WASHINGTON—The evidence that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons is stronger and more widely accepted—internationally and within the U.S. government—than the Bush administration's flawed case about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction four years ago.
But the question of what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions is, if anything, more hotly contested. That's particularly true because 150,000 U.S. troops are tied down next door in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran's radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced last week that his country's scientists have produced low-enriched uranium, far less than what's needed for a nuclear bomb but a rebuff nonetheless to U.N. Security Council demands that Iran halt enrichment work.
Two U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was classified, said the announcement didn't change the U.S. intelligence community's estimate that it would take Iran five to 10 years to go nuclear. Some independent experts put it at as little as three years.
There's good reason to question such estimates: The CIA was surprised, for example, when India conducted underground nuclear-weapons tests in May 1998. But because Iran, a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has long been under international inspections, the danger of a sudden surprise may be less.
International inspectors have kept track of Iran's work, but there was no monitoring in Iraq after 1998.
Iran says its nuclear research is for civilian energy purposes. Yet it has admitted hiding the project for 18 years and inspectors have determined that it purchased weapons-related know-how from an international smuggling network.
Iran's potential reasons are several: national and cultural pride; the fact that two adversaries, Israel and Pakistan, are nuclear-armed; a desire to dominate the Persian Gulf region; insurance against a U.S. attack like the one on Iraq.
"If Iran gets to the point where it is capable of making a nuclear weapon, and then takes the final step," said Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center on Middle East affairs. "We'd have to ask, What the heck do they plan to do with it?"
In Israel, there's profound fear that Ahmadinejad would use it to threaten or attack the country. The Iranian leader on Friday issued the latest in a string of vitriolic anti-Semitic statements, saying Israel's existence is a threat to the Islamic world.
Yet while Israel and its allies can't afford to ignore that possibility, a nuclear attack would be suicidal. Israel has an undeclared nuclear arsenal of as many as 200 weapons, more than enough to obliterate Iran.
The second fear is that Iran might secretly give a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group to use against Israel, the United States or the Saudi Arabian oil fields. Unlike the former regime of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Iran's revolutionary theocratic rulers have long-standing operational links to militant Islamic groups such as Hezbollah that have killed Americans.
However, many experts question whether Iran, after spending a generation and billions of dollars to get a nuclear weapon, would turn it over to a terrorist group it couldn't completely control.
"If Iran got nukes and then a nuke went off in New York or Washington, how many minutes do you think it would be before Iran was turned into a skating rink?" said a senior U.S. official, referring to the fact that a nuclear blast turns sand into glass. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to talk to the news media.
Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Iran wasn't even his main source of concern for a nuclear weapon falling into terrorists' hands. Nuclear-armed and perennially unstable Pakistan is, he said.
Wayne White, a former top State Department intelligence analyst for the Middle East, said his principal worry if Iran got a bomb was its longtime Persian Gulf rival, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis easily could purchase nuclear weapons from Pakistan, and other countries in the region might follow suit, he said, fueling a Middle East nuclear arms race.
The next question, then, is whether there's any way to get Iran to halt its nuclear work.
The Bush administration says it's pursuing multilateral diplomacy, through the U.N. Security Council, to persuade Iran to reverse course. So far, however, diplomacy has failed, and it might not succeed unless China and Russia agree to support tough U.N. sanctions against Iran, which is questionable.
The administration has rejected the only other diplomatic course: direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program. A growing number of analysts and former top U.S. officials argue that the White House should reconsider.
"There's been a lot of hyperventilating about the whole issue," said former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, referring to a sense of crisis that's building in Washington amid news reports that the administration is preparing for possible military action against Iran.
"My view is that we ought to have enough self-confidence to talk to the Iranians about the full range" of issues between the countries, including Iran's nuclear program, Armitage said. Iran might not agree immediately, but it would over time, he said in a telephone interview.
The nature of Iran's regime is no reason not to hold talks, Cirincione said. "We negotiated with Stalin and Mao and Brezhnev and Kim Jong Il and Moammar Gadhafi," he said, citing a list of antagonistic leaders past and present.
But there's no guarantee that diplomacy, either through the U.N. or one-on-one, can succeed, and President Bush is adamant that Iran can't be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
That stance, and Iran's pledge that it will proceed with more centrifuges to enrich more uranium, means that U.S. airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities might be the only way to destroy or delay the country's nuclear program.
Israel, which derailed Iraq's nuclear-weapons program with a 1981 airstrike on a facility at Osirak, lacks the planes, missiles and aerial refueling capacity to destroy air defense and nuclear targets in Iran, some of them hidden, deeply buried and reinforced.
U.S. defense officials say Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently ordered aides to update contingency plans for airstrikes. They spoke on condition of anonymity because American military plans are highly classified.
No concrete preparations for military action against Iran are under way, the officials stressed. Multiple reports of contingency planning and intelligence-gathering may be part of an information-warfare campaign that's designed to rattle the Iranian regime or convince reluctant U.N. Security Council members to support tough sanctions against the regime.
Any strikes wouldn't be simple surgical ones. Iran is thought to have as many as 70 nuclear-related sites scattered around the country. Some, such as the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, are large complexes with dozens of buildings.
Some analysts argue that attacking Iran would be even more dangerous than letting it go nuclear. Even some Israeli officials, as troubled as they are by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, have been counseling patience.
An American airstrike "would be Iran's Pearl Harbor. ... This war would be catastrophic for U.S. national-security interests. It would make Iraq look like a preliminary bout," Cirincione said.
For starters, Iran could unleash attacks on American troops in neighboring Iraq, where Iran has extensive influence via its proxies in Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias.
Any U.S. military attack would be a strategic mistake, the commander in chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Yahya Rahim Safavi, asserted Friday, according to the Reuters news agency. "Americans know better than anyone else that their forces in the region and Iraq are vulnerable."
Iran also could unleash attacks on U.S. interests and allies in the Persian Gulf, Israel and beyond, using missiles or terrorists.
Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Bush administration had learned from the mistakes it made in Iraq and that this confrontation wasn't a replay of that one.
"This is the anti-Iraq," Clawson said. He cited a half-dozen differences, including Bush's commitment to working with allies, his choice to work through the Security Council and the fact that much of the evidence about Iran's nuclear program comes from the Iranian government's own statements.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-MIDEAST
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