President George W. Bush rejected a plea from Israel last year to help it raid Iran's main nuclear complex, opting instead to authorize a new U.S. covert action aimed at sabotaging Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, The New York Times reported.
Israel's request was for specialized bunker-busting bombs that it wanted for an attack that tentatively involved flying over Iraq to reach Iran's major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country's only known uranium enrichment plant is located, the Times reported Saturday in its online edition. The White House deflected requests for the bombs and flyover but said it would improve intelligence-sharing with Israel on covert U.S. efforts to sabotage Iran's nuclear program.
The covert efforts, which began in early 2008, involved plans to penetrate Iran's nuclear supply chain abroad and undermine electrical systems and other networks on which Iran relies, the Times said, citing interviews with current and former U.S. officials, outside experts and international nuclear inspectors who spoke on condition of anonymity. The covert program will be handed off to President-elect Barack Obama, who will deciding whether to continue it.
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According to the Times, Bush decided against an overt attack based on input from top administration officials such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who believed that doing so would likely prove ineffective and could ignite a broader Middle East war.
Israel made the push for permission to fly over Iraq for an attack on Iran following its anger over a U.S. intelligence assessment in late 2007 that concluded Iran had effectively suspended its development of nuclear weapons four years earlier. Israel sought to rebut the report, providing evidence to U.S. intelligence officials that they said indicated the Iranians were still working on a weapon.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment Saturday.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said he believed that Iran is the biggest challenge Obama will face in the Middle East and that more sanctions will be needed to force Tehran to forgo its nuclear ambitions and support for extremists. He said the Bush administration has been trying to "shore up and store up leverage" to bequeath to the Obama administration.
Last month, Obama suggested that a combination of economic incentives and tighter sanctions might work. Tehran rejected the proposal. Obama also has said he would pursue tough-minded diplomacy.