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U.S. Is Studying Military Strike Options on Iran

Bush has also been privately consulting with key senators about options on Iran as part of a broader goal of regime change, according to an account by Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker magazine.

The U.S. government has taken some preliminary steps that go beyond planning. The Washington Post has reported that the military has been secretly flying surveillance drones over Iran since 2004 using radar, video, still photography and air filters to detect traces of nuclear activity not accessible to satellites. Hersh reported that U.S. combat troops have been ordered to enter Iran covertly to collect targeting data, but sources have not confirmed that to The Post.

The British government has launched its own planning for a potential U.S. strike, studying security arrangements for its embassy and consular offices, for British citizens and corporate interests in Iran and for ships in the region and British troops in Iraq. British officials indicate their government is unlikely to participate directly in any attacks.

Israel is preparing, as well. The government recently leaked a contingency plan for attacking on its own if the United States does not, a plan involving airstrikes, commando teams, possibly missiles and even explosives-carrying dogs. Israel, which bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 to prevent it from being used to develop weapons, has built a replica of Natanz, according to Israeli media, but U.S. strategists do not believe Israel has the capacity to accomplish the mission without nuclear weapons.

Iran appears to be taking the threat seriously. The government, which maintains its nuclear activity is only for peaceful, civilian uses, has launched a program to reinforce key sites, such as Natanz and Isfahan, by building concrete ceilings, tunneling into mountains and camouflaging facilities. Iran lately has tested several missiles in a show of strength.

Israel points to those missiles to press their case in Washington. Israeli officials traveled here recently to convey more urgency about Iran. Although U.S. intelligence agencies estimate Iran is about a decade away from having a nuclear bomb, Israelis believe a critical breakthrough could occur within months. They told U.S. officials that Iran is beginning to test a more elaborate cascade of centrifuges, indicating that it is further along than previously believed.

"What the Israelis are saying is this year -- unless they are pressured into abandoning the program -- would be the year they will master the engineering problem," a U.S. official said. "That would be a turning point, but it wouldn't mean they would have a bomb."

But various specialists and some military officials are resisting strikes.

"The Pentagon is arguing forcefully against it because it is so constrained" in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist. A former defense official who stays in touch with colleagues added, "I don't think anybody's prepared to use the military option at this point."

As the administration weighs these issues, two main options are under consideration, according to one person with contacts among Air Force planners. The first would be a quick and limited strike against nuclear-related facilities accompanied by a threat to resume bombing if Iran responds with terrorist attacks in Iraq or elsewhere. The second calls for a more ambitious campaign of bombing and cruise missiles leveling targets well beyond nuclear facilities, such as Iranian intelligence headquarters, the Revolutionary Guard and some in the government.

Any extended attack would require U.S. forces to cripple Iran's air defense system and air force, prepare defenses for U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and move Navy ships to the Persian Gulf to protect shipping. U.S. forces could launch warplanes from aircraft carriers, from the Diego Garcia island base in the Indian Ocean and, in the case of stealth bombers, from the United States. But if generals want land-based aircraft in the region, they face the uphill task of trying to persuade Turkey to allow use of the U.S. air base at Incirlik.

Planners also are debating whether launching attacks from Iraq or using Iraqi airspace would exacerbate the political cost in the Muslim world, which would see it as proof that the United States invaded Iraq to make it a base for military conquest of the region.


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