Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.


Expand Messages
  • World View
    Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more? THE NEXT ACT by SEYMOUR M. HERSH 2006-11-27
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2006
      Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more?


      A month before the November elections, Vice-President Dick Cheney was
      sitting in on a national-security discussion at the Executive Office
      Building. The talk took a political turn: what if the Democrats won
      both the Senate and the House? How would that affect policy toward
      Iran, which is believed to be on the verge of becoming a nuclear
      power? At that point, according to someone familiar with the
      discussion, Cheney began reminiscing about his job as a lineman, in
      the early nineteen-sixties, for a power company in Wyoming. Copper
      wire was expensive, and the linemen were instructed to return all
      unused pieces three feet or longer. No one wanted to deal with the
      paperwork that resulted, Cheney said, so he and his colleagues found a
      solution: putting "shorteners" on the wire—that is, cutting it into
      short pieces and tossing the leftovers at the end of the workday. If
      the Democrats won on November 7th, the Vice-President said, that
      victory would not stop the Administration from pursuing a military
      option with Iran. The White House would put "shorteners" on any
      legislative restrictions, Cheney said, and thus stop Congress from
      getting in its way.

      The White House's concern was not that the Democrats would cut off
      funds for the war in Iraq but that future legislation would prohibit
      it from financing operations targeted at overthrowing or destabilizing
      the Iranian government, to keep it from getting the bomb. "They're
      afraid that Congress is going to vote a binding resolution to stop a
      hit on Iran, à la Nicaragua in the Contra war," a former senior
      intelligence official told me.

      In late 1982, Edward P. Boland, a Democratic representative,
      introduced the first in a series of "Boland amendments," which limited
      the Reagan Administration's ability to support the Contras, who were
      working to overthrow Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista government. The
      Boland restrictions led White House officials to orchestrate illegal
      fund-raising activities for the Contras, including the sale of
      American weapons, via Israel, to Iran. The result was the Iran-Contra
      scandal of the mid-eighties. Cheney's story, according to the source,
      was his way of saying that, whatever a Democratic Congress might do
      next year to limit the President's authority, the Administration would
      find a way to work around it. (In response to a request for comment,
      the Vice-President's office said that it had no record of the

      In interviews, current and former Administration officials returned to
      one question: whether Cheney would be as influential in the last two
      years of George W. Bush's Presidency as he was in its first six.
      Cheney is emphatic about Iraq. In late October, he told Time, "I know
      what the President thinks," about Iraq. "I know what I think. And
      we're not looking for an exit strategy. We're looking for victory." He
      is equally clear that the Administration would, if necessary, use
      force against Iran. "The United States is keeping all options on the
      table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime," he told
      an Israeli lobbying group early this year. "And we join other nations
      in sending that regime a clear message: we will not allow Iran to have
      a nuclear weapon."

      On November 8th, the day after the Republicans lost both the House and
      the Senate, Bush announced the resignation of Secretary of Defense
      Donald Rumsfeld, and the nomination of his successor, Robert Gates, a
      former director of Central Intelligence. The move was widely seen as
      an acknowledgment that the Administration was paying a political price
      for the debacle in Iraq. Gates was a member of the Iraq Study
      Group—headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and Lee
      Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman—which has been charged with
      examining new approaches to Iraq, and he has publicly urged for more
      than a year that the U.S. begin direct talks with Iran. President
      Bush's decision to turn to Gates was a sign of the White House's
      "desperation," a former high-level C.I.A. official, who worked with
      the White House after September 11th, told me. Cheney's relationship
      with Rumsfeld was among the closest inside the Administration, and
      Gates's nomination was seen by some Republicans as a clear signal that
      the Vice-President's influence in the White House could be challenged.
      The only reason Gates would take the job, after turning down an
      earlier offer to serve as the new Director of National Intelligence,
      the former high-level C.I.A. official said, was that "the President's
      father, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker"—former aides of the first
      President Bush—"piled on, and the President finally had to accept
      adult supervision."

