Will President Bush bomb Iran?

Tim Shipman
London Telegraph
Monday Sept 3, 2007

In a nondescript room, two blocks from the American Capitol building, a group of Bush administration staffers is gathered to consider the gravest threat their government has faced this century: the testing of a nuclear weapon by Iran.

The United States, no longer prepared to tolerate the risk that Iranian nuclear weapons will be used against Israel, or passed to terrorists, has already launched a bombing campaign to destroy known Iranian nuclear sites, air bases and air defence sites. Iran has retaliated by cutting off oil to America and its allies, blockading the Straits of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf bottleneck, and sanctioned an uprising by Shia militias in southern Iraq that has shut down 60 per cent of Iraq's oil exports.

The job of the officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Energy, who have gathered in an office just off Massachusetts Avenue, behind the rail terminus, Union Station, is to prevent a spike in oil prices that will pitch the world's economy into a catastrophic spin.

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The good news is that this was a war game; for those who fear war with Iran, the less happy news is that the officials were real. The simulation, which took four months, was run by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with close links to the White House. Its conclusions, drawn up last month and seen by The Sunday Telegraph, have been passed on to military and civilian planners charged with drawing up plans for confronting Iran.

News that elements of the American government are working in earnest on how to deal with the fallout of an attack on Iran come at a tense moment.

On Tuesday, President Bush dramatically stepped up his war of words with the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom the US government accuses of overseeing a covert programme to develop nuclear weapons. In a speech to war veterans, Mr Bush said: "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust."

He went on to condemn Iranian meddling in Iraq, where America increasingly blames the deaths of its soldiers on Iranian bombs and missiles. Mr Bush made clear that he had authorised military commanders to confront "Iran's murderous activities".

This was widely taken to mean that he is set on a confrontation with Iran that will culminate in a bombing campaign to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, just as Israel bombed Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in 1981.

The president's intervention came just weeks after leaks from a White House meeting suggested that Vice-President Dick Cheney, who is understood to favour the use of force, has regained the upper hand over the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who both advocate diplomacy and sanctions to isolate Iran. Mr Cheney reacted with fury when the State Department suggested that negotiations might continue past January 2009, when Mr Bush leaves the White House.

So the question is: did Mr Bush last week set America inexorably on a path to the next war?

Washington officials, with close links to the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council, say that the speech was designed as a threat not just to Iran, but to America's Western allies, along with Russia and China, who have been slow to support - or who have opposed - UN sanctions against Iran. James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, who helped devise the war-game scenario, said: "It is simultaneously a shot across Iran's bows and an appeal for the international community to do more to stop or slow Iran's nuclear programme."

A former White House aide added: "If this creates in the Iranians' mind a state of fear such that they back off, that helps your diplomacy. Bush is a political poker player. To play poker, you have to know when to bluff."

Mr Bush had another reason for speaking out, too. With General David Petraeus due before Congress on September 11 to report on progress on his "surge" in Iraq, Mr Bush wanted to make the case that a withdrawal from Iraq would boost Iranian influence there - in the hope that this would increase domestic support for his policies.

In Teheran, Mr Ahmadinejad was also quick to make the Iraq connection, but as an impediment, not impetus, to American adventurism. "We have an expression in Farsi which says, 'Bring up the one that you have given birth to first, then go for another one'," he said. "Let them do what they started in Afghanistan and Iraq then think of other countries." He dismissed threats of military action as "more of a propaganda measure than factual".

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