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 Bushâ€™s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change. Iranâ€™s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has challenged the reality of the Holocaust and said that Israel must be â€œwiped off the map.â€ Bush and others in the White House view him as a potential Adolf Hitler, a former senior intelligence official said. â€œThatâ€™s the name theyâ€™re using. They say, â€˜Will Iran get a strategic weapon and threaten another world war?â€™ â€
A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was â€œabsolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bombâ€ if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do â€œwhat no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,â€ and â€œthat saving Iran is going to be his legacy.â€
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 â€œa sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government.â€ He added, â€œI was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, â€˜What are they smoking?â€™ â€
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. â€œSo long as Iran has an Islamic republic, it will have a nuclear-weapons program, at least clandestinely,â€ Clawson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 2nd. â€œThe key issue, therefore, is: How long will the present Iranian regime last?â€
When I spoke to Clawson, he emphasized that â€œthis Administration is putting a lot of effort into diplomacy.â€ However, he added, Iran had no choice other than to accede to Americaâ€™s demands or face a military attack. Clawson said that he fears that Ahmadinejad â€œsees the West as wimps and thinks we will eventually cave in. We have to be ready to deal with Iran if the crisis escalates.â€ Clawson said that he would prefer to rely on sabotage and other clandestine activities, such as â€œindustrial accidents.â€ But, he said, it would be prudent to prepare for a wider war, â€œgiven the way the Iranians are acting. This is not like planning to invade Quebec.â€
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 â€œcoercionâ€ aimed at Iran. â€œYou have to be ready to go, and weâ€™ll see how they respond,â€ the officer said. â€œYou have to really show a threat in order to get Ahmadinejad to back down.â€ He added, â€œPeople think Bush has been focussed on Saddam Hussein since 9/11,â€ but, â€œin my view, if you had to name one nation that was his focus all the way along, it was Iran.â€ (In response to detailed requests for comment, the White House said that it would not comment on military planning but added, â€œAs the President has indicated, we are pursuing a diplomatic solutionâ€; the Defense Department also said that Iran was being dealt with through â€œdiplomatic channelsâ€ but wouldnâ€™t elaborate on that; the C.I.A. said that there were â€œinaccuraciesâ€ in this account but would not specify them.)
â€œThis is much more than a nuclear issue,â€ one high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna. â€œThatâ€™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 years.â€
A senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror expressed a similar view. â€œThis White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war,â€ he said. The danger, he said, was that â€œit also reinforces the belief inside Iran that the only way to defend the country is to have a nuclear capability.â€ A military conflict that destabilized the region could also increase the risk of terror: â€œHezbollah comes into play,â€ the adviser said, referring to the terror group that is considered one of the worldâ€™s most successful, and which is now a Lebanese political party with strong ties to Iran. â€œAnd here comes Al Qaeda.â€
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 â€œno formal briefings,â€ because â€œtheyâ€™re reluctant to brief the minority. Theyâ€™re doing the Senate, somewhat selectively.â€
The House member said that no one in the meetings â€œis really objectingâ€ to the talk of war. â€œThe people theyâ€™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?â€ (Iran is building facilities underground.) â€œThereâ€™s no pressure from Congressâ€ not to take military action, the House member added. â€œThe only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it.â€ Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, â€œThe most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.â€
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 missionsâ€”rapid ascending maneuvers known as â€œover the shoulderâ€ bombingâ€”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 Iranâ€™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 donâ€™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. . . . Weâ€™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 militaryâ€™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 Iranâ€™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 Iranâ€™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 â€œcontinuity of governmentâ€â€”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. â€œThe â€˜tellâ€™ â€â€”the giveawayâ€”â€œwas the ventilator shafts, some of which were disguised,â€ the former senior intelligence official told me. At the time, he said, it was determined that â€œonly nukesâ€ could destroy the bunker. He added that some American intelligence analysts believe that the Russians helped the Iranians design their underground facility. â€œWe see a similarity of design,â€ 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 â€œgo in there and do enough damage to slow down the nuclear infrastructureâ€”itâ€™s feasible.â€ The former defense official said, â€œThe Iranians donâ€™t have friends, and we can tell them that, if necessary, weâ€™ll keep knocking back their infrastructure. The United States should act like weâ€™re ready to go.â€ He added, â€œWe donâ€™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 itâ€™s difficult and very dangerousâ€”put bad stuff in ventilator shafts and put them to sleep.â€
But those who are familiar with the Soviet bunker, according to the former senior intelligence official, â€œsay â€˜No way.â€™ Youâ€™ve got to know whatâ€™s underneathâ€”to know which ventilator feeds people, or diesel generators, or which are false. And thereâ€™s a lot that we donâ€™t know.â€ 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. â€œEvery other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,â€ the former senior intelligence official said. â€œ â€˜Decisiveâ€™ is the key word of the Air Forceâ€™s planning. Itâ€™s a tough decision. But we made it in Japan.â€
He went on, â€œNuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and falloutâ€”weâ€™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 donâ€™t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it outâ€â€”remove the nuclear optionâ€”â€œtheyâ€™re shouted down.â€
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 Iranâ€”without success, the former intelligence official said. â€œThe White House said, â€˜Why are you challenging this? The option came from you.â€™ â€
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 â€œa juggernaut that has to be stopped.â€ He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. â€œThere are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries,â€ the adviser told me. â€œThis goes to high levels.â€ 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. â€œThe internal debate on this has hardened in recent weeks,â€ the adviser said. â€œAnd, if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen.â€
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. â€œTheyâ€™re telling the Pentagon that we can build the B61 with more blast and less radiation,â€ he said.
