US plan for air strikes on Iran 'backed by Brown'

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A plan by the Bush administration to launch surgical strikes on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps has won the support of Gordon Brown, according to a US report, although a presidential "execute order" required for such an operation has yet to be issued.

The report in The New Yorker magazine by the journalist Seymour Hersh states that the White House has concluded that many of its problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran. But rather than conduct an unpopular all-out assault on Iran's nuclear facilities, the US is planning limited air strikes, arguing that they are needed to defend soldiers in Iraq.

The article stated that, "The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from ... Gordon Brown", but this was denied yesterday by some with close ties to the US military.

"It is quite the opposite," said Phillip Giraldi a former CIA counterterrorism officer. "In fact Robert Gates [the US Defence Secretary] was rebuffed during his recent visit to London when the idea was floated.

"Because British mine-sweepers based in the Gulf of Hormuz will be essential to any US action against Iran, US war planners need to have Britain on board," he said. "So far that is not forthcoming."

The US has changed its emphasis to counter-terrorism, supported by Pentagon planners wary of earlier plans for an all-out attack on Iran, Hersh writes. The strategy calls for the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and more precisely targeted ground attacks and bombing strikes, "including plans to destroy the most important Revolutionary Guard training camps, supply depots and command-and-control facilities".

Hersh quotes an unnamed senior European as saying that there were four possible responses to Iran-ian activity in Iraq: to do nothing (this would be sending "the wrong signal"); to publicise Iranian actions ("There is one great difficulty with this option – the widespread lack of faith in American intelligence assessments"); to attack the Iranians inside Iraq ("We've been taking action since last December, and it does have an effect."); or, finally, to attack inside Iran.

"The British perception is that the Iranians are not making the progress they want to see in their nuclear-enrichment processing," said the European official.

"All the intelligence community agree that Iran is providing critical assistance, training, and technology to a surprising number of terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, too."

Earlier this summer, according to Mr Giraldi, the Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice-President Dick Cheney, tasked Strategic Command to draw up a response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the US. "The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons," said Mr Giraldi.

That may now have changed, in part because of opposition within the military. "A number of senior air force officers involved were appalled at the implications of what they were doing ... that Iran was being set up for an unprovoked nuclear attack," said Mr Giraldi. None were prepared to object and damage their career, he added.

Hersh maintains that the Bush administration's emphasis on "surgical" strikes reflects a failure to persuade the US public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat.

The White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the US intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. There is also a growing recognition in Washington that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.