      Critical decisions will be made in the next few months, the former
      C.I.A. official said. "Bush has followed Cheney's advice for six
      years, and the story line will be: `Will he continue to choose Cheney
      over his father?' We'll know soon." (The White House and the Pentagon
      declined to respond to detailed requests for comment about this
      article, other than to say that there were unspecified inaccuracies.)

      A retired four-star general who worked closely with the first Bush
      Administration told me that the Gates nomination means that Scowcroft,
      Baker, the elder Bush, and his son "are saying that winning the
      election in 2008 is more important than the individual. The issue for
      them is how to preserve the Republican agenda. The Old Guard wants to
      isolate Cheney and give their girl, Condoleezza Rice"—the Secretary of
      State—"a chance to perform." The combination of Scowcroft, Baker, and
      the senior Bush working together is, the general added, "tough enough
      to take on Cheney. One guy can't do it."

      Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State in Bush's first term,
      told me that he believed the Democratic election victory, followed by
      Rumsfeld's dismissal, meant that the Administration "has backed off,"
      in terms of the pace of its planning for a military campaign against
      Iran. Gates and other decision-makers would now have more time to push
      for a diplomatic solution in Iran and deal with other, arguably more
      immediate issues. "Iraq is as bad as it looks, and Afghanistan is
      worse than it looks," Armitage said. "A year ago, the Taliban were
      fighting us in units of eight to twelve, and now they're sometimes in
      company-size, and even larger." Bombing Iran and expecting the Iranian
      public "to rise up" and overthrow the government, as some in the White
      House believe, Armitage added, "is a fool's errand."

      "Iraq is the disaster we have to get rid of, and Iran is the disaster
      we have to avoid," Joseph Cirincione, the vice-president for national
      security at the liberal Center for American Progress, said. "Gates
      will be in favor of talking to Iran and listening to the advice of the
      Joint Chiefs of Staff, but the neoconservatives are still there"—in
      the White House—"and still believe that chaos would be a small price
      for getting rid of the threat. The danger is that Gates could be the
      new Colin Powell—the one who opposes the policy but ends up briefing
      the Congress and publicly supporting it."

      Other sources close to the Bush family said that the machinations
      behind Rumsfeld's resignation and the Gates nomination were complex,
      and the seeming triumph of the Old Guard may be illusory. The former
      senior intelligence official, who once worked closely with Gates and
      with the President's father, said that Bush and his immediate advisers
      in the White House understood by mid-October that Rumsfeld would have
      to resign if the result of the midterm election was a resounding
      defeat. Rumsfeld was involved in conversations about the timing of his
      departure with Cheney, Gates, and the President before the election,
      the former senior intelligence official said. Critics who asked why
      Rumsfeld wasn't fired earlier, a move that might have given the
      Republicans a boost, were missing the point. "A week before the
      election, the Republicans were saying that a Democratic victory was
      the seed of American retreat, and now Bush and Cheney are going to
      change their national-security policies?" the former senior
      intelligence official said. "Cheney knew this was coming. Dropping
      Rummy after the election looked like a conciliatory move—`You're
      right, Democrats. We got a new guy and we're looking at all the
      options. Nothing is ruled out.' " But the conciliatory gesture would
      not be accompanied by a significant change in policy; instead, the
      White House saw Gates as someone who would have the credibility to
      help it stay the course on Iran and Iraq. Gates would also be an asset
      before Congress. If the Administration needed to make the case that
      Iran's weapons program posed an imminent threat, Gates would be a
      better advocate than someone who had been associated with the flawed
      intelligence about Iraq. The former official said, "He's not the guy
      who told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and he'll
      be taken seriously by Congress."

