The new bombing concept has provoked controversy among Pentagon planners and
outside experts. Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who
has taught at the Air Force's School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, told
me, "We always have a few new toys, new gimmicks, and rarely do these new
tricks lead to a phenomenal breakthrough. The dilemma is that Natanz is a
very large underground area, and even if the roof came down we won't be able
to get a good estimate of the bomb damage without people on the ground. We
don't even know where it goes underground, and we won't have much confidence
in assessing what we've actually done. Absent capturing an Iranian nuclear
scientist and documents, it's impossible to set back the program for sure."
One complicating aspect of the multiple-hit tactic, the Pentagon consultant
told me, is "the liquefaction problem" - the fact that the soil would lose
its consistency owing to the enormous heat generated by the impact of the
first bomb. "It will be like bombing water, with its currents and eddies.
The bombs would likely be diverted." Intelligence has also shown that for
the past two years the Iranians have been shifting their most sensitive
nuclear-related materials and production facilities, moving some into urban
areas, in anticipation of a bombing raid.
"The Air Force is hawking it to the other services," the former senior
intelligence official said. "They're all excited by it, but they're being
terribly criticized for it." The main problem, he said, is that the other
services do not believe the tactic will work. "The Navy says, 'It's not our
plan.' The Marines are against it - they know they're going to be the guys
on the ground if things go south."
"It's the bomber mentality," the Pentagon consultant said. "The Air Force is
saying, 'We've got it covered, we can hit all the distributed targets.' "
The Air Force arsenal includes a cluster bomb that can deploy scores of
small bomblets with individual guidance systems to home in on specific
targets. The weapons were deployed in Kosovo and during the early stages of
the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Air Force is claiming that the same
techniques can be used with larger bombs, allowing them to be targeted from
twenty-five thousand feet against a multitude of widely dispersed targets.
"The Chiefs all know that 'shock and awe' is dead on arrival," the Pentagon
consultant said. "All except the Air Force."
"Rumsfeld and Cheney are the pushers on this - they don't want to repeat the
mistake of doing too little," the government consultant with ties to
Pentagon civilians told me. "The lesson they took from Iraq is that there
should have been more troops on the ground" - an impossibility in Iran,
because of the overextension of American forces in Iraq - "so the air war in
Iran will be one of overwhelming force."
Many of the Bush Administration's supporters view the abrupt change in
negotiating policy as a deft move that won public plaudits and obscured the
fact that Washington had no other good options. "The United States has done
what its international partners have asked it to do," said Patrick Clawson,
who is an expert on Iran and the deputy director for research at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think tank. "The
ball is now in their court - for both the Iranians and the Europeans."
Bush's goal, Clawson said, was to assuage his allies, as well as Russia and
China, whose votes, or abstentions, in the United Nations would be needed if
the talks broke down and the U.S. decided to seek Security Council sanctions
or a U.N. resolution that allowed for the use of force against Iran.
"If Iran refuses to re-start negotiations, it will also be difficult for
Russia and China to reject a U.N. call for International Atomic Energy
Agency inspections," Clawson said. "And the longer we go without accelerated
I.A.E.A. access, the more important the issue of Iran's hidden facilities
will become." The drawback to the new American position, Clawson added, was
that "the Iranians might take Bush's agreeing to join the talks as a sign
that their hard line has worked."
Clawson acknowledged that intelligence on Iran's nuclear-weapons progress
was limited. "There was a time when we had reasonable confidence in what we
knew," he said. "We could say, 'There's less time than we think,' or, 'It's
going more slowly.' Take your choice. Lack of information is a problem, but
we know they've made rapid progress with their centrifuges." (The most
recent American intelligence estimate is that Iran could build a warhead
sometime between 2010 and 2015.)
Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council aide for the Bush
Administration, told me, "The only reason Bush and Cheney relented about
talking to Iran was because they were within weeks of a diplomatic meltdown
in the United Nations. Russia and China were going to stiff us" - that is,
prevent the passage of a U.N. resolution. Leverett, a project director at
the New America Foundation, added that the White House's proposal, despite
offering trade and economic incentives for Iran, has not "resolved any of
the fundamental contradictions of U.S. policy." The precondition for the
talks, he said - an open-ended halt to all Iranian enrichment activity -
"amounts to the President wanting a guarantee that they'll surrender before
he talks to them. Iran cannot accept long-term constraints on its fuel-cycle
activity as part of a settlement without a security guarantee" - for
example, some form of mutual non-aggression pact with the United States.