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 panelâ€™s report recommended treating tactical nuclear weapons as an essential part of the U.S. arsenal and noted their suitability â€œfor those occasions when the certain and prompt destruction of high priority targets is essential and beyond the promise of conventional weapons.â€ 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. â€œThe 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,â€ he said. He warned, as did many others, that bombing Iran could provoke â€œa chain reactionâ€ of attacks on American facilities and citizens throughout the world: â€œWhat will 1.2 billion Muslims think the day we attack Iran?â€
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 â€œIran is a much tougher targetâ€ than Iraq. But, he added, â€œIf youâ€™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.â€
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 â€œninety-nine per cent of them have nothing to do with proliferation. There are people who believe itâ€™s the way to operateâ€â€”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 â€œare studying the terrain, and giving away walking-around money to ethnic tribes, and recruiting scouts from local tribes and shepherds,â€ the consultant said. One goal is to get â€œeyes on the groundâ€â€”quoting a line from â€œOthello,â€ he said, â€œGive me the ocular proof.â€ The broader aim, the consultant said, is to â€œencourage ethnic tensionsâ€ and undermine the regime.
The new mission for the combat troops is a product of Defense Secretary Rumsfeldâ€™s long-standing interest in expanding the role of the military in covert operations, which was made official policy in the Pentagonâ€™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 Congress.
â€œ â€˜Force protectionâ€™ is the new buzzword,â€ the former senior intelligence official told me. He was referring to the Pentagonâ€™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. â€œThe guys in the Joint Chiefs of Staff say there are a lot of uncertainties in Iran,â€ he said. â€œWe need to have more than what we had in Iraq. Now we have the green light to do everything we want.â€
The Presidentâ€™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 Ahmadinejadâ€™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.â€™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 â€œare capable of making a bomb, hiding it, and launching it at Israel. Theyâ€™re apocalyptic Shiites. If youâ€™re sitting in Tel Aviv and you believe theyâ€™ve got nukes and missilesâ€”youâ€™ve got to take them out. These guys are nuts, and thereâ€™s no reason to back off.â€
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 â€œa white coup,â€ with ominous implications for the West. â€œProfessionals in the Foreign Ministry are out; others are waiting to be kicked out,â€ he said. â€œWe may be too late. These guys now believe that they are stronger than ever since the revolution.â€ He said that, particularly in consideration of Chinaâ€™s emergence as a superpower, Iranâ€™s attitude was â€œTo hell with the West. You can do as much as you like.â€
Iranâ€™s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is considered by many experts to be in a stronger position than Ahmadinejad. â€œAhmadinejad is not in control,â€ one European diplomat told me. â€œPower is diffuse in Iran. The Revolutionary Guards are among the key backers of the nuclear program, but, ultimately, I donâ€™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 approval.â€
The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said that â€œallowing Iran to have the bomb is not on the table. We cannot have nukes being sent downstream to a terror network. Itâ€™s just too dangerous.â€ He added, â€œThe whole internal debate is on which way to goâ€â€”in terms of stopping the Iranian program. It is possible, the adviser said, that Iran will unilaterally renounce its nuclear plansâ€”and forestall the American action. â€œGod may smile on us, but I donâ€™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.â€
While almost no one disputes Iranâ€™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, â€œBased on what I know, Iran could be eight to ten years awayâ€ from developing a deliverable nuclear weapon. Gallucci added, â€œIf 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, Iâ€™d be in favor of taking it out. But if you do itâ€â€”bomb Iranâ€”â€œwithout being able to show thereâ€™s a secret program, youâ€™re in trouble.â€
Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, Israelâ€™s intelligence agency, told the Knesset last December that â€œIran 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.â€ In a conversation with me, a senior Israeli intelligence official talked about what he said was Iranâ€™s duplicity: â€œThere are two parallel nuclear programsâ€ inside Iranâ€”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 Bushâ€™s first term, told me, â€œI think Iran has a secret nuclear-weapons programâ€”I believe it, but I donâ€™t know it.â€
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 Iranâ€™s weapons design and its time line for building a bomb. â€œThe picture is of â€˜unquestionable danger,â€™ â€ the former senior intelligence official said. (The Pentagon adviser also confirmed that Khan has been â€œsinging like a canary.â€) The concern, the former senior official said, is that â€œKhan has credibility problems. He is suggestible, and heâ€™s telling the neoconservatives what they want to hearâ€â€”or what might be useful to Pakistanâ€™s President, Pervez Musharraf, who is under pressure to assist Washington in the war on terror.
