production to disrupt the world's oil 
markets. It could blockade or mine the Strait of Hormuz, the 
thirty-four-mile-wide passage through which Middle Eastern oil 
reaches the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, the recently retired defense 
official dismissed the strategic consequences of such actions. He 
told me that the U.S. Navy could keep shipping open by conducting 
salvage missions and putting mine- sweepers to work. "It's impossible 
to block passage," he said. The government consultant with ties to 
the Pentagon also said he believed that the oil problem could be 
managed, pointing out that the U.S. has enough in its strategic 
reserves to keep America running for sixty days. However, those in 
the oil business I spoke to were less optimistic; one industry expert 
estimated that the price per barrel would immediately spike, to 
anywhere from ninety to a hundred dollars per barrel, and could go 
higher, depending on the duration and scope of the conflict.
Michel Samaha, a veteran Lebanese Christian politician and former 
cabinet minister in Beirut, told me that the Iranian retaliation 
might be focussed on exposed oil and gas fields in Saudi Arabia, 
Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. "They would be at risk," 
he said, "and this could begin the real jihad of Iran versus the 
West. You will have a messy world."
Iran could also initiate a wave of terror attacks in Iraq and 
elsewhere, with the help of Hezbollah. On April 2nd, the Washington 
Post reported that the planning to counter such attacks "is consuming 
a lot of time" at U.S. intelligence agencies. "The best terror 
network in the world has remained neutral in the terror war for the 
past several years," the Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said 
of Hezbollah. "This will mobilize them and put us up against the 
group that drove Israel out of southern Lebanon. If we move against 
Iran, Hezbollah will not sit on the sidelines. Unless the Israelis 
take them out, they will mobilize against us." (When I asked the 
government consultant about that possibility, he said that, if 
Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel, "Israel and the new 
Lebanese government will finish them off.")
The adviser went on, "If we go, the southern half of Iraq will light 
up like a candle." The American, British, and other coalition forces 
in Iraq would be at greater risk of attack from Iranian troops or 
from Shiite militias operating on instructions from Iran. (Iran, 
which is predominantly Shiite, has close ties to the leading Shiite 
parties in Iraq.) A retired four-star general told me that, despite 
the eight thousand British troops in the region, "the Iranians could 
take Basra with ten mullahs and one sound truck."
"If you attack," the high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna, 
"Ahmadinejad will be the new Saddam Hussein of the Arab world, but 
with more credibility and more power. You must bite the bullet and 
sit down with the Iranians."
The diplomat went on, "There are people in Washington who would be 
unhappy if we found a solution. They are still banking on isolation 
and regime change. This is wishful thinking." He added, "The window 
of opportunity is now."

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