U.S. Options Few in Feud With Iran

Alarmed at Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Washington for now can only watch and wait.

By Sonni Efron

Los Angeles Times

6:58 PM PST, December 12, 2004

WASHINGTON — Top diplomats from the United States and its closest allies gathered this fall in Washington to hammer out a common approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions. But the mood quickly soured.

Dispensing with the usual diplomatic niceties, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton simply read aloud a U.S. position paper. In it, the administration refused to back European negotiations with Iran and instead insisted that Tehran be dragged before the United Nations Security Council to condemn it for concealing a nuclear weapons program.

Irked, the Europeans demanded to know what good it would do to bring Iran before the U.N. when Washington knew it could not muster enough Security Council votes even to slap Tehran's wrist.

Bolton referred them to another U.S. position paper.

"He was not willing to discuss anything," said one stunned participant.

The incident, sketched here from interviews with four people who either attended or are familiar with the meeting of officials from the Group of Eight industrialized nations, is circulating in the diplomatic world as evidence of European frustration with the Bush administration.

Bolton's office had no comment. But critics say it is also emblematic of how divisions within the Bush administration have kept the U.S. from either wholeheartedly joining the European approach or coming up with an alternative.

A bruising round of negotiations with Tehran last month left the Europeans more skeptical than ever about Iran's claim that its nuclear power program was peaceful. But Europeans also are mistrustful of U.S. intentions, top experts said.

Some see the lack of a coherent U.S. strategy for solving the Iranian nuclear standoff as a tacit decision by the stalemated Bush administration to bide its time and hope the situation in Iran turns to its advantage by next year.

Facing diplomatic gridlock, unappealing military options, internal ideological divisions and major domestic and foreign political constraints stemming from the Iraq war, Washington has little choice but to watch and wait.

Some prominent conservatives are arguing for a preemptive U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, but State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council officials have been insisting in recent weeks that military action is not under discussion.

"We do not want American armies marching on Tehran," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said late last month.

"Nobody's seriously talking about military options because it doesn't make any sense," said a senior administration official. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official called the notion of a preemptive strike "a dumb idea."

"It's uninformed and irresponsible to suggest that there is a military solution to this program," the official said. "Diplomacy is our approach, and it's not a stalling tactic."

U.S. officials will not discuss what they will do if diplomacy fails. U.S. hard-liners, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, reject making deals with the theocracy in Tehran, and more moderate officials say it isn't clear the religious conservatives in control in Iran are eager to engage with "the Great Satan" either.

Other officials said the United States and its allies have many options short of military action with which to isolate and punish a government that they believe persists in trying to develop nuclear weapons.

"At the end of the day we may have to do it," said another senior official, referring to military action. "We're not at the end of the day yet."

Still, the administration's apparent lack of a strategy worries many people in Washington and abroad.

"I don't think this administration has decided on what its Iran policy is going to be, but one thing is clear: It's not going to be war," said an Iran expert in the Defense Department.

Washington's war planners have updated their scenarios for a possible showdown with Iran. The national security bureaucracy has conducted war games, and officials have been "gaming out" other ways the United States could respond if diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon were to fail.

But they describe the efforts as "prudent contingency planning" that should not be interpreted as saber-rattling. If anything, the process of studying a potential conflict with Iran seems to have made some Bush administration officials more cautious. One possible outcome that alarms planners, senior officials say, is that Tehran might order terrorist retaliation if the United States were to strike Iranian nuclear targets.

U.S. officials are particularly worried about the potential for Iran to use the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, which it funds and supports, to hit American targets in Iraq, step up attacks in Israel, target U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, or even to strike inside the United States. American officials have called Hezbollah "the A-team" of terrorism, potentially more deadly than Al Qaeda, with possibly dozens of cells around the world.

"Hezbollah gives Iran a global weapon that we need to understand," the second senior administration official said.

Any scenario under which the U.S. attacks Iran, overtly or covertly, will have to include plans to batten down the hatches at myriad American diplomatic targets overseas where retaliation could be expected, the official said.

U.S. economic targets abroad could also come into the cross hairs. And some think a cornered Iran could launch preemptive strikes of its own, as some Tehran officials have threatened recently.

