US debates military strikes on 'nuclear Iran'

By Guy Dinmore in Washington

Published: September 16 2004

The Bush administration's warnings that it will not "tolerate" a nuclear-armed Iran have opened up a lively policy debate in Washington over the merits of military strikes against the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.

Analysts close to the administration say military options are under consideration, but have not reached a level of seriousness that indicate the US is preparing actual action.

When asked, senior officials repeat that President George W. Bush is removing no option from the table - but that he believes the issue can be solved by diplomatic means.

Diplomacy on Wednesday appeared stalled.

The US and its European allies on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency continued to wrangle over the wording of a resolution on Iran which insists it has no intention of using its advanced civilian programme to make a bomb.

Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neo-conservative think-tank, says that with "enough intelligence and spadework", the US could "do a good job" of slowing Iran's programme for a while.

But, he cautions, the Bush administration would need a "game plan" for the aftermath.

That long-term approach is lacking, analysts say, and has floundered in the debate over "regime change".

Asked whether Israel would take military action if the US dithered, Mr Schmitt replied: "Absolutely. No government in Israel will let this pass ultimately."

Tom Donnelly, an analyst with PNAC and the American Enterprise Institute, says that while inflicting military damage is possible, the consequences rule out this option.

If the US started down the military road, it would have to consider going the whole way to invasion and occupation.

"We have to start thinking in terms of a post-nuclear Iran," he said, describing the Europeans as "hopeless" on Iran, and India and China boosting their energy relations with the clerical regime.

Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Pol icy Education Center, says the US and its allies are in a state of denial, that it is too late to stop Iran from getting the bomb. It already has the capacity, he says.

Neither of the US and European options "to bomb or bribe Iran" would succeed and both could make it worse.

Mr Sokolski describes as "highly irresponsible" the idea that the US can let Israel do the job.

The short-term benefits of air strikes would have to be weighed against the costs of a blow to US efforts to foster more moderate Islamic rule in Iran and the Middle East.

The military option is laid out in detail by Globalsecurity.org, a defence think-tank.

"The window of opportunity for disarming strikes against Iran will close in 2005," it warns, as key plants come on stream next year. It says Iran has two dozen suspected nuclear sites.

But it adds that the absence of significant numbers of US stealth aircraft, early warning aircraft and other assets in the region indicate that the US is not actively considering air strike options at the moment.