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January 10, 2009

NYT: Bush rejected Israeli request for Iran attack; authorized covert action

From today’s New York Times:

 WASHINGTON — President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel last year for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex and told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to senior American and foreign officials.

White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located.
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 Israel and brief Israeli officials on new American efforts to subtly sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, a major covert program that Mr. Bush is about to hand off to President-elect Barack Obama.

The story went on to confirm that covert actions intended to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programare ongoing. 
Also of note is the news that President Bush never authorized the Pentagon to plan for any attack scenarios beyond basic contingencies, despite what many critics had claimed.  The fears that an attack would make Iran determined to develop a nuclear weapon, along with fears of terrorist reprisals at Tehran’s behest, apparently proved too persuasive for Bush to act militarily on Iran’s nuclear program. 
This revelation poses a serious challenge for incoming President Obama.  He has been extensively briefed on the covert actions since his election, but he is now faced with the difficult choice of either continuing the controversial and dangerous program or abandoning it and opening himself up to charges of being “soft” on Iran’s nuclear development. 
When asked for comment, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said through a spokesperson: “a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time.”
So this raises new and interesting questions for the incoming Obama administration.  It appears that a military strike is off the table for now, but what of the covert actions?  As Seymour Hersh has reported, the US has given extensive support to ethnic militias inside Iran for some time.  And many of these groups are listed as terrorist organizations by the US State Department. 
Also, in light of this news, how does President-elect Obama expect the Iranians to agree to sit down for negotiations if they believe the US is covertly trying to undermine their nuclear program?  And what about all this on top of the efforts by members of Congress to impose a gasoline embargo on Iran as a way of gaining leverage prior to talks?  Trita has written about this extensively, and rightly points out the danger that US actions–even under Barack Obama–could actually lead to Iran’s refusal to sit down for negotiations, even after we agree to sit down with them. 
For more on what Iran’s nuclear intentions might be, check out Paul Kerr and Steve Clemons.
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PS.  This is something that’s bugging me…at the end of the article, the Times published this note:

Reporting for this article was developed in the course of research for “The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power,” to be published Tuesday by Harmony Books.

Did the Times release this story today so it would coincide with the release of the book to improve sales?  Could they have avoided the quandary this story poses for Obama if it had been released sooner?  Puzzling…

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