â€œI think Khanâ€™s leading us on,â€ the former intelligence official said. â€œI donâ€™t know anybody who says, â€˜Hereâ€™s the smoking gun.â€™ But lights are beginning to blink. Heâ€™s feeding us information on the time line, and targeting information is coming in from our own sourcesâ€” 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-Presidentâ€™s office saying, â€˜Itâ€™s all new stuff.â€™ People in the Administration are saying, â€˜Weâ€™ve got enough.â€™ â€
The Administrationâ€™s case against Iran is compromised by its history of promoting false intelligence on Iraqâ€™s weapons of mass destruction. In a recent essay on the Foreign Policy Web site, entitled â€œFool Me Twice,â€ Joseph Cirincione, the director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote, â€œThe unfolding administration strategy appears to be an effort to repeat its successful campaign for the Iraq war.â€ He noted several parallels:
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 Administrationâ€™s claims about Iran â€œquestionableâ€ or lacking in evidence. When I spoke to him, he asked, â€œWhat do we know? What is the threat? The question is: How urgent is all this?â€ The answer, he said, â€œis in the intelligence community and the I.A.E.A.â€ (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 Iranâ€™s weapons program which had been retrieved from an Iranianâ€™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 Timesâ€™ account read, â€œRELYING ON COMPUTER, U.S. SEEKS TO PROVE IRANâ€™S NUCLEAR AIMS.â€
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 â€œwalk-in.â€
A European intelligence official said, â€œThere was some hesitation on our sideâ€ about what the materials really proved, â€œand we are still not convinced.â€ The drawings were not meticulous, as newspaper accounts suggested, â€œbut had the character of sketches,â€ the European official said. â€œIt was not a slam-dunk smoking gun.â€
The threat of American military action has created dismay at the headquarters of the I.A.E.A., in Vienna. The agencyâ€™s officials believe that Iran wants to be able to make a nuclear weapon, but â€œnobody has presented an inch of evidence of a parallel nuclear-weapons program in Iran,â€ the high-ranking diplomat told me. The I.A.E.A.â€™s best estimate is that the Iranians are five years away from building a nuclear bomb. â€œBut, if the United States does anything militarily, they will make the development of a bomb a matter of Iranian national pride,â€ the diplomat said. â€œThe whole issue is Americaâ€™s risk assessment of Iranâ€™s future intentions, and they donâ€™t trust the regime. Iran is a menace to American policy.â€
In Vienna, I was told of an exceedingly testy meeting earlier this year between Mohamed ElBaradei, the I.A.E.A.â€™s director-general, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, and Robert Joseph, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control. Josephâ€™s message was blunt, one diplomat recalled: â€œWe 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. â€
Josephâ€™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. â€œAll of the inspectors are angry at being misled by the Iranians, and some think the Iranian leadership are nutcasesâ€”one hundred per cent totally certified nuts,â€ the diplomat said. He added that ElBaradeiâ€™s overriding concern is that the Iranian leaders â€œwant confrontation, just like the neocons on the other sideâ€â€”in Washington. â€œAt the end of the day, it will work only if the United States agrees to talk to the Iranians.â€
The central questionâ€”whether Iran will be able to proceed with its plans to enrich uraniumâ€”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, â€œthereâ€™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. Itâ€™s a dead end.â€
Another diplomat in Vienna asked me, â€œWhy 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? Weâ€™re low-cost, and we can create a program that will force Iran to put its cards on the table.â€ A Western Ambassador in Vienna expressed similar distress at the White Houseâ€™s dismissal of the I.A.E.A. He said, â€œIf you donâ€™t believe that the I.A.E.A. can establish an inspection systemâ€”if you donâ€™t trust themâ€”you can only bomb.â€
There is little sympathy for the I.A.E.A. in the Bush Administration or among its European allies. â€œWeâ€™re quite frustrated with the director-general,â€ the European diplomat told me. â€œHis basic approach has been to describe this as a dispute between two sides with equal weight. Itâ€™s not. Weâ€™re the good guys! ElBaradei has been pushing the idea of letting Iran have a small nuclear-enrichment program, which is ludicrous. Itâ€™s not his job to push ideas that pose a serious proliferation risk.â€
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. â€œEveryone is on the same page about the Iranian bomb, but the United States wants regime change,â€ a European diplomatic adviser told me. He added, â€œThe Europeans have a role to play as long as they donâ€™t have to choose between going along with the Russians and the Chinese or going along with Washington on something they donâ€™t want. Their policy is to keep the Americans engaged in something the Europeans can live with. It may be untenable.â€
