WASHINGTON - President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel last year for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran's main nuclear complex and told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran's suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to senior American and foreign officials.
White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran's major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country's only known uranium enrichment plant is located.
The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily. But the tense exchanges also prompted the White House to step up intelligence-sharing with Israel and brief Israeli officials on new American efforts to subtly sabotage Iran's nuclear infrastructure, a major covert program that Mr. Bush is about to hand off to President-elect Barack Obama.
This account of the expanded American covert program and the Bush administration's efforts to dissuade Israel from an aerial attack on Iran emerged in interviews over the past 15 months with current and former American officials, outside experts, international nuclear inspectors and European and Israeli officials. None would speak on the record because of the great secrecy surrounding the intelligence developed on Iran.
Several details of the covert effort have been omitted from this account, at the request of senior United States intelligence and administration officials, to avoid harming continuing operations.
The interviews also suggest that while Mr. Bush was extensively briefed on options for an overt American attack on Iran's facilities, he never instructed the Pentagon to move beyond contingency planning, even during the final year of his presidency, contrary to what some critics have suggested.
The interviews also indicate that Mr. Bush was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors and drive Iran's nuclear effort further out of view. Mr. Bush and his aides also discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war in which America's 140,000 troops in Iraq would inevitably become involved.
Instead, Mr. Bush embraced more intensive covert operations actions aimed at Iran, the interviews show, having concluded that the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies were failing to slow the uranium enrichment efforts. Those covert operations, and the question of whether Israel will settle for something less than a conventional attack on Iran, pose immediate and wrenching decisions for Mr. Obama.
The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate Iran's nuclear supply chain abroad, along with new efforts, some of them experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies. It is aimed at delaying the day that Iran can produce the weapons-grade fuel and designs it needs to produce a workable nuclear weapon.
Knowledge of the program has been closely held, yet inside the Bush administration some officials are skeptical about its chances of success, arguing that past efforts to undermine Iran's nuclear program have been detected by the Iranians and have only delayed, not derailed, their drive to unlock the secrets of uranium enrichment.
Late last year, international inspectors estimated that Iran had 3,800 centrifuges spinning, but American intelligence officials now estimate that the figure is 4,000 to 5,000, enough to produce about one weapon's worth of uranium every eight months or so.
While declining to be specific, one American official dismissed the latest covert operations against Iran as "science experiments." One senior intelligence official argued that as Mr. Bush prepared to leave office, the Iranians were already so close to achieving a weapons capacity that they were unlikely to be stopped.
Others disagreed, making the point that the Israelis would not have been dissuaded from conducting an attack if they believed that the American effort was unlikely to prove effective.
Since his election on Nov. 4, Mr. Obama has been extensively briefed on the American actions in Iran, though his transition aides have refused to comment on the issue.
Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama must decide whether the covert actions begun by Mr. Bush are worth the risks of disrupting what he has pledged will be a more active diplomatic effort to engage with Iran.
Either course could carry risks for Mr. Obama. An inherited intelligence or military mission that went wrong could backfire, as happened to President Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba. But a decision to pull back on operations aimed at Iran could leave Mr. Obama vulnerable to charges that he is allowing Iran to speed ahead toward a nuclear capacity, one that could change the contours of power in the Middle East.
An Intelligence Conflict
Israel's effort to obtain the weapons, refueling capacity and permission to fly over Iraq for an attack on Iran grew out of its disbelief and anger at an American intelligence assessment completed in late 2007 that concluded that Iran had effectively suspended its development of nuclear weapons four years earlier.
That conclusion also stunned Mr. Bush's national security team - and Mr. Bush himself, who was deeply suspicious of the conclusion, according to officials who discussed it with him.
The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate, was based on a trove of Iranian reports obtained by penetrating Iran's computer networks.
Those reports indicated that Iranian engineers had been ordered to halt development of a nuclear warhead in 2003, even while they continued to speed ahead in enriching uranium, the most difficult obstacle to building a weapon.
The "key judgments" of the National Intelligence Estimate, which were publicly released, emphasized the suspension of the weapons work.
The public version made only glancing reference to evidence described at great length in the 140-page classified version of the assessment: the suspicion that Iran had 10 or 15 other nuclear-related facilities, never opened to international inspectors, where enrichment activity, weapons work or the manufacturing of centrifuges might be taking place.
The Israelis responded angrily and rebutted the American report, providing American intelligence officials and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with evidence that they said indicated that the Iranians were still working on a weapon.
While the Americans were not convinced that the Iranian weapons development was continuing, the Israelis were not the only ones highly critical of the United States report. Secretary Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the report had presented the evidence poorly, underemphasizing the importance of Iran's enrichment activity and overemphasizing the suspension of a weapons-design effort that could easily be turned back on.
In an interview, Mr. Gates said that in his whole career he had never seen "an N.I.E. that had such an impact on U.S. diplomacy," because "people figured, well, the military option is now off the table."
