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.
Bush officials feared that bombing the Natanz facility might trigger outrage throughout the Middle East, and would do little damage Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, reports CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier.
New York Times reporter David Sanger, who wrote the article for the paper, told Dozier it is ironic that after rampant speculation that Bush planned to attack Iran, his reporting led him to a different conclusion - that Bush was actually trying to stop Israel from going after Iran.
"How many times did we all read stories that said President Bush is seeking to strike Iran's facilities before he leaves office?" asked Sanger, whose new book addresses the challenges facing the incoming Obama administration. "And what did we discover? In fact, he was trying to dissuade an ally from an air strike because he was afraid of the ramifications of it."
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.
Defense officials confirmed to CBS News they rejected Israel's request. They feared it would derail already contentious negotiations over the U.S. military's future role and the extent of their authority in Iraq. The White House reportedly convinced Israel to hold off, while the covert program took effect, Dozier reports.
You could call it "Operation Experiencing Technical Difficulties."
"That plan aims at the industrial infrastructure, it aims at destabilizing centrifuges," Sanger said.
He says the U.S. already got its hands on sensitive power supply equipment destined for Natanz, and tampered with it. Iran later reported the defective electric gear blew up fifty centrifuges.
The White House offered no comment on the story, when it's usually quick to denounce such reports. The defense secretary's spokesman confirmed only that they believe a strike on Iran is the wrong step at this time, but that the military option remains on the table - an option for the next president.
The covert program will also be handed off to President-elect Barack Obama, who will decide whether to continue it.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment Saturday.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Stephen Hadley, President 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.