Leverett told me that, without a change in U.S. policy, the balance of power
in the negotiations will shift to Russia. "Russia sees Iran as a beachhead
against American interests in the Middle East, and they're playing a very
sophisticated game," he said. "Russia is quite comfortable with Iran having
nuclear fuel cycles that would be monitored, and they'll support the Iranian
position" - in part, because it gives them the opportunity to sell billions
of dollars' worth of nuclear fuel and materials to Tehran. "They believe
they can manage their long- and short-term interests with Iran, and still
manage the security interests," Leverett said. China, which, like Russia,
has veto power on the Security Council, was motivated in part by its growing
need for oil, he said. "They don't want punitive measures, such as
sanctions, on energy producers, and they don't want to see the U.S. take a
unilateral stance on a state that matters to them." But, he said, "they're
happy to let Russia take the lead in this." (China, a major purchaser of
Iranian oil, is negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal with Iran for the
purchase of liquefied natural gas over a period of twenty-five years.) As
for the Bush Administration, he added, "unless there's a shift, it's only a
question of when its policy falls apart."
It's not clear whether the Administration will be able to keep the Europeans
in accord with American policy if the talks break down. Morton Abramowitz, a
former head of State Department intelligence, who was one of the founders of
the International Crisis Group, said, "The world is different than it was
three years ago, and while the Europeans want good relations with us, they
will not go to war with Iran unless they know that an exhaustive negotiating
effort was made by Bush. There's just too much involved, like the price of
oil. There will be great pressure put on the Europeans, but I don't think
they'll roll over and support a war."
The Europeans, like the generals at the Pentagon, are concerned about the
quality of intelligence. A senior European intelligence official said that
while "there was every reason to assume" that the Iranians were working on a
bomb, there wasn't enough evidence to exclude the possibility that they were
bluffing, and hadn't moved beyond a civilian research program. The
intelligence official was not optimistic about the current negotiations.
"It's a mess, and I don't see any possibility, at the moment, of solving the
problem," he said. "The only thing to do is contain it. The question is,
What is the redline? Is it when you master the nuclear fuel cycle? Or is it
just about building a bomb?" Every country had a different criterion, he
said. One worry he had was that, in addition to its security concerns, the
Bush Administration was driven by its interest in "democratizing" the
region. "The United States is on a mission," he said.
A European diplomat told me that his government would be willing to discuss
Iran's security concerns - a dialogue he said Iran offered Washington three
years ago. The diplomat added that "no one wants to be faced with the
alternative if the negotiations don't succeed: either accept the bomb or
bomb them. That's why our goal is to keep the pressure on, and see what
Iran's answer will be."
A second European diplomat, speaking of the Iranians, said, "Their tactic is
going to be to stall and appear reasonable - to say, 'Yes, but . . .' We
know what's going on, and the timeline we're under. The Iranians have
repeatedly been in violation of I.A.E.A. safeguards and have given us years
of coverup and deception. The international community does not want them to
have a bomb, and if we let them continue to enrich that's throwing in the
towel - giving up before we talk." The diplomat went on, "It would be a
mistake to predict an inevitable failure of our strategy. Iran is a regime
that is primarily concerned with its own survival, and if its existence is
threatened it would do whatever it needed to do - including backing down."
The Iranian regime's calculations about its survival also depend on internal
political factors. The nuclear program is popular with the Iranian people,
including those - the young and the secular - who are most hostile to the
religious leadership. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, has
effectively used the program to rally the nation behind him, and against
Washington. Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics have said that they believe
Bush's goal is not to prevent them from building a bomb but to drive them
out of office.
Several current and former officials I spoke to expressed doubt that
President Bush would settle for a negotiated resolution of the nuclear
crisis. A former high-level Pentagon civilian official, who still deals with
sensitive issues for the government, said that Bush remains confident in his
military decisions. The President and others in the Administration often
invoke Winston Churchill, both privately and in public, as an example of a
politician who, in his own time, was punished in the polls but was rewarded
by history for rejecting appeasement. In one speech, Bush said, Churchill
"seemed like a Texan to me. He wasn't afraid of public-opinion polls.... He
charged ahead, and the world is better for it."