      Once Gates is installed at the Pentagon, he will have to contend with
      Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Rumsfeld legacy—and Dick Cheney. A former
      senior Bush Administration official, who has also worked with Gates,
      told me that Gates was well aware of the difficulties of his new job.
      He added that Gates would not simply endorse the Administration's
      policies and say, "with a flag waving, `Go, go' "—especially at the
      cost of his own reputation. "He does not want to see thirty-five years
      of government service go out the window," the former official said.
      However, on the question of whether Gates would actively stand up to
      Cheney, the former official said, after a pause, "I don't know."

      Another critical issue for Gates will be the Pentagon's expanding
      effort to conduct clandestine and covert intelligence missions
      overseas. Such activity has traditionally been the C.I.A.'s
      responsibility, but, as the result of a systematic push by Rumsfeld,
      military covert actions have been substantially increased. In the past
      six months, Israel and the United States have also been working
      together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party
      for Free Life in Kurdistan. The group has been conducting clandestine
      cross-border forays into Iran, I was told by a government consultant
      with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership, as "part of an
      effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran."
      (The Pentagon has established covert relationships with Kurdish,
      Azeri, and Baluchi tribesmen, and has encouraged their efforts to
      undermine the regime's authority in northern and southeastern Iran.)
      The government consultant said that Israel is giving the Kurdish group
      "equipment and training." The group has also been given "a list of
      targets inside Iran of interest to the U.S." (An Israeli government
      spokesman denied that Israel was involved.)

      Such activities, if they are considered military rather than
      intelligence operations, do not require congressional briefings. For a
      similar C.I.A. operation, the President would, by law, have to issue a
      formal finding that the mission was necessary, and the Administration
      would have to brief the senior leadership of the House and the Senate.
      The lack of such consultation annoyed some Democrats in Congress. This
      fall, I was told, Representative David Obey, of Wisconsin, the ranking
      Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that finances
      classified military activity, pointedly asked, during a closed meeting
      of House and Senate members, whether "anyone has been briefing on the
      Administration's plan for military activity in Iran." The answer was
      no. (A spokesman for Obey confirmed this account.)

      The Democratic victories this month led to a surge of calls for the
      Administration to begin direct talks with Iran, in part to get its
      help in settling the conflict in Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony
      Blair broke ranks with President Bush after the election and declared
      that Iran should be offered "a clear strategic choice" that could
      include a "new partnership" with the West. But many in the White House
      and the Pentagon insist that getting tough with Iran is the only way
      to salvage Iraq. "It's a classic case of `failure forward,'" a
      Pentagon consultant said. "They believe that by tipping over Iran they
      would recover their losses in Iraq—like doubling your bet. It would be
      an attempt to revive the concept of spreading democracy in the Middle
      East by creating one new model state."

      The view that there is a nexus between Iran and Iraq has been endorsed
      by Condoleezza Rice, who said last month that Iran "does need to
      understand that it is not going to improve its own situation by
      stirring instability in Iraq," and by the President, who said, in
      August, that "Iran is backing armed groups in the hope of stopping
      democracy from taking hold" in Iraq. The government consultant told
      me, "More and more people see the weakening of Iran as the only way to
      save Iraq."

      The consultant added that, for some advocates of military action, "the
      goal in Iran is not regime change but a strike that will send a signal
      that America still can accomplish its goals. Even if it does not
      destroy Iran's nuclear network, there are many who think that
      thirty-six hours of bombing is the only way to remind the Iranians of
      the very high cost of going forward with the bomb—and of supporting
      Moqtada al-Sadr and his pro-Iran element in Iraq." (Sadr, who commands
      a Shiite militia, has religious ties to Iran.)

      In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Joshua Muravchik, a prominent
      neoconservative, argued that the Administration had little choice.
      "Make no mistake: President Bush will need to bomb Iran's nuclear
      facilities before leaving office," he wrote. The President would be
      bitterly criticized for a preëmptive attack on Iran, Muravchik said,
      and so neoconservatives "need to pave the way intellectually now and
      be prepared to defend the action when it comes."

      The main Middle East expert on the Vice-President's staff is David
      Wurmser, a neoconservative who was a strident advocate for the
      invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like many in
      Washington, Wurmser "believes that, so far, there's been no price tag
      on Iran for its nuclear efforts and for its continuing agitation and
      intervention inside Iraq," the consultant said. But, unlike those in
      the Administration who are calling for limited strikes, Wurmser and
      others in Cheney's office "want to end the regime," the consultant
      said. "They argue that there can be no settlement of the Iraq war
      without regime change in Iran."

      The Administration's planning for a military attack on Iran was made
      far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft
      assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House's assumptions
      about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A.
      found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian
      nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations
      that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency. (The
      C.I.A. declined to comment on this story.)

      The C.I.A.'s analysis, which has been circulated to other agencies for
      comment, was based on technical intelligence collected by overhead
      satellites, and on other empirical evidence, such as measurements of
      the radioactivity of water samples and smoke plumes from factories and
      power plants. Additional data have been gathered, intelligence sources
      told me, by high-tech (and highly classified) radioactivity-detection
      devices that clandestine American and Israeli agents placed near
      suspected nuclear-weapons facilities inside Iran in the past year or
      so. No significant amounts of radioactivity were found.

      A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the
      C.I.A. analysis, and told me that the White House had been hostile to
      it. The White House's dismissal of the C.I.A. findings on Iran is
      widely known in the intelligence community. Cheney and his aides
      discounted the assessment, the former senior intelligence official
      said. "They're not looking for a smoking gun," the official added,
      referring to specific intelligence about Iranian nuclear planning.
      "They're looking for the degree of comfort level they think they need
      to accomplish the mission." The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency
      also challenged the C.I.A.'s analysis. "The D.I.A. is fighting the
      agency's conclusions, and disputing its approach," the former senior
      intelligence official said. Bush and Cheney, he added, can try to
      prevent the C.I.A. assessment from being incorporated into a
      forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iranian nuclear
      capabilities, "but they can't stop the agency from putting it out for
      comment inside the intelligence community." The C.I.A. assessment
      warned the White House that it would be a mistake to conclude that the
      failure to find a secret nuclear-weapons program in Iran merely meant
      that the Iranians had done a good job of hiding it. The former senior
      intelligence official noted that at the height of the Cold War the
      Soviets were equally skilled at deception and misdirection, yet the
      American intelligence community was readily able to unravel the
      details of their long-range-missile and nuclear-weapons programs. But
      some in the White House, including in Cheney's office, had made just
      such an assumption—that "the lack of evidence means they must have
      it," the former official said.

      Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, under which it is
      entitled to conduct nuclear research for peaceful purposes. Despite
      the offer of trade agreements and the prospect of military action, it
      defied a demand by the I.A.E.A. and the Security Council, earlier this
      year, that it stop enriching uranium—a process that can produce
      material for nuclear power plants as well as for weapons—and it has
      been unable, or unwilling, to account for traces of plutonium and
      highly enriched uranium that have been detected during I.A.E.A.
      inspections. The I.A.E.A. has complained about a lack of
      "transparency," although, like the C.I.A., it has not found
      unambiguous evidence of a secret weapons program.

      Last week, Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced that Iran
      had made further progress in its enrichment research program, and
      said, "We know that some countries may not be pleased." He insisted
      that Iran was abiding by international agreements, but said, "Time is
      now completely on the side of the Iranian people." A diplomat in
      Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. has its headquarters, told me that the
      agency was skeptical of the claim, for technical reasons. But
      Ahmadinejad's defiant tone did nothing to diminish suspicions about
      Iran's nuclear ambitions.

