US preparations for an air strike against Iran are at an advanced stage, in spite of repeated public denials by the administration of US President George W. Bush, informed sources in Washington said.
The military build-up going on in the Gulf would allow the US to mount an attack by the spring. But the sources said that if there was an attack, it would more likely be next year, just before Bush leaves office.
Neo-conservatives, particularly at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI), are urging Bush to open a new front against Iran.
So too is Vice President Dick Cheney. The state department and the Pentagon are opposed, as are Democratic congressmen and the overwhelming majority of Republicans.
The sources said that Bush had not yet made a decision. The Bush administration insists the military build-up is not offensive in nature but aimed at containing Iran and forcing it to make diplomatic concessions. The aim is to persuade Tehran to curb its suspect nuclear weapons program and abandon ambitions for regional expansion.
Robert Gates, the new US defense secretary, said yesterday: "I don't know how many times the president, secretary [of state Condoleezza] Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran."
But Vincent Cannistraro, a Washington-based intelligence analyst, shared the sources' assessment that Pentagon planning was well under way.
"Planning is going on, in spite of public disavowals by Gates. Targets have been selected. For a bombing campaign against nuclear sites, it is quite advanced. The military assets to carry this out are being put in place," he said.
"We are planning for war. It is incredibly dangerous," he added.
Cannistraro, who worked for the CIA and the National Security Council, stressed that no decision had been made.
Last month Bush ordered a second battle group, led by the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis, to the Gulf in support of the USS Eisenhower. The Stennis is due to arrive within the next 10 days. Extra US Patriot missiles have been sent to the region, as well as more minesweepers, in anticipation of Iranian retaliatory action.
In another sign that preparations are under way, Bush has ordered oil reserves to be stockpiled.
The danger is that the build-up could spark an accidental war. Iranian officials said on Thursday that they had tested missiles capable of hitting warships in the Gulf.
Colonel Sam Gardiner, a former air force officer who has carried out war games with Iran as the target, supported the view that planning for an air strike was underway.
"Gates said there is no planning for war. We know this is not true. He possibly meant there is no plan for an immediate strike. It was sloppy wording. All the moves being made over the last few weeks are consistent with what you would do if you were going to do an air strike. We have to throw away the notion the US could not do it because it is too tied up in Iraq. It is an air operation," he said.
One of the main driving forces behind war, apart from the vice president's office, is the AEI, headquarters of the neo-conservatives.
A member of the AEI coined the slogan "axis of evil" that originally lumped Iran in with Iraq and North Korea. Its influence on the White House appeared to be in decline last year amid endless bad news from Iraq, for which it had been a cheerleader.
But in the face of opposition from Congress, the Pentagon and state department, Bush opted last month for an AEI plan to send more troops to Iraq. Will he support calls from within the AEI for a strike on Iran?
Josh Muravchik, a Middle East specialist at the AEI, is among its most vocal supporters of such a strike.
"I do not think anyone in the US is talking about invasion. We have been chastened by the experience of Iraq, even a hawk like myself," he said.
But an air strike was another matter. The danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon "is not just that it might use it out of the blue but as a shield to do all sorts of mischief. I do not believe there will be any way to stop this happening other than physical force," Muravchik said.
Bush is part of the US generation that refuses to forgive Iran for the 1979 to 1981 hostage crisis. He leaves office in January 2009 and has said repeatedly that he does not want a legacy in which Iran has achieved superpower status in the region and come close to acquiring a nuclear weapon capability.
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