Prime Minister Olmert came to the same conclusion. He had previously expected, according to several Americans and Israeli officials, that Mr. Bush would deal with Iran's nuclear program before he left office. "Now," said one American official who bore the brunt of Israel's reaction, "they didn't believe he would."
Early in 2008, the Israeli government signaled that it might be preparing to take matters into its own hands. In a series of meetings, Israeli officials asked Washington for a new generation of powerful bunker-busters, far more capable of blowing up a deep underground plant than anything in Israel's arsenal of conventional weapons. They asked for refueling equipment that would allow their aircraft to reach Iran and return to Israel. And they asked for the right to fly over Iraq.
Mr. Bush deflected the first two requests, pushing the issue off, but "we said ‘hell no' to the overflights," one of his top aides said. At the White House and the Pentagon, there was widespread concern that a political uproar in Iraq about the use of its American-controlled airspace could result in the expulsion of American forces from the country.
The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, declined several requests over the past four weeks to be interviewed about Israel's efforts to obtain the weapons from Washington, saying through aides that he was too busy.
Last June, the Israelis conducted an exercise over the Mediterranean Sea that appeared to be a dry run for an attack on the enrichment plant at Natanz. When the exercise was analyzed at the Pentagon, officials concluded that the distances flown almost exactly equaled the distance between Israel and the Iranian nuclear site.
"This really spooked a lot of people," one White House official said. White House officials discussed the possibility that the Israelis would fly over Iraq without American permission. In that case, would the American military be ordered to shoot them down? If the United States did not interfere to stop an Israeli attack, would the Bush administration be accused of being complicit in it?
Admiral Mullen, traveling to Israel in early July on a previously scheduled trip, questioned Israeli officials about their intentions. His Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, argued that an aerial attack could set Iran's program back by two or three years, according to officials familiar with the exchange. The American estimates at the time were far more conservative.
Yet by the time Admiral Mullen made his visit, Israeli officials appear to have concluded that without American help, they were not yet capable of hitting the site effectively enough to strike a decisive blow against the Iranian program.
The United States did give Israel one item on its shopping list: high-powered radar, called the X-Band, to detect any Iranian missile launchings. It was the only element in the Israeli request that could be used solely for defense, not offense.
Mr. Gates's spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said last week that Mr. Gates - whom Mr. Obama is retaining as defense secretary - believed that "a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time."
A New Covert Push
Throughout 2008, the Bush administration insisted that it had a plan to deal with the Iranians: applying overwhelming financial pressure that would persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear program, as foreign enterprises like the French company Total pulled out of Iranian oil projects, European banks cut financing, and trade credits were squeezed.
But the Iranians were making uranium faster than the sanctions were making progress. As Mr. Bush realized that the sanctions he had pressed for were inadequate and his military options untenable, he turned to the C.I.A. His hope, several people involved in the program said, was to create some leverage against the Iranians, by setting back their nuclear program while sanctions continued and, more recently, oil prices dropped precipitously.
There were two specific objectives: to slow progress at Natanz and other known and suspected nuclear facilities, and keep the pressure on a little-known Iranian professor named Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a scientist described in classified portions of American intelligence reports as deeply involved in an effort to design a nuclear warhead for Iran.
Past American-led efforts aimed at Natanz had yielded little result. Several years ago, foreign intelligence services tinkered with individual power units that Iran bought in Turkey to drive its centrifuges, the floor-to-ceiling silvery tubes that spin at the speed of sound, enriching uranium for use in power stations or, with additional enrichment, nuclear weapons.
A number of centrifuges blew up, prompting public declarations of sabotage by Iranian officials. An engineer in Switzerland, who worked with the Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been "turned" by American intelligence officials and helped them slip faulty technology into parts bought by the Iranians.
What Mr. Bush authorized, and informed a narrow group of Congressional leaders about, was a far broader effort, aimed at the entire industrial infrastructure that supports the Iranian nuclear program. Some of the efforts focused on ways to destabilize the centrifuges. The details are closely held, for obvious reasons, by American officials. One official, however, said, "It was not until the last year that they got really imaginative about what one could do to screw up the system."
Then, he cautioned, "none of these are game-changers," meaning that the efforts would not necessarily cripple the Iranian program. Others in the administration strongly disagree.
In the end, success or failure may come down to how much pressure can be brought to bear on Mr. Fakrizadeh, whom the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate identifies, in its classified sections, as the manager of Project 110 and Project 111. According to a presentation by the chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency, those were the names for two Iranian efforts that appeared to be dedicated to designing a warhead and making it work with an Iranian missile. Iranian officials say the projects are a fiction, made up by the United States.
While the international agency readily concedes that the evidence about the two projects remains murky, one of the documents it briefly displayed at a meeting of the agency's member countries in Vienna last year, from Mr. Fakrizadeh's projects, showed the chronology of a missile launching, ending with a warhead exploding about 650 yards above ground - approximately the altitude from which the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was detonated.
The exact status of Mr. Fakrizadeh's projects today is unclear. While the National Intelligence Estimate reported that activity on Projects 110 and 111 had been halted, the fear among intelligence agencies is that if the weapons design projects are turned back on, will they know?