U.S. Pursues Covert Agenda In Iran

The U.S. refused a request from Israel in 2007 to provide weapons for an attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, U.S. officials confirm. But details have emerged about covert U.S. operations aimed at sabotaging Iran's nuclear program.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

We turn now to the difficult relationship between Iran, the United States and Israel. The New York Times reported today on Iran's nuclear program and an unusual exchange between the Bush administration and Israel. At issue: whether Israel should attack Iran's nuclear facilities. NPR has confirmed that Israel asked the United States for special bunker-busting bombs as well as permission to fly through Iraqi airspace on the way to Iran. The United States turned Israel down. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins me now. Tom, what have you learned?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, we've learned that the Israelis asked for additional bunker-buster bombs. They already have some from the United States, but for this type of mission - multiple targets, hardened facilities - they would need a lot more. Some of these bunker busters are 5,000 pounds. Now, the overflight rights are important because the quickest way to get from Israel to Iran is straight through Iraq. And now, the Americans control Iraqi airspace. But both the additional bunker busters and overflight rights have been denied.

ROBERTS: And why is the U.S. military against it?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. military doesn't think that this kind of operation would work. And the other thing is there are so many U.S. forces now in Iraq, right next door to Iran, that those troops would be vulnerable to Iranian missiles, Iranian sabotage. Also in the region, you also have the American Fifth Fleet not too far away from Iran. They, too, could be vulnerable to missile attacks or sabotage. Also, they don't want to widen - have another war in the region. They're already faced with Iraq, already faced with Afghanistan. And Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, talked about this last spring.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us.

BOWMAN: Now, Mullen also went on to say that, you know, I don't need it to be more unstable in the region. And he wants diplomacy to come forward here. He doesn't want any attacks against Iran.

ROBERTS: One of the things I noticed in the Times story was this idea that the Americans are actually trying to covertly delay or sabotage the Iranian nuclear power by working with manufacturers who supply them.

BOWMAN: That's right. What they would do is - computers, electronic equipment, any hardware, they could sabotage this by, let's say, having the equipment off specifications, sending faulty equipment, maybe put computer viruses in these. There are many, many ways you can sabotage some sort of a construction effort like this.

And actually there was precedent for this. During the Cold War, American intelligence agents were able to learn the secret messages of top officials in Iran, Iraq and Libya by going to the manufacturer, a Swiss manufacturer of encryption equipment, and they were able to secretly rig these machines so they could easily break the codes and read the messages of these officials.

ROBERTS: So where does all this leave the new president-elect?

BOWMAN: Well, he said - Obama has also said, of course, that what he would like to see is more diplomacy in the region, particularly talking with Iran. He would like to see economic sanctions continue. And clearly, he has the support of Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen in not having any sort of military action at this point.

ROBERTS: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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