January 11, 2009
Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site U.S.
White House officials never conclusively determined whether
The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily. But the tense exchanges also prompted the White House to step up intelligence-sharing with
This account of the expanded American covert program and the Bush administration’s efforts to dissuade
Several details of the covert effort have been omitted from this account, at the request of senior
The interviews also suggest that while Mr. Bush was extensively briefed on options for an overt American attack on
The interviews also indicate that Mr. Bush was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on
Instead, Mr. Bush embraced more intensive covert operations actions aimed at Iran, the interviews show, having concluded that the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies were failing to slow the uranium enrichment efforts. Those covert operations, and the question of whether
The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate
Knowledge of the program has been closely held, yet inside the Bush administration some officials are skeptical about its chances of success, arguing that past efforts to undermine Iran’s nuclear program have been detected by the Iranians and have only delayed, not derailed, their drive to unlock the secrets of uranium enrichment.
Late last year, international inspectors estimated that Iran had 3,800 centrifuges spinning, but American intelligence officials now estimate that the figure is 4,000 to 5,000, enough to produce about one weapon’s worth of uranium every eight months or so.
While declining to be specific, one American official dismissed the latest covert operations against
Others disagreed, making the point that the Israelis would not have been dissuaded from conducting an attack if they believed that the American effort was unlikely to prove effective.
Since his election on Nov. 4, Mr. Obama has been extensively briefed on the American actions in
Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama must decide whether the covert actions begun by Mr. Bush are worth the risks of disrupting what he has pledged will be a more active diplomatic effort to engage with
Either course could carry risks for Mr. Obama. An inherited intelligence or military mission that went wrong could backfire, as happened to President Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs operation in
An Intelligence Conflict
That conclusion also stunned Mr. Bush’s national security team — and Mr. Bush himself, who was deeply suspicious of the conclusion, according to officials who discussed it with him.
The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate, was based on a trove of Iranian reports obtained by penetrating
Those reports indicated that Iranian engineers had been ordered to halt development of a nuclear warhead in 2003, even while they continued to speed ahead in enriching uranium, the most difficult obstacle to building a weapon.
The “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate, which were publicly released, emphasized the suspension of the weapons work.
The public version made only glancing reference to evidence described at great length in the 140-page classified version of the assessment: the suspicion that
The Israelis responded angrily and rebutted the American report, providing American intelligence officials and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with evidence that they said indicated that the Iranians were still working on a weapon.
While the Americans were not convinced that the Iranian weapons development was continuing, the Israelis were not the only ones highly critical of the
In an interview, Mr. Gates said that in his whole career he had never seen “an N.I.E. that had such an impact on
Prime Minister Olmert came to the same conclusion. He had previously expected, according to several Americans and Israeli officials, that Mr. Bush would deal with
Early in 2008, the Israeli government signaled that it might be preparing to take matters into its own hands. In a series of meetings, Israeli officials asked
Mr. Bush deflected the first two requests, pushing the issue off, but “we said ‘hell no’ to the overflights,” one of his top aides said. At the White House and the Pentagon, there was widespread concern that a political uproar in
The Israeli ambassador to the
Last June, the Israelis conducted an exercise over the
“This really spooked a lot of people,” one White House official said. White House officials discussed the possibility that the Israelis would fly over
Admiral Mullen, traveling to
Yet by the time Admiral Mullen made his visit, Israeli officials appear to have concluded that without American help, they were not yet capable of hitting the site effectively enough to strike a decisive blow against the Iranian program.
Mr. Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said last week that Mr. Gates — whom Mr. Obama is retaining as defense secretary — believed that “a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time.”
A New Covert Push
Throughout 2008, the Bush administration insisted that it had a plan to deal with the Iranians: applying overwhelming financial pressure that would persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear program, as foreign enterprises like the French company Total pulled out of Iranian oil projects, European banks cut financing, and trade credits were squeezed.
But the Iranians were making uranium faster than the sanctions were making progress. As Mr. Bush realized that the sanctions he had pressed for were inadequate and his military options untenable, he turned to the C.I.A. His hope, several people involved in the program said, was to create some leverage against the Iranians, by setting back their nuclear program while sanctions continued and, more recently, oil prices dropped precipitously.
There were two specific objectives: to slow progress at Natanz and other known and suspected nuclear facilities, and keep the pressure on a little-known Iranian professor named Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a scientist described in classified portions of American intelligence reports as deeply involved in an effort to design a nuclear warhead for
Past American-led efforts aimed at Natanz had yielded little result. Several years ago, foreign intelligence services tinkered with individual power units that
A number of centrifuges blew up, prompting public declarations of sabotage by Iranian officials. An engineer in
What Mr. Bush authorized, and informed a narrow group of Congressional leaders about, was a far broader effort, aimed at the entire industrial infrastructure that supports the Iranian nuclear program. Some of the efforts focused on ways to destabilize the centrifuges. The details are closely held, for obvious reasons, by American officials. One official, however, said, “It was not until the last year that they got really imaginative about what one could do to screw up the system.”
Then, he cautioned, “none of these are game-changers,” meaning that the efforts would not necessarily cripple the Iranian program. Others in the administration strongly disagree.
In the end, success or failure may come down to how much pressure can be brought to bear on Mr. Fakrizadeh, whom the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate identifies, in its classified sections, as the manager of Project 110 and Project 111. According to a presentation by the chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency, those were the names for two Iranian efforts that appeared to be dedicated to designing a warhead and making it work with an Iranian missile. Iranian officials say the projects are a fiction, made up by the
While the international agency readily concedes that the evidence about the two projects remains murky, one of the documents it briefly displayed at a meeting of the agency’s member countries in Vienna last year, from Mr. Fakrizadeh’s projects, showed the chronology of a missile launching, ending with a warhead exploding about 650 yards above ground — approximately the altitude from which the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was detonated.
The exact status of Mr. Fakrizadeh’s projects today is unclear. While the National Intelligence Estimate reported that activity on Projects 110 and 111 had been halted, the fear among intelligence agencies is that if the weapons design projects are turned back on, will they know?
David E. Sanger is the chief
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs