President Bush's second inauguration on Thursday will provide the signal for an intense and urgent debate in Washington over whether or when to extend the "global war on terror" to Iran, according to officials and foreign policy analysts in Washington. That debate is being driven by neoconservatives at the Pentagon, who emerged from the post-election Bush reshuffle unscathed despite their involvement in collecting misleading intelligence on Iraq's weapons in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.
Washington has stood aside from recent European negotiations with Iran, and Pentagon hardliners are convinced that the current European-brokered deal suspending nuclear enrichment and intensifying weapons inspections is unenforceable and will collapse in months. Only the credible threat, and if necessary the use, of air and special operations attacks against Iran's suspected nuclear facilities will stop the ruling clerics in Tehran from acquiring warheads, many in the administration argue.
Moderates, who are far fewer in the second Bush administration than the first, insist that if Iran does have a secret weapons program, it is likely to be dispersed and buried in places almost certainly unknown to U.S. intelligence. The potential for Iranian retaliation inside Iraq and elsewhere is so great, the argument runs, that there is in effect no military option.
A senior administration official involved in developing Iran policy rejected that argument. "It is not as simple as that," he told the Guardian at a recent foreign policy forum in Washington. "It is not a straightforward problem, but at some point the costs of doing nothing may just become too high. In Iran you have the intersection of nuclear weapons and proven ties to terrorism. That is what we are looking at now."
The New Yorker reported this week that the Pentagon had already sent special operations teams into Iran to locate possible nuclear weapons sites. The report by Seymour Hersh, a veteran investigative journalist, was played down by the White House and the Pentagon, with comments that stopped short of an outright denial. "The Iranian regime's apparent nuclear ambitions and its demonstrated support for terrorist organizations is a global challenge that deserves much more serious treatment than Seymour Hersh provides," Lawrence DiRita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Monday: "Mr Hersh's article is so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed."
However, the Guardian has learned the Pentagon was recently contemplating the infiltration of members of the Iranian rebel group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) over the Iraq-Iran border to collect intelligence. The group, based at Camp Ashraf near Baghdad, was under the protection of Saddam Hussein and is under U.S. guard while Washington decides on its strategy. The MEK has been declared a terrorist group by the State Department, but a former Farsi-speaking CIA officer said he had been asked by neoconservatives in the Pentagon to travel to Iraq to oversee "MEK cross-border operations." He refused, and does not know if those operations have begun.
"They are bringing a lot of the old warhorses from the Reagan and Iran-Contra days into a sort of kitchen Cabinet outside the government to write up policy papers on Iran," the former officer said. He said the policy discussion was being overseen by Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, who was one of the principal advocates of the Iraq war. The Pentagon did not return calls for comment on the issue Monday. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Feith's Office of Special Plans also used like-minded experts on contract from outside the government to serve as consultants helping the Pentagon counter the more cautious positions of the State Department and the CIA.
"They think in Iran you can just go in and hit the facilities and destabilize the government. They believe [if] they can get rid of a few crazy mullahs and bring in the young guys who like Gap jeans, all the world's problems are solved. I think it's delusional," the former CIA officer said.
However, others believe that at a minimum military strikes could set back Iran's nuclear program several years. Reuel Marc Gerecht, another former CIA officer who is now a leading neoconservative voice on Iran at the American Enterprise Institute, said: "It would certainly delay [the program], and it can be done again. It's not a one-time affair. I would be shocked if a military strike could not delay the program." Gerecht said the internal debate in the administration was only just beginning.
"This administration does not really have an Iran policy," he said. "Iraq has been a fairly consuming endeavor, but it's getting now toward the point where people are going to focus on [Iran] hard and have a great debate."
That debate could be brought to a head in the next few months. Diplomats in Vienna, Austria, who are following the Iranian nuclear saga at the International Atomic Energy Agency expect the Iran dispute to reerupt by the middle of this year, predicting a breakdown of the diplomatic track that the E.U. troika of Britain, Germany and France is pursuing with Tehran. The Iran-E.U. agreement reached in November was aimed at getting Iran to abandon the manufacture of nuclear fuel that can be further refined to bomb grade.
Now the Iranians are feeding suspicion by continuing to process uranium concentrate into gaseous form, a breach "not of the letter but of the spirit of the agreement," said one European diplomat.
Opinions differ widely over how long it would take Iran to produce a deliverable nuclear warhead, and some analysts believe that Iranian scientists have encountered serious technical difficulties. "The Israelis believe that by 2007, the Iranians could enrich enough uranium for a bomb. Some of us believe it could be the end of this decade," said David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert at the Institute for Science and International Security. A recent war game carried out by retired military officers, intelligence officials and diplomats for the Atlantic Monthly came to the conclusion that there were no feasible military options and if negotiations and the threat of sanctions fail, the United States might have to accept Iran as a nuclear power.
However, Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who led the war game, acknowledged that the Bush administration might not come to the same conclusion. "Everything you hear about the planning for Iraq suggests logic may not be the basis for the decision," he said.
Gerecht, who took part in the war game but dissented from the conclusion, believes the Bush White House, still mired in Iraq, has yet to make up its mind. "The bureaucracy will come down on the side of doing nothing. The real issue is: Will the president and the vice president disagree with them? If I were a betting man, I'd bet the U.S. will not use preemptive force. However, I would not want to bet a lot."