      "There is no evidence of a large-scale covert enrichment program
      inside Iran," one involved European diplomat said. "But the Iranians
      would not have launched themselves into a very dangerous confrontation
      with the West on the basis of a weapons program that they no longer
      pursue. Their enrichment program makes sense only in terms of wanting
      nuclear weapons. It would be inconceivable if they weren't cheating to
      some degree. You don't need a covert program to be concerned about
      Iran's nuclear ambitions. We have enough information to be concerned
      without one. It's not a slam dunk, but it's close to it."

      There are, however, other possible reasons for Iran's obstinacy. The
      nuclear program—peaceful or not—is a source of great national pride,
      and President Ahmadinejad's support for it has helped to propel him to
      enormous popularity. (Saddam Hussein created confusion for years,
      inside and outside his country, about whether Iraq had weapons of mass
      destruction, in part to project an image of strength.) According to
      the former senior intelligence official, the C.I.A.'s assessment
      suggested that Iran might even see some benefits in a limited military
      strike—especially one that did not succeed in fully destroying its
      nuclear program—in that an attack might enhance its position in the
      Islamic world. "They learned that in the Iraqi experience, and
      relearned it in southern Lebanon," the former senior official said. In
      both cases, a more powerful military force had trouble achieving its
      military or political goals; in Lebanon, Israel's war against
      Hezbollah did not destroy the group's entire arsenal of rockets, and
      increased the popularity of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

      The former senior intelligence official added that the C.I.A.
      assessment raised the possibility that an American attack on Iran
      could end up serving as a rallying point to unite Sunni and Shiite
      populations. "An American attack will paper over any differences in
      the Arab world, and we'll have Syrians, Iranians, Hamas, and Hezbollah
      fighting against us—and the Saudis and the Egyptians questioning their
      ties to the West. It's an analyst's worst nightmare—for the first time
      since the caliphate there will be common cause in the Middle East."
      (An Islamic caliphate ruled the Middle East for over six hundred
      years, until the thirteenth century.)

      According to the Pentagon consultant, "The C.I.A.'s view is that,
      without more intelligence, a large-scale bombing attack would not stop
      Iran's nuclear program. And a low-end campaign of subversion and
      sabotage would play into Iran's hands—bolstering support for the
      religious leadership and deepening anti-American Muslim rage."

      The Pentagon consultant said that he and many of his colleagues in the
      military believe that Iran is intent on developing nuclear-weapons
      capability. But he added that the Bush Administration's options for
      dealing with that threat are diminished, because of a lack of good
      intelligence and also because "we've cried wolf" before.

      As the C.I.A.'s assessment was making its way through the government,
      late this summer, current and former military officers and consultants
      told me, a new element suddenly emerged: intelligence from Israeli
      spies operating inside Iran claimed that Iran has developed and tested
      a trigger device for a nuclear bomb. The provenance and significance
      of the human intelligence, or HUMINT, are controversial. "The problem
      is that no one can verify it," the former senior intelligence official
      told me. "We don't know who the Israeli source is. The briefing says
      the Iranians are testing trigger mechanisms"—simulating a zero-yield
      nuclear explosion without any weapons-grade materials—"but there are
      no diagrams, no significant facts. Where is the test site? How often
      have they done it? How big is the warhead—a breadbox or a
      refrigerator? They don't have that." And yet, he said, the report was
      being used by White House hawks within the Administration to "prove
      the White House's theory that the Iranians are on track. And tests
      leave no radioactive track, which is why we can't find it." Still, he
      said, "The agency is standing its ground."

