Options Limited for Military Attack on Iran
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. President Bush is distancing himself from reports that he's considering a military strike against Iran to disable its alleged nuclear weapons program. His comments follow reports in the New Yorker Magazine and the Washington Post that said that the Pentagon is actively updating options already on its shelf.
NPR's Pentagon Correspondent John Hendren reports on what the president had to say and on how a U.S. attack on Iran might be carried out.
JOHN HENDREN reporting:
Speaking at the Johns Hopkins of Advanced International Studies, President Bush dismissed reports of an evolving plan to attack Iran as wild speculation.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The doctrine of prevention is to work together to prevent the Iranians of having a nuclear weapon. I know--I know we're here in Washington. You know, prevention means force. It doesn't mean force, necessarily. In this case it means diplomacy.
HENDREN: British Foreign Minister Jack Straw went further at a weekend interview with the BBC.
Mr. JACK STRAW (British Foreign Minister): The idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts.
HENDREN: But military analysts say Iran appears unlikely to be moved by diplomacy and that if the United States is determined to stop Iran's nuclear program, it might have to do so militarily.
Graham Allison of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government says it reminds him of the time President Kennedy persuade Nikita Khrushchev to back off a plan to place Russian missiles in Cuba.
Mr. GRAHAM ALLISON (Harvard's Kennedy School of Government): I think this is a slow-motion Cuban missile crisis, in which you can see the actors moving almost inexorably to a showdown, at which an American president is going to have to choose between acquiescence in Iran's nuclear bomb, on the one hand, and a military attack on the other.
HENDREN: With U.S. forces stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing an even better equipped military in Iran, an Iraq-style ground invasion is unlikely. What does seem to be under discussion is air attacks, probably with B-2 stealth bombers and cruise missiles fired from the Persian Gulf at a couple of key sites. The targets include the Isfahan facility, where Iran turns uranium into gas; and a site in Natanz, where Iran is beginning to assemble centrifuges required for nuclear weapons.
Sam Gardiner is a retired Air Force colonel and former instructor at the National War College. He says the Pentagon would probably use 400 bombs to strike about 50 sites, including Iran's medium-ranged ballistic missiles, chemical warfare facilities, airbases, and as many as 20 alleged terrorist training camps. But, while nuclear inspectors agree that Iran has at least 14 known nuclear sites, intelligence on many targets is unreliable, and Gardiner says he fears a spreading conflict.
Mr. SAM GARDINER (Retired Air Force Colonel and Former Instructor, National War College): We could end up, over this series of events, in a greater Middle East war. It begins to approach World War III, in my mind. There's the potential there.
HENDREN: Joe Cirincione is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says that if attacked, Iran is likely to strike back at American interests or its ally, Israel.
Mr. JOE CIRINCIONE (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Any military attack on Iran is going to be an act of war. This will be their Pearl Harbor. There is going to be a devastating Iranian reaction. There's six or seven things they could do. All of them are terrible. They could launch a direct military attack against U.S. forces. They could encourage the Shia militia in Iraq, who are allied with Iran, to rise up and attack us. And the likelihood is that this is going to spiral out of control. And in fact, almost all of the war games that we've conducted, modeling such a conflict, do escalate out of control. It all gets worse very quickly.
HENDREN: The New Yorker report says the Pentagon is considering using nuclear bunker buster bombs to target suspected underground sites. But Anthony Cordesman, a former top Pentagon official who's now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the United States doesn't need to go nuclear to destroy Iran's nukes.
Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Former Pentagon Official, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The U.S. would probably use conventional bunker busters. If Iran is determined to acquire a weapon, the only way to deal with this is not to have one strike. It is to restrike and keep hitting targets. It wouldn't be necessary to destroy the entire facility.
HENDREN: The analysts estimate that a successful military strike could set Iran's nuclear program back only two to five years, and they note that it would almost certainly prompt Iran to withdraw from international non-proliferation agreements. And when it comes to regime change, an attack by foreign forces could solidify support for the current government instead.
John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.
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