Saturday, May 06, 2006

Cheney challenges growing White House consensus on Iran strikes

Vice President Dick Cheney has privately warned that the United States might not be ready to attack Iran.

Administration sources said Mr. Cheney has raised the prospect of a Shiite backlash in Iraq as well as a terrorist front that would attack U.S. interests throughout the Middle East and Asia. The sources said Mr. Cheney has held or joined several meetings over the past months to discuss U.S. options to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program in 2006.

"Cheney has asked very probing questions that point to significant gaps in U.S. capability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities in a quick campaign," a source said.

The sources said Mr. Cheney has raised the prospect that a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would inflame the Middle East. In carefully worded questions, the vice president sought to determine how the United States would counter a Shiite backlash against American troops in Iraq, attacks by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and beyond, as well as soaring oil prices amid Iranian threats to block the Straits of Hormuz.

"He has tried not to express his views in these discussions," the source said. "Instead, he has raised hard scenarios that can't be answered."

The sources said Mr. Cheney's cautious approach does not mean he opposes a U.S. military campaign against Iran. Instead, the vice president was said to fear a debacle that would fail to take into account the lessons learned from the war in Iraq.

Still, there is a growing feeling in the White House and Pentagon that Iran must be attacked before 2007. READ MORE

The sources said the Pentagon as well as defense industry lobbyists have assured the administration that the U.S. military was capable of destroying most, if not all, of Iran's nuclear facilities within several weeks of an air campaign.

The Pentagon has sponsored a series of studies on U.S. military options against Iran, the sources said. They included detailed assessments from U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for Iran and Iraq, as well as technical studies on the impact of massive bombing of suspected underground nuclear facilities.

So far, the sources said, President Bush has not decided whether the United States should strike Iran in 2006. But they said some of his aides have already been weighing the political repercussions of a military campaign.

"There is a growing feeling in the White House that a successful attack on Iran will energize the administration and the president politically," a source close to the administration said. "This is not a factor discussed during formal meetings, but if this feeling intensifies things could get out of control."