      The Pentagon consultant, however, told me that he and other
      intelligence professionals believe that the Israeli intelligence
      should be taken more seriously. "We live in an era when national
      technical intelligence"—data from satellites and on-the-ground
      sensors—"will not get us what we need. HUMINT may not be hard evidence
      by that standard, but very often it's the best intelligence we can
      get." He added, with obvious exasperation, that within the
      intelligence community "we're going to be fighting over the quality of
      the information for the next year." One reason for the dispute, he
      said, was that the White House had asked to see the "raw"—the
      original, unanalyzed and unvetted—Israeli intelligence. Such
      "stovepiping" of intelligence had led to faulty conclusions about
      nonexistent weapons of mass destruction during the buildup to the 2003
      Iraq war. "Many Presidents in the past have done the same thing," the
      consultant said, "but intelligence professionals are always aghast
      when Presidents ask for stuff in the raw. They see it as asking a
      second grader to read `Ulysses.' "

      HUMINT can be difficult to assess. Some of the most politically
      significant—and most inaccurate—intelligence about Iraq's alleged
      weapons of mass destruction came from an operative, known as
      Curveball, who was initially supplied to the C.I.A. by German
      intelligence. But the Pentagon consultant insisted that, in this case,
      "the Israeli intelligence is apparently very strong." He said that the
      information about the trigger device had been buttressed by another
      form of highly classified data, known as MASINT, for "measuring and
      signature" intelligence. The Defense Intelligence Agency is the
      central processing and dissemination point for such intelligence,
      which includes radar, radio, nuclear, and electro-optical data. The
      consultant said that the MASINT indicated activities that "are not
      consistent with the programs" Iran has declared to the I.A.E.A. "The
      intelligence suggests far greater sophistication and more advanced
      development," the consultant said. "The indications don't make sense,
      unless they're farther along in some aspects of their nuclear-weapons
      program than we know."

      In early 2004, John Bolton, who was then the Under-Secretary of State
      for Arms Control (he is now the United Nations Ambassador), privately
      conveyed to the I.A.E.A. suspicions that Iran was conducting research
      into the intricately timed detonation of conventional explosives
      needed to trigger a nuclear warhead at Parchin, a sensitive facility
      twenty miles southeast of Tehran that serves as the center of Iran's
      Defense Industries Organization. A wide array of chemical munitions
      and fuels, as well as advanced antitank and ground-to-air missiles,
      are manufactured there, and satellite imagery appeared to show a
      bunker suitable for testing very large explosions.

      A senior diplomat in Vienna told me that, in response to the
      allegations, I.A.E.A. inspectors went to Parchin in November of 2005,
      after months of negotiation. An inspection team was allowed to single
      out a specific site at the base, and then was granted access to a few
      buildings there. "We found no evidence of nuclear materials," the
      diplomat said. The inspectors looked hard at an underground
      explosive-testing pit that, he said, "resembled what South Africa had
      when it developed its nuclear weapons," three decades ago. The pit
      could have been used for the kind of kinetic research needed to test a
      nuclear trigger. But, like so many military facilities with dual-use
      potential, "it also could be used for other things," such as testing
      fuel for rockets, which routinely takes place at Parchin. "The
      Iranians have demonstrated that they can enrich uranium," the diplomat
      added, "and trigger tests without nuclear yield can be done. But it's
      a very sophisticated process—it's also known as hydrodynamic
      testing—and only countries with suitably advanced nuclear testing
      facilities as well as the necessary scientific expertise can do it.
      I'd be very skeptical that Iran could do it."

      Earlier this month, the allegations about Parchin reëmerged when
      Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest newspaper, reported that recent
      satellite imagery showed new "massive construction" at Parchin,
      suggesting an expansion of underground tunnels and chambers. The
      newspaper sharply criticized the I.A.E.A.'s inspection process and its
      director, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, for his insistence on "using very
      neutral wording for his findings and his conclusions."

      Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran who is the deputy director for
      research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a
      conservative think tank, told me that the "biggest moment" of tension
      has yet to arrive: "How does the United States keep an Israeli
      decision point—one that may come sooner than we want—from being
      reached?" Clawson noted that there is evidence that Iran has been
      slowed by technical problems in the construction and operation of two
      small centrifuge cascades, which are essential for the pilot
      production of enriched uranium. Both are now under I.A.E.A.
      supervision. "Why were they so slow in getting the second cascade up
      and running?" Clawson asked. "And why haven't they run the first one
      as much as they said they would? Do we have more time?

      "Why talk about war?" he said. "We're not talking about going to war
      with North Korea or Venezuela. It's not necessarily the case that Iran
      has started a weapons program, and it's conceivable—just
      conceivable—that Iran does not have a nuclear-weapons program yet. We
      can slow them down—force them to reinvent the wheel—without bombing,
      especially if the international conditions get better."

      Clawson added that Secretary of State Rice has "staked her reputation
      on diplomacy, and she will not risk her career without evidence. Her
      team is saying, `What's the rush?' The President wants to solve the
      Iranian issue before leaving office, but he may have to say, `Darn, I
      wish I could have solved it.' "

      Earlier this year, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
      Olmert created a task force to coördinate all the available
      intelligence on Iran. The task force, which is led by Major General
      Eliezer Shkedi, the head of the Israeli Air Force, reports directly to
      the Prime Minister. In late October, Olmert appointed Ephraim Sneh, a
      Labor Party member of the Knesset, to serve as Deputy Defense
      Minister. Sneh, who served previously in that position under Ehud
      Barak, has for years insisted that action be taken to prevent Iran
      from getting the bomb. In an interview this month with the Jerusalem
      Post, Sneh expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of diplomacy
      or international sanctions in curbing Iran:

      The danger isn't as much Ahmadinejad's deciding to launch an attack
      but Israel's living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed
      to its destruction. . . . Most Israelis would prefer not to live here;
      most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis
      who can live abroad will . . . I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to
      kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That's why we must
      prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.

      A similar message was delivered by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud
      leader, in a speech in Los Angeles last week. "It's 1938 and Iran is
      Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs," he said,
      adding that there was "still time" to stop the Iranians.

      The Pentagon consultant told me that, while there may be pressure from
      the Israelis, "they won't do anything on their own without our green
      light." That assurance, he said, "comes from the Cheney shop. It's
      Cheney himself who is saying, `We're not going to leave you high and
      dry, but don't go without us.' " A senior European diplomat agreed:
      "For Israel, it is a question of life or death. The United States does
      not want to go into Iran, but, if Israel feels more and more cornered,
      there may be no other choice."

      A nuclear-armed Iran would not only threaten Israel. It could trigger
      a strategic-arms race throughout the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia,
      Jordan, and Egypt—all led by Sunni governments—would be compelled to
      take steps to defend themselves. The Bush Administration, if it does
      take military action against Iran, would have support from Democrats
      as well as Republicans. Senators Hillary Clinton, of New York, and
      Evan Bayh, of Indiana, who are potential Democratic Presidential
      candidates, have warned that Iran cannot be permitted to build a bomb
      and that—as Clinton said earlier this year—"we cannot take any option
      off the table." Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National
      Committee, has also endorsed this view. Last May, Olmert was given a
      rousing reception when he addressed a joint session of Congress and
      declared, "A nuclear Iran means a terrorist state could achieve the
      primary mission for which terrorists live and die—the mass destruction
      of innocent human life. This challenge, which I believe is the test of
      our time, is one the West cannot afford to fail."

      Despite such rhetoric, Leslie Gelb, a former State Department official
      who is a president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said
      he believes that, "when push comes to shove, the Israelis will have a
      hard time selling the idea that an Iranian nuclear capability is
      imminent. The military and the State Department will be flat against a
      preëmptive bombing campaign." Gelb said he hoped that Gates's
      appointment would add weight to America's most pressing issue—"to get
      some level of Iranian restraint inside Iraq. In the next year or two,
      we're much more likely to be negotiating with Iran than bombing it."

