WASHINGTON -- Some members of the Bush administration never learn. Despite the debacle in Iraq, several administration officials have suggested publicly that regime change and military strikes may be the best way to deal with Iran's nascent nuclear enrichment program.
The furor over what course the United States should take toward Iran escalated this week with the publication in The New Yorker of an article by Seymour M. Hersh in which he quotes current and former defense and intelligence officials and sources close to the administration to the effect that the U.S. military is preparing concrete plans for a major bombing campaign against Iran, including the possible use of nuclear weapons.
Pressed to respond to these assertions, President Bush dismissed them as "wild speculation." But he acknowledged that planning for air strikes against Iran is under way and restated his opinion that Iran is part of an "axis of evil."
Tensions fueled by these revelations rose further when Iranian officials announced Tuesday that they have mastered the process of enriching uranium.
A high-ranking foreign policy adviser said this week that "the problem is that our policy has been all carrots and no sticks." Another senior administration official said that the debate over the use of force serves as a useful reminder to Iran "of where this could all go one day."
This is not the first time that Bush administration officials have implied the need for military action. In early March, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that "the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct" of the Iranian regime. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has said a nuclear-armed Iran would be "just like Sept. 11, only with nuclear weapons this time." And the Bush administration's recent national security strategy document identifies Iran as the greatest immediate threat to the United States, arguing that "we can't stand idly by as grave dangers materialize."
With the bulk of the Army tied down in Iraq, a "boots on the ground" version of regime change in Iran is out of the question.
A 2005 study by the U.S. Army War College suggests that bombing Iraq's nuclear facilities may be equally unworkable: "As for eliminating Iran's nuclear capabilities militarily, the United States and Israel lack sufficient targeting intelligence to do this. ... Compounding these difficulties is what Iran might do in response to an attack. After being struck, Tehran could declare that it must acquire nuclear weapons as a matter of self-defense, withdraw from the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and accelerate its nuclear endeavors."
A military action with so little prospect of success is generating considerable opposition, even within the Bush camp. The Joint Chiefs of Staff opposes the nuclear option in Iran, and its views are likely to be decisive.
Some military planners believe that a conventional bombing campaign could lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow their government. This is wishful thinking, akin to the thought process that persuaded the Kennedy administration to engage in the Bay of Pigs fiasco against Cuba that started 45 years ago tomorrow.
The impracticality of military options suggests that a diplomatic approach is still the most promising avenue for persuading Iran to forswear development of nuclear weapons. Luckily, there is time to give diplomacy a chance.
Even accounting for Iran's announcement that it can enrich uranium to the level needed to run a nuclear power plant, its current effort is still a small pilot program that would need to be radically expanded before it would be capable of manufacturing enough uranium to build a bomb. Most experts put the timeline on an Iranian bomb at least five to 10 years away.
There is considerable disagreement about the best diplomatic course to follow. The Bush administration is pushing for U.N. sanctions. Russia and China would prefer to leave the matter up to monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Some nongovernmental experts have suggested allowing Iran to have a modest uranium enrichment capability under strict IAEA surveillance. Others have suggested stronger safeguards on Iran and other potential nuclear powers, including steps to make inspections mandatory.
As former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has suggested, one thing is clear: Iran will be unlikely to compromise on its nuclear program while it is being threatened with destruction. Those administration officials who see bombing Iran as a prelude to regime change should step back and make room for pragmatic anti-nuclear diplomacy.
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School and the author of "Tangled Web II: A Profile of the Missile Defense and Space Weapons Lobbies." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.