Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh says President Bush and his national security advisers had been "conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer" for the purpose of gathering intelligence and targeting information.
Hersh writes in Monday's edition of The New Yorker magazine that he had repeatedly been told by intelligence and military officials on condition of anonymity that "the next strategic target was Iran."
Hersh reports the goal is to locate three dozen or more targets that could be destroyed in quick strikes and commando raids. He quotes a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon as saying, "The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible."
American operatives have worked with Pakistan to plant nuclear detection devices in Iran, and are sharing information with Israel, Hersh quotes a former intelligence official as saying.
The United States has alleged that the Iranians may be testing high-explosive components for a nuclear weapon, using an inert core of depleted uranium as a dry run for how a bomb with fissile material would work.
The goal of the attacks would be not only to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, but to topple the religious leadership that is blocking Iran's reform movement, the government consultant tells Hersh. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz share that aim, the consultant said.
Hersh reports that much of this work is being done by the Pentagon so it will not have to submit to Congressional oversight, unlike the Central Intelligence Agency.
President Bush's communications director, Dan Bartlett, when questioned about the Hersh article during a broadcast interview, said he had read excerpts.
"I think it's riddled with inaccuracies. And I don't believe that some of the conclusions he's drawing are based on fact," the White House spokesman said.
The White House wants to resolve Iran's nuclear file through negotiation, primarily by relying on European allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Bartlett. But he added that Mr. Bush has not ruled out resolving the issue militarily.
"No president at any juncture in history has ever taken military options off the table. That is known. But what President Bush has shown (is) that he believes we can emphasize the diplomatic initiatives that are under way right now," Bartlett said Sunday.
Mr. Bush has accused Iran of being part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea and prewar Iraq.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog had been pressing Tehran for months to be allowed to inspect the Tehran-area Parchin complex, long used to research ammunition, missiles and high explosives.