The administration’s evolving strategy includes expanded use of remote-controlled stealth aircraft, such as the one that came down in eastern Iran last week, as well as other covert efforts targeting Iran’s nuclear program, according to U.S. government officials and Western diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-gathering efforts.
The U.S. officials said the stealth drone was part of a fleet of secret aircraft that the CIA has used for several years in an escalating espionage campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities.
As those efforts have surged, the White House also has boosted sales of bunker-busting munitions, fighter jets and other military hardware to Persian Gulf states as well as to Israel, building on long-running efforts to boost the military capabilities of key U.S. allies in the region, the officials say.
Underscoring the implied military threat, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta last week cited contingency plans for “a wide range of military options” to be used against Iran if necessary. He expressed the administration’s “determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” a phrase that suggested an intention to stop the Islamic republic from obtaining the technological building blocks of nuclear arms. Previous White House statements have vowed only to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear bombs.
The sharpened tone comes against a backdrop of increased diplomatic efforts to ratchet up the economic pain for the Iranian regime, as Washington enlists European and Asian allies in coordinated efforts to choke Iran’s economy.
But while endorsing the increased use of sanctions, U.S. officials also are growing increasingly aware of the limits of such measures. A congressional study released this week suggested that Iran has managed to limit the damage to its economy from international sanctions — in part because of immense profits gained from near-record oil prices in recent years. And the study warns that harsher sanctions targeting Iran’s petroleum and banking industries could drive oil prices still higher.
“The easy stuff has been done already,” said a senior administration official involved in strategy toward Iran. “The choices now are much harder.”
The more-robust measures stand in contrast with the administration’s early optimism that it could draw Iran’s ruling clerics into negotiations on curbing their country’s nuclear program. Although insisting that the door remains open to talks, administration officials see little evidence that top Iranian officials are interested in engaging, or capable of doing so.