US may accept Iranian nuclear bomb

by Sarah Baxter (source: The Sunday Times)
Sunday, October 1, 2006

AMERICA is going to have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran, US intelligence analysts have concluded at a secret meeting near Washington.
Senior operatives and outside experts from the intelligence community were almost unanimous in their view that little could be done to stop Iran acquiring the components for a nuclear bomb, The Sunday Times has learnt.

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities was rejected on the grounds that the intelligence needed for successful air strikes was lacking. “We only have an imperfect understanding of the extent and location of the Iranian programme,” said one source with knowledge of the meeting. “Even if we got the order to blow it up, we wouldn’t know how to.”

The White House’s earlier enthusiasm for military strikes if all else failed has cooled after warnings from the Pentagon and intelligence analysts that the risk to reward ratio of taking action was too high. At best 80% of the targets are mapped out and then only sketchily. The “collateral damage” to civilians could be considerable, sources say.

“Unless you can be 100% effective and set the programme back by two decades, you’ll just get a short-term delay and you may not produce a result that is better than the current one,” an intelligence analyst said.

General John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East, has warned that striking Iran could cripple oil supplies, unleash a “surrogate” terrorist army and lead to missile attacks on America’s regional allies. The army is particularly concerned about Iran’s ability to destabilise an already chaotic Iraq.

John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, has told President George W Bush that there is no rush to use force as Iran’s nuclear programme is beset with technical errors. “He has been saying, ‘Slow down, it’s not an immediate problem’,” said Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has staked her reputation on achieving a negotiated settlement with the help of the “EU3” nations of Britain, France and Germany.

“President Bush is not going to take military action against the advice of the secretary of state, US generals and the director of national intelligence,” Clawson said.

British sources confirmed that the military option was receding. “There are clear signs that the White House is keener on following a political approach,” said a senior British source. “There’s never been an appetite in the Pentagon for taking Iran on and the EU3 might get a deal that would bring the Iranians to the negotiating table in a reasonable fashion.”

Despite reports that the Iranians were willing to suspend their programme secretly, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defiantly announced that Iran’s “atomic work” will not stop for a single day.

Intelligence analysts concluded at last week’s meeting that there were no negotiating carrots or sticks, such as sanctions, capable of persuading Iran to halt its pursuit of nuclear know-how — which it maintains is for peaceful energy purposes.

“The sobering view is that even if there is a deal, the Iranians would cheat,” another source said.

“The conclusion is that America is going to have to live with the bomb unless there’s some miracle, such as a major accident, a major defector or an orange revolution,” the source added, referring to the people’s protests that brought reformers to power in Ukraine. None of these scenarios is considered likely.

In a sign that a military option remains theoretically on the table, a group of minesweepers that could be used to clear any potential Iranian oil blockade of the Strait of Hormuz have been given “prepare to deploy” orders, which could see them leaving port for the Gulf as early as today.

The biggest deterrent might come from the Israelis, not the Americans. Israeli defence sources are increasingly convinced that it will fall to them to stop a nuclear Iran. In their view Iran should not be allowed to get to the “point of no return” where it has the know-how to build a bomb.

“The Israelis are going to have to make a decision earlier than we do,” Clawson said. “That’s a real problem for us.”

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