WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- The iron triangle may be bending. According to military and former high-level administration sources, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is raising serious objections to what President George W. Bush calls "the military option" that could prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
This heralds the first important policy breech between the triumvirate of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld, sometimes known in Washington as "the iron triangle," in almost six years of the Bush administration.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington shorthand for Rumsfeld and his immediate staff, is not so much saying 'No' directly, the sources told United Press International, as listing a series of important objections to the military option.
By contrast, added the sources who asked to remain anonymous, Cheney has stepped up his advocacy of the military option by saying that the recent hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon have made it more feasible, by weakening the prospect that Iran could retaliate by pressing Hezbollah to unleash a wave of rocket attacks against Israel.
The OSD objections to a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites are not new, and have been cited by other critics in the past, but the fact that they are being taken seriously by the Pentagon adds a new complication to the Bush administration's decision-making at the highest levels.
The first objection is that the OSD is not convinced that U.S. and friendly intelligence have yet assembled a complete target list of Iran's clandestine and underground nuclear research and development facilities. A series of air and cruise missile strikes against known sites would amount to an act of war, a very high-risk undertaking if Iran retains undamaged sites that can maintain a basic nuclear credibility.
The second objection is that Iranian retaliation against the 130,000 U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, and other U.S. bases in Central Asia and the Middle East, could both complicate military operations and the political stabilization program in Iraq, and inflict serious casualties on U.S. personnel. There are some different perspectives on the military option among the different services. A military strike would be largely in the hands of the Air Force and of the U.S. Navy, who deploy the warplanes and cruise missiles that give the military options its credibility. But the Army, with its troops on the ground, would likely suffer the bulk of any retaliation.
The third objection being cited by the OSD is a somber warning from the State Department that a military strike before all diplomatic options have been explored would have serious political consequences among the NATO and other U.S. allies. The likelihood of civilian casualties in a U.S. air strike, when so many of Iran's underground facilities are dangerously close to schools, hospitals and other civilian centers, would intensify the likelihood of international condemnation of a military strike.
The fourth objection is that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is not imminent. The OSD reports that most U.S. and friendly intelligence assessments suggest that Iran is three to five years away from being able to produce a workable nuclear device. And by that time, the Bush administration would be out of office and the decision left to a new president.
The fifth objection is that the very prospect of the military option is itself a powerful diplomatic tool, a constant threat as the diplomacy proceeds without any immediate need to use it. The diplomacy, however, appears to be moving at a snail's pace, with Iran invoking yet another delay in the latest round of discussions with the European Union's top diplomat, Javier Solana, a former secretary-general of NATO.
But Cheney's office, along with supporters of the military option outside the administration, claim that there is strong time pressure for a firm decision to be taken, since Iran is expected to deploy a new Russian-built anti-aircraft and anti-missile system next year.
"We've signed a contract for supplying (Iran) with air-defense missile systems for defense purposes," Mikhail Dmitriyev, head of Russia's Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, announced in February this year.
The deal, worth a total of $700 million, provides Tehran with 29 Tor-M1 and two smaller Pechora-2A systems. The Tor-M1 is a mobile ground-to-air missile system designed to shoot down targets at medium, low, and very low altitudes and can engage two targets simultaneously at a maximum range of seven miles.
Israeli intelligence sources have claimed that this deal is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the Tor-M1 systems are designed to protect the still-secret stage of the contract that would provide Iran with Russia's state-of-the-art S300 defense system, widely claimed to be superior to the U.S.-built Patriot anti-missile system. The Russian business daily Kommersant, however, has reported that the talks on the sale of the S300 system have been suspended.
The use of the military option against Iran's nuclear sites is also under consideration in Israel. Last year, in an interview with MSNBC, Cheney said: "If, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability -- given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel -- the Israelis might well decide to act first."
Efraim Inbar, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a respected Israeli analyst, argued last week that "while less suited to do the job than the United States, the Israeli military is capable of reaching the appropriate targets in Iran. With more to lose than the United States if Iran becomes nuclear, Israel has more incentive to strike."
Even the new Tor-M1 anti-aircraft defenses, which are expected to be deployed and operational next year, would hugely complicate any prospective Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear sites. It would require two strike missions rather than just a single wave, the first to suppress the anti-aircraft defenses and the second to attack the missile sites. With the width of Jordan and Iraq separating Israel's air bases from Iran, even a single strike mission would be complex and difficult procedure, requiring in-flight refueling and making recovery of any downed pilots a remote prospect.
The U.S. military capability is far greater than that of Israel, and its bases in the Gulf and at sea and its "stealth" strike aircraft make the U.S. military option far more credible. But the objections being listed by Rumsfeld from the Pentagon are powerful, even as influential voices outside the administration and in the conservative media press the case for action.
"Iran has pursued ruthless oppression at home, terrorism abroad and weapons proliferation, largely with impunity. Offers of dialogue are a waste of time," argues Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, who was last year being widely touted for a senior Middle East policy-making post in the Bush administration. "We have talked about talking for long enough, there must be other options."
"It is not wise to force America into a choice between doing nothing and doing everything. But it may come to that," Pletka concluded.