By Tim Shipman in Washington
Last Updated: 2:31am BST 09/10/2007
British defence officials have held talks with their Pentagon counterparts about how they could help out if America chose to bomb Iran.
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Washington sources say that America has shelved plans for an all-out assault, drawn up to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities and take out the Islamist regime.
The US is planning a strike on Iran's Revolutionary Guards
The Sunday Telegraph has learned that President Bush's White House national security council is discussing instead a plan to launch pinpoint attacks on bases operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds force, blamed for training Iraqi militants.
Pentagon officials have revealed that President Bush won an understanding with Gordon Brown in July that Britain would support air strikes if they could be justified as a counter-terrorist operation.
Since then discussions about what Britain might contribute militarily, to combat Iranian retaliation that would follow US air strikes, have been held between ministers and officials in the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence.
Vincent Cannistraro — who served as intelligence chief on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council and then as head of operations for the CIA's counter-terrorist centre — said: "What's on the table right now is tactical strikes."
Last night, Downing Street declined to comment on the suggestion. But Mr Cannistraro has talked about the preparations to senior Pentagon officials and with military and intelligence contacts in the UK.
He said: "The British Government is in accord with plans to launch limited strikes on facilities inside Iran, on the basis of counter-terrorism." While the US Air Force and naval jets could carry out raids without help from the RAF, the Pentagon is keen to have the Royal Navy's cooperation in the event of an attack, to prevent Iran from sowing mines in the Gulf to block oil exports in retaliation.
Mr Cannistraro said: "The British have to be a major auxiliary to this plan. It's not just for political reasons: the US doesn't have a lot of mine clearing capability in the Gulf. The Dutch and the British do.
"There will be renewed discussions with British defence officials about what role Britain would perform in the naval sphere. If there was a retaliatory response by the Iranians, they might close the Straits of Hormuz and that would affect the entire West."
The White House and Downing Street would justify such an attack as a defensive move to protect allied troops in Iraq. But moderates in the US government are concerned that the counter-terrorist argument may be used by hawks as a figleaf for military action that could escalate into all out war with Iran.
A US intelligence source said that Revolutionary Guard bases, supply depots and command and control facilities "have been programmed" into military computers but stressed that President Bush has not given any "execute order" for military action.
Further details of the US plans for Iran were divulged to Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter with the New Yorker magazine who has unveiled Pentagon secrets for more than three decades.
American officials told the New Yorker: "During a secure video conference earlier this summer, the President told Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, that he was thinking of hitting Iranian targets across the border and that the British 'were on board'."
The magazine added: "The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the new government of Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown."
A recently retired American four-star general, told the magazine last week that the bombing campaign would only attract support from the Prime Minister "if it's in response to an Iranian attack" like the kidnapping of British sailors in March.
The general said the US officials want to strike "if the Iranians stage a cross-border attack inside Iraq" of a significant kind, for example the one that produced "10 dead American soldiers and four burned trucks".
Britain and America have complained for months about Iranian support for Iraqi militants but Pentagon officials claim that Iran has been told that a line has now been drawn in the sand — a move that has actually helped to stabilise the situation. Details of the US plans were passed to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iranian diplomats by Mr Crocker and Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, during bilateral talks this summer.
Since then, US officials say there appears to have been a reduction in some of the arms shipments and support to militia elements in Iraq.
Some British military and intelligence figures fear that any endorsement of US plans, however hypothetical, will only embolden the White House faction, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, which wants major bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to former President Carter, said last week the Bush plan was to depict any air strike on Iran as "responding to what is an intolerable situation. This time, unlike the attack in Iraq, we're going to play the victim."
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