Is Iran next? The calculus of military strike.
Tehran has raised the stakes, saying it is enriching uranium.
Time and again this week, President Bush and his team reiterated their position on Iran's nuclear program: America wants a diplomatic solution, and any suggestion it is moving toward an inevitable strike on Iran is "wild speculation."Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, however, Mr. Bush has remained steadfast in his statements that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and "no option is off the table" to prevent it.
The news Tuesday that Iran is now producing enriched uranium for atomic reactors - considered a first step toward nuclear weapons - has heightened the sense that America and Iran are on a collision course. A new article in The New Yorker claims that the administration is again on a path to war.
Yet amid the tumult is an effort to shape a debate that's more robust than the one before the Iraq war. While military action doesn't appear certain, the hint of it raises questions on the use of force, and what it might - and might not - accomplish.
It seems likely that precision airstrikes could set Iran's nuclear program back at least a year and perhaps several. Whether that delay is worth the probable consequences - the strengthening of a despotic regime within Iran and the increased likelihood of terrorism in nearby Iraq and the broader region - is what's at issue.
"The military option has a lot of costs," says Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute here. "But is the cost of the Islamic Republic of Iran having a nuclear weapon greater?"
Reports out of Iran Tuesday suggested that the country has moved closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon. Tuesday's announcement claimed that Iran now has 164 centrifuges, which yield more-concentrated uranium. Iran would need thousands of centrifuges to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon - and the country's leaders insist that the program is solely for nuclear power - but it is a concern for international officials.
Few security analysts think Iran would actually use a nuclear weapon against the United States. It is an established nation motivated by self-preservation as much as power.
Indeed, Iran's terrorist links are capable of causing much more damage than they do.
But Iran does not desire to prompt the US or Israel to a major response, says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If Iran used a nuclear weapon against New York - or if it could be traced back to Iran - Tehran would fall ... and the Iranians know that."
More likely, Iran would ratchet up its terrorist activities, knowing that enemies would be less inclined to retaliate strongly against a nuclear foe. For Dr. Rubin, that still makes a military strike "the lesser of two evils" if diplomatic efforts fail.
With the United States Army fully engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities are the most likely option. The operation might take five days, says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who participated in a war game on the subject in late 2004.