The Israelis have insisted for years that Iran has a clandestine program to
build a bomb, and will do so as soon as it can. Israeli officials have
emphasized that their "redline" is the moment Iran masters the nuclear fuel
cycle, acquiring the technical ability to produce weapons-grade uranium.
"Iran managed to surprise everyone in terms of the enrichment capability,"
one diplomat familiar with the Israeli position told me, referring to Iran's
announcement, this spring, that it had successfully enriched uranium to the
3.6-per-cent level needed to fuel a nuclear-power reactor. The Israelis
believe that Iran must be stopped as soon as possible, because, once it is
able to enrich uranium for fuel, the next step - enriching it to the
ninety-per-cent level needed for a nuclear bomb - is merely a mechanical
Israeli intelligence, however, has also failed to provide specific evidence
about secret sites in Iran, according to current and former military and
intelligence officials. In May, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited
Washington and, addressing a joint session of Congress, said that Iran
"stands on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons" that would pose "an
existential threat" to Israel. Olmert noted that Ahmadinejad had questioned
the reality of the Holocaust, and he added, "It is not Israel's threat
alone. It is a threat to all those committed to stability in the Middle East
and to the well-being of the world at large." But at a secret intelligence
exchange that took place at the Pentagon during the visit, the Pentagon
consultant said, "what the Israelis provided fell way short" of what would
be needed to publicly justify preventive action.
The issue of what to do, and when, seems far from resolved inside the
Israeli government. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who is
now the director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East
Policy, told me, "Israel would like to see diplomacy succeed, but they're
worried that in the meantime Iran will cross a threshold of nuclear know-how
- and they're worried about an American military attack not working. They
assume they'll be struck first in retaliation by Iran." Indyk added, "At the
end of the day, the United States can live with Iranian, Pakistani, and
Indian nuclear bombs - but for Israel there's no Mutual Assured Destruction.
If they have to live with an Iranian bomb, there will be a great deal of
anxiety in Israel, and a lot of tension between Israel and Iran, and between
Israel and the U.S."
Iran has not, so far, officially answered President Bush's proposal. But its
initial response has been dismissive. In a June 22nd interview with the
Guardian, Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, rejected
Washington's demand that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment before talks
could begin. "If they want to put this prerequisite, why are we negotiating
at all?" Larijani said. "We should put aside the sanctions and give up all
this talk about regime change." He characterized the American offer as a
"sermon," and insisted that Iran was not building a bomb. "We don't want the
bomb," he said. Ahmadinejad has said that Iran would make a formal
counterproposal by August 22nd, but last week Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's
supreme religious leader, declared, on state radio, "Negotiation with the
United States has no benefits for us."
Despite the tough rhetoric, Iran would be reluctant to reject a dialogue
with the United States, according to Giandomenico Picco, who, as a
representative of the United Nations, helped to negotiate the ceasefire that
ended the Iran-Iraq War, in 1988. "If you engage a superpower, you feel you
are a superpower," Picco told me. "And now the haggling in the Persian
bazaar begins. We are negotiating over a carpet" - the suspected weapons
program - "that we're not sure exists, and that we don't want to exist. And
if at the end there never was a carpet it'll be the negotiation of the
If the talks do break down, and the Administration decides on military
action, the generals will, of course, follow their orders; the American
military remains loyal to the concept of civilian control. But some officers
have been pushing for what they call the "middle way," which the Pentagon
consultant described as "a mix of options that require a number of Special
Forces teams and air cover to protect them to send into Iran to grab the
evidence so the world will know what Iran is doing." He added that, unlike
Rumsfeld, he and others who support this approach were under no illusion
that it could bring about regime change. The goal, he said, was to resolve
the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the I.A.E.A., said in a speech
this spring that his agency believed there was still time for diplomacy to
achieve that goal. "We should have learned some lessons from Iraq,"
ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said. "We should have
learned that we should be very careful about assessing our intelligence....
We should have learned that we should try to exhaust every possible diplom