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New Yourk Times : U.S. Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site
By DAVID E. SANGER
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.
This account of the expanded American covert program and the Bush administration’s efforts to dissuade Israel from an aerial attack on Iran emerged in interviews over the past 15 months with current and former American officials, outside experts, international nuclear inspectors and European and Israeli officials. None would speak on the record because of the great secrecy surrounding the intelligence developed on Iran.
Several details of the covert effort have been omitted from this account, at the request of senior United States intelligence and administration officials, to avoid harming continuing operations.The interviews also suggest that while Mr. Bush was extensively briefed on options for an overt American attack on Iran’s facilities, he never instructed the Pentagon to move beyond contingency planning, even during the final year of his presidency, contrary to what some critics have suggested.
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 Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors and drive Iran’s nuclear effort further out of view. Mr. Bush and his aides also discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war in which America’s 140,000 troops in Iraq would inevitably become involved.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 Israel will settle for something less than a conventional attack on Iran, pose immediate and wrenching decisions for Mr. Obama.
The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate Iran’s nuclear supply chain abroad, along with new efforts, some of them experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies. It is aimed at delaying the day that Iran can produce the weapons-grade fuel and designs it needs to produce a workable nuclear weapon.
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.
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 Iran.[...]
Israel’s effort to obtain the weapons, refueling capacity and permission to fly over Iraq for an attack on Iran grew out of its disbelief and anger at an American intelligence assessment completed in late 2007 that concluded that Iran had effectively suspended its development of nuclear weapons four years earlier.
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.[...]
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 Washington for a new generation of powerful bunker-busters, far more capable of blowing up a deep underground plant than anything in Israel’s arsenal of conventional weapons. They asked for refueling equipment that would allow their aircraft to reach Iran and return to Israel. And they asked for the right to fly over Iraq.
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 Iraq about the use of its American-controlled airspace could result in the expulsion of American forces from the country.
The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, declined several requests over the past four weeks to be interviewed about Israel’s efforts to obtain the weapons from Washington, saying through aides that he was too busy.
Last June, the Israelis conducted an exercise over the Mediterranean Sea that appeared to be a dry run for an attack on the enrichment plant at Natanz. When the exercise was analyzed at the Pentagon, officials concluded that the distances flown almost exactly equaled the distance between Israel and the Iranian nuclear site.
“This really spooked a lot of people,” one White House official said. White House officials discussed the possibility that the Israelis would fly over Iraq without American permission. In that case, would the American military be ordered to shoot them down? If the United States did not interfere to stop an Israeli attack, would the Bush administration be accused of being complicit in it?
Admiral Mullen, traveling to Israel in early July on a previously scheduled trip, questioned Israeli officials about their intentions. His Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, argued that an aerial attack could set Iran’s program back by two or three years, according to officials familiar with the exchange. The American estimates at the time were far more conservative.
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.
The United States did give Israel one item on its shopping list: high-powered radar, called the X-Band, to detect any Iranian missile launchings. It was the only element in the Israeli request that could be used solely for defense, not offense.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[...]
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 Iran.
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 United States.
[...]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?