In what is a palpable increase in rhetoric against the Iranian nuclear program, the head of the U.S. Air Force has warned that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have prepared military options to strike Iranian nuclear sites in the event of a conflict, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.
According to Bloomberg, Obama administration officials are "escalating warnings that the U.S. could join Israel in attacking Iran if the Islamic republic doesn’t dispel concerns that its nuclear-research program is aimed at producing weapons."
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told reporters that the U.S. military has prepared military options should a conflict with Iran break out. “What we can do, you wouldn’t want to be in the area,” Schwartz told reporters in Washington on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported.
The report added, "Pentagon officials said military options being prepared start with providing aerial refueling for Israeli planes and also include attacking the pillars of the clerical regime, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Quds Force, regular Iranian military bases and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security." Bloomberg said the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Pentagon plans are classified.
“Because there is uncertainty about the administration’s will to act in the Israelis’ minds, and more importantly in the Iranians’ minds, it’s very important that we don’t just say that all options are on the table, but also show that they are, by some overt means,” U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, who heads the House Intelligence Committee and recently visited Israel, told Bloomberg in a telephone interview.
The warnings come four days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama are to meet in Washington for what officials in both countries are billing as a crucial meeting about Iran.
Recent high-level talks between American and Israeli defense and intelligence officials "have failed to dispel Israeli doubts that President Barack Obama is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands,"an American official told Bloomberg. Defense Minister Ehud Barak described a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday only as “important and useful.”
Meanwhile, a separate report in the Washington Post on Wednesday quoting U.S. military and intelligence analysts claimed that the Fordow bunker built deep inside an Iranian mountain is more vulnerable to U.S. weapons than previously believed and a sustained attack over a few days would likely cause irreparable damage to the facility.
The analysts were uncertain over whether the Pentagon’s new “bunker buster” weapons - known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) - could puncture Iran’s underground uranium-enrichment facilities in a single strike. However, they said that a sustained attack by the U.S. over multiple days would likely leave the plant paralyzed and unusable by damaging tunnels, highly sensitive centrifuge equipment, and the pipes, tubes and wires needed for its operation. Such an attack would probably set back Iran’s nuclear program by years, the report said.
“Hardened facilities require multiple sorties,” The Washington Post quoted a former senior intelligence official, who has studied the Fordow facility, as saying on condition of anonymity. “The question is, how many turns do you get at the apple?”
The report comes after The Wall Street journal said in January that the Pentagon believed the Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb is not capable of destroying Iran’s most heavily-guarded nuclear bunkers.
Initial experiments revealed that the bomb, as it is currently built, would not be able to destroy some Iranian nuclear facilities, either because of their depth in the ground or because of new fortifications added by Tehran to secure them. Among the heavily-protected bunkers that the U.S. bomb would have difficulty penetrating is the Fordow uranium enrichment plant, buried in the mountains near the Iranian city of Qom, and surrounded by anti-aircraft batteries.
Doubts about the effectiveness of the MOP led the Pentagon this month to secretly seek an additional $82 million from Congress to improve the bomb’s capabilities. The move comes as part of stepped-up preparations in the U.S. for a possible attack on Iran.
The capabilities of the bunker-buster weapons are likely to be on the agenda for discussions with Israeli leaders arriving in Washington over the next week, The Washington Post said. The Obama administration wants to assure the Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of U.S. determination to stop Iran if it decides to develop a nuclear bomb.
While Washington has said that it has no immediate plans to attack Iranian nuclear sites and has previously cautioned Israel that such an attack could result in heavy consequences, saying an attack would be "imprudent," officials from the Obama administration have in recent weeks increased warnings that the U.S. could join Israel in launching a strike on Iran if Tehran doesn’t prove that its nuclear program is not aimed at developing weapons.Netanyahu has told U.S. officials that he wants U.S. President Barack Obama to clearly outline what Washington sees as “red lines” that Iran cannot cross in its nuclear program, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. According to the report, the U.S. administration is considering this as it prepares Obama’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) next week and plans the agenda for the president’s meeting with Netanyahu on Monday.
Some U.S. administration officials said that if Obama decides to more specifically define his “red lines,” he will likely do so in private with Netanyahu, rather than publicly announce it in his AIPAC speech, the Wall Street Journal said.
The discussion on Iran has also played a role in the U.S. political arena. Sen. Lindsay Graham, one of the five U.S. senators who met Netanyahu last week in Jerusalem, slammed Obama for not being clear on Washington’s position against Iran.
“[The Israelis] think the [U.S.] administration is sending the wrong signal, and I do too,” Graham was quoted as saying by The Wall Street Journal. “The president needs to be reassuring to the Israelis that the policy of the United States is etched in stone: we will do everything, including military action, to stop a nuclear-armed Iran. I hope the administration when they talk about ‘all options’ will better define what those options are. We’re getting too far into the game to be overly nuanced now.”
Israel has welcomed international sanctions on Iran, but it is skeptical they will persuade Iran to back down. Israeli officials believe that by the time the toughest sanctions go into effect this summer, it may be too late to strike.
Meanwhile, in an Op-Ed published in The New York Times on Wednesday, former head of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin warned that the biggest problem regarding plans to stop Iran was time.
“Israel doesn’t have the safety of distance, nor do we have the United States Air Force’s advanced fleet of bombers and fighters. America could carry out an extensive air campaign using stealth technology and huge amounts of ammunition, dropping enormous payloads that are capable of hitting targets and penetrating to depths far beyond what Israel’s arsenal can achieve,” Yadlin wrote. “This gives America more time than Israel in determining when the moment of decision has finally been reached. And as that moment draws closer, differing timetables are becoming a source of tension.”
Yadlin concluded by stating that during next week’s meeting between Netanyahu and Obama, “What is needed is an ironclad American assurance that if Israel refrains from acting in its own window of opportunity — and all other options have failed to halt Tehran’s nuclear quest — Washington will act to prevent a nuclear Iran while it is still within its power to do so. I hope Mr. Obama will make this clear. If he does not, Israeli leaders may well choose to act while they still can.”
Netanyahu sets out for Washington late Thursday night. He is scheduled to meet with Obama on Monday next week after which he will deliver a speech to AIPAC.
Ahead of Netanyahu’s arrival in Washington, Barak met with Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to discuss the continuing tensions with Iran and Syria.
Meanwhile, the Deputy Head of Hezbollah Sheikh Naim Qassem told Reuters on Wednesday that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program would set the Middle East ablaze, possibly drag in the United States and unleash a conflict beyond the Jewish state’s control.
“America knows that if there is a war on Iran, this means that the whole region will be set alight, with no limit to the fires,” Qassem said.