US Able to Strike in the Spring

    By Ewen MacAskill
    The Guardian UK

Despite denials, Pentagon plans for possible attack on nuclear sites are
well advanced.

    US preparations for an air strike against Iran are at an advanced stage,
in spite of repeated public denials by the Bush administration, according to
informed sources in Washington.

    The present military build-up in the Gulf would allow the US to mount an
attack by the spring. But the sources said that if there was an attack, it
was more likely next year, just before Mr Bush leaves office.

    Neo-conservatives, particularly at the Washington-based American
Enterprise Institute, are urging Mr Bush to open a new front against Iran.
So too is the vice-president, Dick Cheney. The state department and the
Pentagon are opposed, as are Democratic congressmen and the overwhelming
majority of Republicans. The sources said Mr Bush had not yet made a
decision. The Bush administration insists the military build-up is not
offensive but aimed at containing Iran and forcing it to make diplomatic
concessions. The aim is to persuade Tehran to curb its suspect nuclear
weapons programme and abandon ambitions for regional expansion.

    Robert Gates, the new US defence secretary, said yesterday: "I don't
know how many times the president, secretary [of state Condoleezza] Rice and
I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran."

    But Vincent Cannistraro, a Washington-based intelligence analyst, shared
the sources' assessment that Pentagon planning was well under way. "Planning
is going on, in spite of public disavowals by Gates. Targets have been
selected. For a bombing campaign against nuclear sites, it is quite
advanced. The military assets to carry this out are being put in place."

    He added: "We are planning for war. It is incredibly dangerous."


    Mr Cannistraro, who worked for the CIA and the National Security
Council, stressed that no decision had been made.

    Last month Mr Bush ordered a second battle group led by the aircraft
carrier USS John Stennis to the Gulf in support of the USS Eisenhower. The
USS Stennis is due to arrive within the next 10 days. Extra US Patriot
missiles have been sent to the region, as well as more minesweepers, in
anticipation of Iranian retaliatory action.

    In another sign that preparations are under way, Mr Bush has ordered oil
reserves to be stockpiled.

    The danger is that the build-up could spark an accidental war. Iranian
officials said on Thursday that they had tested missiles capable of hitting
warships in the Gulf.

    Colonel Sam Gardiner, a former air force officer who has carried out war
games with Iran as the target, supported the view that planning for an air
strike was under way: "Gates said there is no planning for war. We know this
is not true. He possibly meant there is no plan for an immediate strike. It
was sloppy wording.

    "All the moves being made over the last few weeks are consistent with
what you would do if you were going to do an air strike. We have to throw
away the notion the US could not do it because it is too tied up in Iraq. It
is an air operation."

    One of the main driving forces behind war, apart from the
vice-president's office, is the AEI, headquarters of the neo-conservatives.
A member of the AEI coined the slogan "axis of evil" that originally lumped
Iran in with Iraq and North Korea. Its influence on the White House appeared
to be in decline last year amid endless bad news from Iraq, for which it had
been a cheerleader. But in the face of opposition from Congress, the
Pentagon and state department, Mr Bush opted last month for an AEI plan to
send more troops to Iraq. Will he support calls from within the AEI for a
strike on Iran?

    Josh Muravchik, a Middle East specialist at the AEI, is among its most
vocal supporters of such a strike.

    "I do not think anyone in the US is talking about invasion. We have been
chastened by the experience of Iraq, even a hawk like myself." But an air
strike was another matter. The danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon "is
not just that it might use it out of the blue but as a shield to do all
sorts of mischief. I do not believe there will be any way to stop this
happening other than physical force."

    Mr Bush is part of the American generation that refuses to forgive Iran
for the 1979-81 hostage crisis. He leaves office in January 2009 and has
said repeatedly that he does not want a legacy in which Iran has achieved
superpower status in the region and come close to acquiring a nuclear weapon
capability. The logic of this is that if diplomatic efforts fail to persuade
Iran to stop uranium enrichment then the only alternative left is to turn to
the military.

    Mr Muravchik is intent on holding Mr Bush to his word: "The Bush
administration have said they would not allow Iran nuclear weapons. That is
either bullshit or they mean it as a clear code: we will do it if we have
to. I would rather believe it is not hot air."

    Other neo-cons elsewhere in Washington are opposed to an air strike but
advocate a different form of military action, supporting Iranian armed
groups, in particular the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), even though the state
department has branded it a terrorist organisation.

    Raymond Tanter, founder of the Iran Policy Committee, which includes
former officials from the White House, state department and intelligence
services, is a leading advocate of support for the MEK. If it comes to an
air strike, he favours bunker-busting bombs. "I believe the only way to get
at the deeply buried sites at Natanz and Arak is probably to use
bunker-buster bombs, some of which are nuclear tipped. I do not believe the
US would do that but it has sold them to Israel."

    Opposition Support

    Another neo-conservative, Meyrav Wurmser, director of the centre for
Middle East policy at the Hudson Institute, also favours supporting Iranian
opposition groups. She is disappointed with the response of the Bush
administration so far to Iran and said that if the aim of US policy after
9/11 was to make the Middle East safer for the US, it was not working
because the administration had stopped at Iraq. "There is not enough
political will for a strike. There seems to be various notions of what the
policy should be."

    In spite of the president's veto on negotiation with Tehran, the state
department has been involved since 2003 in back-channel approaches and
meetings involving Iranian officials and members of the Bush administration
or individuals close to it. But when last year the Iranian president,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sent a letter as an overture, the state department
dismissed it within hours of its arrival.

    Support for negotiations comes from centrist and liberal thinktanks.
Afshin Molavi, a fellow of the New America Foundation, said: "To argue
diplomacy has not worked is false because it has not been tried. Post-90s
and through to today, when Iran has been ready to dance, the US refused, and
when the US has been ready to dance, Iran has refused. We are at a stage
where Iran is ready to walk across the dance floor and the US is looking

    He is worried about "a miscalculation that leads to an accidental war".

    The catalyst could be Iraq. The Pentagon said yesterday that it had
evidence - serial numbers of projectiles as well as explosives - of Iraqi
militants' weapons that had come from Iran. In a further sign of the
increased tension, Iran's main nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, cancelled a
visit to Munich for what would have been the first formal meeting with his
western counterparts since last year.

    If it does come to war, Mr Muravchik said Iran would retaliate, but that
on balance it would be worth it to stop a country that he said had "Death to
America" as its official slogan.

    "We have to gird our loins and prepare to absorb the counter-shock," he

    War of Words

    "If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our
troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly" George Bush, in
an interview with National Public Radio

    "The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they
have the initiative, that they are in position to press us in many ways.
They are doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point" Robert

    "I think it's been pretty well-known that Iran is fishing in troubled
waters" Dick Cheney

    "It is absolutely parallel. They're using the same dance steps -
demonise the bad guys, the pretext of diplomacy, keep out of negotiations,
use proxies. It is Iraq redux" Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counter-
terrorism specialist, in Vanity Fair, on echoes of the run-up to the war in

    "US policymakers and analysts know that the Iranian nation would not let
an invasion go without a response. Enemies of the Islamic system fabricated
various rumours about death and health to demoralise the Iranian nation, but
they did not know that they are not dealing with only one person in Iran.
They are facing a nation" Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei