By Jim Lobe
The administration of President Barack Obama should take steps to make threats of a possible U.S. or Israeli attack against Iran more credible, according to the fourth in a series of studies released here Wednesday by a 13-man “bipartisan” task force dominated by Iran hawks.
Among other steps, Washington should increase its naval deployments to Gulf, scale up the frequency and size of its military exercises there, and augment the offensive strike capabilities of its Gulf Arab allies, in order to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear programme, according to the 76-page report released under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Washington should also supply Israel with several aerial re-fueling tankers and 200 GBU-31 “bunker buster” bombs to add to its existing stockpile of about 100 bunker-buster GBU-28 munitions.
“…(W)hile we do not advocate an Israeli military strike, we believe a more credible Israeli threat can only increase the pressure on Iran to negotiate,” said Air Force Gen. (ret.) Charles Wald, a co-chair of the task force, in a statement released with the report.
If such measures, combined with ever-tougher economic sanctions, fail to achieve their goal, Washington should launch an “effective surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear program” involving aerial attacks and the deployment of U.S. Special Forces units over a period of weeks, according to the task force.
The latest report, entitled “Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock”, comes amid considerable uncertainty – if not outright confusion – about the intentions both of Israel and the administration, as well as the Iranian regime itself.
The rhetorical reaction in Tehran to harsh new financial and oil- related sanctions that are being implemented by Washington and the European Union (EU) has been defiant.
However, senior officials from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) returned from a three-day visit to Iran this week suggesting that their hosts had been more forthcoming in clarifying questions about possible military applications of its nuclear programme than in the past. A follow-up visit is scheduled to take place in three weeks.
At the same time, senior administration officials here have sent a series of mixed signals over the past month, ranging from repeated statements that Washington hopes to resume P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme and suggestions that a military strike would prove counter-productive, to the explicit assertion of “red lines” that Iran could not cross without incurring a military response.
On Sunday, for example, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta vowed to take “whatever steps are necessary” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, while on Tuesday, the director of national intelligence, Gen. James Clapper, testified that Tehran may be preparing to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S. in the event of a war.
Meanwhile, Congress, where the Israel lobby exerts its greatest influence, appears poised to enact a new round of economic sanctions even before the most draconian yet – barring foreign institutions doing business with Iran’s central bank from the U.S. financial system – have taken full effect.
As for Israel, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared to go along with the administration’s efforts to tamp down tensions that reached a high point after last month’s assassination, presumably by Israel’s Mossad, of a Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.
At one point, Netanyahu himself suggested that the sanctions strategy may be having the desired effect, while Defence Minister Ehud Barak claimed that any possible Israeli attack on Iran was “far off”.
But that notion was countered by the publication in the Sunday New York Times Magazine of an essay by a well-connected Israeli journalist who, on the basis of numerous interviews with Barak and other senior security officials, predicted that Israel would almost certainly strike Iran this year if its nuclear programme was not halted.
Amid these confusing messages, the BPC task force report clearly sides with the hawks, at one point even scolding top U.S. and Israeli officials, including Panetta and Barak, for expressing any reservations about taking military action.
“By injecting such uncertainty, Iranian leaders may no longer be clear that their actions will have consequences which are beyond their ability to bear,” the report complained.
In addition to Wald, the task force was co-chaired by a conservative former Virginia Democratic senator, Charles Robb. The group also included other retired flag officers, several former congressmen from both parties, as well as three prominent neo-conservatives who served in the Bush administration: former Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, Amb. Eric Edelman; Vice President Dick Cheney’s top Middle East aide, John Hannah; and former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and Nonproflieration Stephen Rademaker.
As in previous task force reports on Iran, the staff director was Michael Makovsky, who worked as a consultant to the controversial Pentagon office set up in 2002 to find evidence of operational ties between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein as a justification for the invasion the following year.
“Preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability is the most urgent national security challenge facing the United States,” the report asserts at the outset. It goes on to argue a nuclear Iran will not be “deterrable” or “containable” in the same way that other nuclear powers, including North Korea, have been.
It claims that Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon – the threshold which, according to the report, would give it a nuclear-weapons capability – within two to six months “should it choose to do so.”
While the report suggests a negotiated settlement with Iran was the primary goal of enhancing the credibility of U.S. and Israeli military threats against Iran, Makovsky told IPS that the task force was opposed to any solution that permitted Tehran to continue its enrichment of uranium.
Most Iran experts here believe that Iran is unlikely to agree to stop enrichment altogether. Tehran has hinted from time to time that it could agree to limiting enrichment to 3.5 percent and an enhanced IAEA inspection regime.
“Our report says clearly that Iran needs to shut down its nuclear programme,” he said.
The report notes that an Israeli attack on Iran “would pose serious risks”. But Washington “could not remain neutral in an Israeli-Iran conflict.
“If Israel attacked and Iran retaliated strongly, the United States would have to respond, meaning that we could be dragged into a conflict at a time not of our choosing. We are not encouraging Israel to attack, but the United States must make clear that our country will never abandon Israel,” it said.
In addition to hitting suspected nuclear sites, according to the report, an initial U.S. military attack should target Iranian communications systems and air-defence and missile sites, facilities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iranian and IRGC navies, sites related to Iran’s missile and biological or chemical weapons programmes, munitions storage facilities, and airfields, aircraft and helicopters on the ground or in the air.
If, as a result of retaliation by Tehran or its allies in the region, it was deemed necessary to escalate the conflict, Washington should expand its target list to include Iranian tanks and artillery units, power generation plants and electrical grids, transportation infrastructure, and manufacturing plants and refineries.
While “U.S. plans would not include targeting of civilians,” according to the task force, Washington should also prepare to provide humanitarian relief in Iran “to counter any crisis that could result from kinetic action”.
“The United States would lose international support for military action against Iran – or for future action against other states – if it neglected to address the humanitarian consequences of a military strike,” according to the report.
The report acknowledges that the U.S. public, in the wake of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, is war weary, particularly in light of the country’s economic difficulties. “The Iranian regime does not pose the same threat as the Third Reich,” it noted, “but neither does defeating it require such a Herculean effort.”
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.