Several American officials have said they believe Hezbollah has "sleeper" cells raising money in at least five major U.S. urban areas. The question in officials' minds is how those cells might react if the U.S. were to clash with Iran.

"This isn't an argument not to do what people are proposing to do," the official said, referring to the use of force. "It's an argument to understand what the consequences are."

Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, who favors preemptive action against Iran, argues that the U.S. must not be intimidated by the fear that Iran might try to deploy Hezbollah.

"You have to be crystal clear with them that whatever they dream up, we can dream up something much, much worse," Gerecht said. "The Iranians understand that in the tit-for-tat game, they lose overwhelmingly."

Israel has long studied potential airstrikes against Iranian nuclear sites, but leading American conservatives argue that if strikes are deemed necessary, for political and military reasons the U.S. should do it alone.

According to sources outside the administration, covert and overt action might include sabotage at Iranian nuclear sites or attacks on Iranian oil exporting facilities.

"The idea that the only contingency plan available is to use U.S. air raids is not true," said Patrick Clawson, Deputy Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Given the shoddy design of the Russian nuclear plants whose blueprints Iran is using for its facilities, he said, "one could well imagine that there could be catastrophic industrial accidents."

Officials and independent analysts agree that a U.S. strike would probably embitter the Iranian public for a generation or more. It also probably would cut U.S. oil companies off from any contracts, even under any future, more moderate Iranian government. Foreign competitors, on the other hand, might not hesitate to do business with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Some conservatives think it would still be worth it to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and prevent Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other neighbors from following suit.

The Pentagon, officials said, is paying less attention to Iran than it is to Syria, which the administration believes is the source of much of the funding for the Iraqi insurgency. With 150,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq for the foreseeable future, top military officials rule out the possibility of a large-scale ground offensive against Iran.

Airstrikes could set back any nuclear program temporarily, but a determined Tehran government could rebuild it in as little as three years, outside experts said. Some warned that Iran had learned the lessons of the Israeli airstrike that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, after which Tehran dispersed its nuclear activities and fortified its facilities to thwart an air attack.

Another U.S. administration official, however, contradicted such assessments, saying that the most valuable of Iran's nuclear targets could be destroyed in airstrikes.

"We could knock most of the sites out pretty easily," the official said.

But the official said a preemptive strike would be the worst option for the United States, since it would inflame Iranian nationalism. "If we strike Iran, we play right into the mullahs' hands," the official said.

Although some U.S. officials disparage the military options, many are skeptical that diplomatic efforts will succeed.

In recent weeks, tensions continued to rise with reports that Iran had refused to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency access to two secret military sites where the West suspects it may be working on parts of a covert nuclear weapons program.

Late last month, the United States reluctantly voted for an IAEA resolution endorsing the deal brokered by Germany, France and Britain that offered Tehran trade and other incentives in exchange for a freeze in its uranium enrichment programs. The deal, which means Iran will not be taken before the Security Council, does not impose specific penalties if Tehran were to renege on the agreement, as Washington believes it will. Nor does it settle the issue of inspections.

The Europeans warn that unless America comes to the bargaining table with a deal good enough to convince Iranians that developing nuclear weapons is not in their national interests, the ayatollahs will end up with the Bomb, try as the West may to stop them.

Lacking appealing military or diplomatic options, the Bush administration is relying on its powers of persuasion. Officials contend that they are not biding their time.

"We haven't given up on the scales falling from people's eyes at some point," the first senior administration official said, arguing that the evidence of Iran's covert nuclear program and cover-ups was mounting. "We think eventually Iran will prove true to form and make our case for us."

Critics say the U.S. ability to indict Iran for a clandestine weapons program has been undercut by the administration's track record on alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And some speculate whether the U.S. hard-liners would prefer Security Council inaction so they could declare the U.N. irrelevant and move against Iran with a new "coalition of the willing."

A second round of European-Iranian negotiations is to begin in mid-December, with the United States still on the sidelines. The Europeans argue that U.S. participation is essential to success.

"If we go it alone, the Iranians are never going to do anything meaningful on the nuclear program," one European diplomat said. He acknowledged that failure was possible even with Washington's help, but said that failure was virtually guaranteed without it.

"They are not happy with what we are doing, but they have no alternative strategy," the diplomat complained.

"Probably some of them hope we are going to fail ... and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy."

Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti in Washington contributed to this report.