WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Is U.S. President George W. Bush contemplating a U.S. air strike on Iran or permitting Israel to attempt one?
Bush's anticipated nationally televised address Wednesday follows the controversial report in the London Sunday Times citing sources in the Israeli military that Israel was planning an attack, possibly with tactical nuclear weapons, on at least three key Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israeli government denied the report.
Attributing comments to Israeli military sources, the Sunday Times said that "two Israeli air force squadrons are training to blow up an Iranian facility using low-yield nuclear 'bunker-busters.'"
"As soon as the green light is given, it will be one mission, one strike and the Iranian nuclear project will be demolished," the newspaper quoted one source as saying.
"The rattling (may be) directed at the Europeans, in particular, and the Americans who are involved at the United Nations," Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told UPI. The leak may be intended as a reminder that Israel considers the Iran nuclear threat of utmost importance and that Israel can act unilaterally, Nasr said.
Nasr also suggested that the leak from the Israeli military was aimed at sending a message to Iran that "consequences could be dire" if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to pursue his nuclear ambitions.
Some Washington analysts played down the likelihood that an Israeli air strike on Iran was imminent.
"Israel is engaged in countering the Iranian threats, and I'm sure they have contingency plans for various scenarios. One plan could be a military strike against nuclear installations," said Raymond Tanter, from the Iran Policy Committee, a Washington-based think tank. "With that said, I don't think that Israel is engaged in any particular operations in the near future concerning the Iranian nuclear facilities."
Jon Stolz, a former U.S. Army officer who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, said, "Just because there are plans to strike a country doesn't mean it's going to happen. The military's job is to be prepared."
Stolz said U.S. military troop movements could be an indicator of the Bush administration's designs, echoing the questions circulating among Washington policy makers and academics.
The Pentagon announced last week that the USS John C. Stennis, an amphibious carrier with 5,000 personnel, would deploy to the Persian Gulf this month. A spokesman for the U.S. Navy declined to confirm the exact departure date of the Stennis or discuss why the carrier, which was originally scheduled to be deployed to the Pacific, would now head to the Persian Gulf.
"Deployments are based on the operational needs of the Navy," the spokesman said.
The carrier and its escort ships will join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, which deployed to the Gulf in December.
Questions immediately arose regarding the need for two combat carrier groups in the Persian Gulf.
Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism adviser with the U.S. National Security Council, called the speculation "overblown."
"The United States has had a carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf every day of the year since 1990," he said.
But Clarke did not entirely dismiss the speculation. "It may be an attempt to signal Iran, and I have no problem with that," he said.
Clarke was similarly cautious about criticism over President Bush's appointment of Adm. William J. Fallon as head of the U.S. Central Command to oversee ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"By the time you become a four star in the United States military you have gone through enough training and preparation that you can run any of the combat commands. I don't think the fact that he's from the Navy suggests anything," said Clarke.
Stolz, however, suggested that Bush's choice of an admiral could indicate the direction of operations in the region. "How many times in history has CENTCOM been headed by a Navy man?" he asked. "None."
Stolz argued that Bush's expected announcement on Wednesday night of an increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq could indicate an attempt to position U.S. forces for an eventual confrontation with Iran.
"President Bush is using the idea of security in Iraq to put himself in a better position to strike Iran. And this is the one thing politically that he can control in the United States to prove who's really in charge," Stolz said.
Facing a protracted war in Iraq, perhaps the best step the Bush administration thinks it can take in the region is one that at least attempts to be prepared for the next big showdown.
"In circumstances like this, when the two sides don't talk to one another, when they are trying to read the tea leaves to see what the intention of the other side is, every little movement can be interpreted as significant," Nasr said.
"This is the kind of thing that we used to have with the Soviet Union in the old times. Everything becomes symbolic," he said.