      The Bush Administration remains publicly committed to a diplomatic
      solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse, and has been working with
      China, Russia, France, Germany, and Britain to get negotiations under
      way. So far, that effort has foundered; the most recent round of talks
      broke up early in November, amid growing disagreements with Russia and
      China about the necessity of imposing harsh United Nations sanctions
      on the Iranian regime. President Bush is adamant that Iran must stop
      all of its enrichment programs before any direct talks involving the
      United States can begin.

      The senior European diplomat told me that the French President,
      Jacques Chirac, and President Bush met in New York on September 19th,
      as the new U.N. session was beginning, and agreed on what the French
      called the "Big Bang" approach to breaking the deadlock with Iran. A
      scenario was presented to Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian negotiator
      on nuclear issues. The Western delegation would sit down at a
      negotiating table with Iran. The diplomat told me, "We would say,
      `We're beginning the negotiations without preconditions,' and the
      Iranians would respond, `We will suspend.' Our side would register
      great satisfaction, and the Iranians would agree to accept I.A.E.A.
      inspection of their enrichment facilities. And then the West would
      announce, in return, that they would suspend any U.N. sanctions." The
      United States would not be at the table when the talks began but would
      join later. Larijani took the offer to Tehran; the answer, as relayed
      by Larijani, was no, the diplomat said. "We were trying to compromise,
      for all sides, but Ahmadinejad did not want to save face," the
      diplomat said. "The beautiful scenario has gone nowhere."

      Last week, there was a heightened expectation that the Iraq Study
      Group would produce a set of recommendations that could win bipartisan
      approval and guide America out of the quagmire in Iraq. Sources with
      direct knowledge of the panel's proceedings have told me that the
      group, as of mid-November, had ruled out calling for an immediate and
      complete American withdrawal but would recommend focussing on the
      improved training of Iraqi forces and on redeploying American troops.
      In the most significant recommendation, Baker and Hamilton were
      expected to urge President Bush to do what he has thus far refused to
      do—bring Syria and Iran into a regional conference to help stabilize Iraq.

      It is not clear whether the Administration will be receptive. In
      August, according to the former senior intelligence official, Rumsfeld
      asked the Joint Chiefs to quietly devise alternative plans for Iraq,
      to preëmpt new proposals, whether they come from the new Democratic
      majority or from the Iraq Study Group. "The option of last resort is
      to move American forces out of the cities and relocate them along the
      Syrian and Iranian border," the former official said. "Civilians would
      be hired to train the Iraqi police, with the eventual goal of
      separating the local police from the Iraqi military. The White House
      believes that if American troops stay in Iraq long enough—with enough
      troops—the bad guys will end up killing each other, and Iraqi
      citizens, fed up with internal strife, will come up with a solution.
      It'll take a long time to move the troops and train the police. It's a
      time line to infinity."

      In a subsequent interview, the former senior Bush Administration
      official said that he had also been told that the Pentagon has been at
      work on a plan in Iraq that called for a military withdrawal from the
      major urban areas to a series of fortified bases near the borders. The
      working assumption was that, with the American troops gone from the
      most heavily populated places, the sectarian violence would "burn
      out." "The White House is saying it's going to stabilize," the former
      senior Administration official said, "but it may stabilize the wrong way."

      One problem with the proposal that the Administration enlist Iran in
      reaching a settlement of the conflict in Iraq is that it's not clear
      that Iran would be interested, especially if the goal is to help the
      Bush Administration extricate itself from a bad situation.

      "Iran is emerging as a dominant power in the Middle East," I was told
      by a Middle East expert and former senior Administration official.
      "With a nuclear program, and an ability to interfere throughout the
      region, it's basically calling the shots. Why should they coöperate
      with us over Iraq?" He recounted a recent meeting with Mahmoud
      Ahmadinejad, who challenged Bush's right to tell Iran that it could
      not enrich uranium. "Why doesn't America stop enriching uranium?" the
      Iranian President asked. He laughed, and added, "We'll enrich it for
      you and sell it to you at a fifty-per-cent discount."



      To subscribe to this group, send an email to:

    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.