The Joint Chiefs of Staff have discussed options for ending Iran’s nuclear arms program numerous times this decade, but one sticking point emerges: the U.S. lacks the level of intelligence needed to ensure air strikes stop Tehran’s ability to build the bomb or at least set it back by decades.
The Joint Chiefs during the Bush years held a series of discussions in the secure "tank" at the Pentagon on the pros and cons of a strike, but never offered a unified position, according to a person familiar with the sessions. The topic came up in face-to-face meetings with President George W. Bush. Contrary to assertions by some liberal writers, Bush was never eager to bomb Iran, and did not press the chiefs to agree to strikes.
In the end, it came down to two glaring gaps: the U.S. is not certain on the location of all of Iran’s dispersed nuclear research programs; and it does not know the engineering at some known sites: that is, how deep they are and what building materials protect them. If the engineering is not known, it complicates the process of picking the right type of penetrating bomb to destroy the target.
"What we know we could certainly hit," the source said. "We can’t work what we don’t know. It’s the engineering. We don’t always know … The chiefs discussed questions about could this stuff be targeted and some one always said we don’t know where all the stuff is."
This week, CIA Director Leon Panetta told a gathering that Iran is a "tough target" for collecting intelligence.
"Assessing Iran’s intentions is a top priority," he said. "This is not an easy target in terms of being able to gather intelligence. It’s a tough target. But just as important, we have to focus in order to develop an accurate picture of what’s going on. What are its capabilities? And we are focused on that threat."
The full scope of Iran’s nuclear program is not known. Three main targets would be the Russian-designed nuclear plant at Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf; enrichment facilities at Natanz and a research reactor at Arak.
Iran has declared nine sites to the United Nations. But intelligence officials believe the actual list is much larger. One of the nine, Natanz, had been secret until revealed in 2006 by an Iranian opposition group.
The chiefs also discussed what effect a heavy bombing campaign would have on Iranians who oppose the mullah’s harsh Islamic rule and hope one day to spur a democratic movement. "If you hit the people who like you they may not like you anymore," the person said. "Just blowing something up is not always the answer"
Defense Secretary Robert Gates came into office in 2006 calling air strikes an absolute last resort. He remains as defense chief for President Obama, who has scuttled talk of military action in favor of negotiating with Tehran.
The Joint Chiefs never presented a unified recommendation on strikes. But on one issue there was unanimity: all believed it was in the U.S. interest to open some type of diplomatic outpost in Tehran, be it an interest section, such as the one maintained in Cuba, or an embassy. This would lead to a wider understanding of Iranian thinking and a hub from which to collection intelligence.
"Before we go tear something up, we have to make sure we cross every single bridge," the source said, who summarized the chiefs’ position as, "We have to exhaust all possibilities before we strike them."
In 2007, a national intelligence estimate — the most authoritative spy study issued by the U.S. — stated, "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." This was based on intelligence that Iran has stopped work on an atomic warhead.
But since then, senior intelligence officials publicly distanced themselves from that NIE. They said it was not written precisely enough; that Iran is still pursuing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads; it was still seeking to enrich uranium needed for a bomb; and that they did not know if Iran had resumed work on a warhead.
Even the Obama White House says Iran is seeking the bomb.
"The object of having talks of engagement with Iran are not simply to say we’ve had talks with engagement," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said May 18. "It’s to make substantive changes in their pursuit of nuclear weapons."
The EastWest Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, issued a report Tuesday saying Iran may be able to produce a crude nuclear weapon in one to three years and a full-blown atomic warhead by 2016. The group said that by February 2009 Iran had produced 2,222 pounds of low-enriched uranium, enough to convert to highly enriched uranium for one bomb. The institute said Iran in six to eight years could be able to place a warhead on a 1,200-mile-range missile. It said it is now impossible to predict when it might have an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the United States.