â€œThe Brits think this is a very bad idea,â€ Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staff member who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institutionâ€™s Saban Center, told me, â€œbut theyâ€™re really worried weâ€™re going to do it.â€ The European diplomatic adviser acknowledged that the British Foreign Office was aware of war planning in Washington but that, â€œshort of a smoking gun, itâ€™s going to be very difficult to line up the Europeans on Iran.â€ He said that the British â€œare jumpy about the Americans going full bore on the Iranians, with no compromise.â€
The European diplomat said that he was skeptical that Iran, given its record, had admitted to everything it was doing, but â€œto the best of our knowledge the Iranian capability is not at the point where they could successfully run centrifugesâ€ to enrich uranium in quantity. One reason for pursuing diplomacy was, he said, Iranâ€™s essential pragmatism. â€œThe regime acts in its best interests,â€ he said. Iranâ€™s leaders â€œtake a hard-line approach on the nuclear issue and they want to call the American bluff,â€ believing that â€œthe tougher they are the more likely the West will fold.â€ But, he said, â€œFrom what weâ€™ve seen with Iran, they will appear superconfident until the moment they back off.â€
The diplomat went on, â€œYou 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. Itâ€™s going to be a close call, but I think if there is unity in opposition and the price imposedâ€â€”in sanctionsâ€”â€œis sufficient, they may back down. Itâ€™s too early to give up on the U.N. route.â€ He added, â€œIf the diplomatic process doesnâ€™t work, there is no military â€˜solution.â€™ There may be a military option, but the impact could be catastrophic.â€
Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, was George Bushâ€™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 â€œinconceivable.â€ 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. â€œThe Iranian economy is in bad shape, and Ahmadinejad is in bad shape politically,â€ the European intelligence official told me. â€œHe will benefit politically from American bombing. You can do it, but the results will be worse.â€ An American attack, he said, would alienate ordinary Iranians, including those who might be sympathetic to the U.S. â€œIran 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,â€ he said. â€œIf there was a charm offensive with Iran, the mullahs would be in trouble in the long run.â€
Another European official told me that he was aware that many in Washington wanted action. â€œItâ€™s always the same guys,â€ he said, with a resigned shrug. â€œThere is a belief that diplomacy is doomed to fail. The timetable is short.â€
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 Houseâ€™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 Ahmadinejadâ€™s hostility toward Israel as a â€œserious threat. Itâ€™s a threat to world peace.â€ He added, â€œI made it clear, Iâ€™ll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally Israel.â€
Any American bombing attack, Richard Armitage told me, would have to consider the following questions: â€œWhat will happen in the other Islamic countries? What ability does Iran have to reach us and touch us globallyâ€”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?â€
Iran, which now produces nearly four million barrels of oil a day, would not have to cut off production to disrupt the worldâ€™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. â€œItâ€™s impossible to block passage,â€ 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. â€œThey would be at risk,â€ he said, â€œand this could begin the real jihad of Iran versus the West. You will have a messy world.â€
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 â€œis consuming a lot of timeâ€ at U.S. intelligence agencies. â€œThe best terror network in the world has remained neutral in the terror war for the past several years,â€ the Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said of Hezbollah. â€œThis 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.â€ (When I asked the government consultant about that possibility, he said that, if Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel, â€œIsrael and the new Lebanese government will finish them off.â€)
The adviser went on, â€œIf we go, the southern half of Iraq will light up like a candle.â€ 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, â€œthe Iranians could take Basra with ten mullahs and one sound truck.â€
â€œIf you attack,â€ the high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna, â€œAhmadinejad 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.â€
The diplomat went on, â€œThere 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.â€ He added, â€œThe window of opportunity is now.â€