Ever since President Bush pronounced Iran a member of an "axis of evil" early last year, US policy towards the regime in Tehran has been an odd mix of antagonism and engagement - both half-hearted.
Now flush from the military victory in Iraq and anxious to press for broad change in the Middle East, the Bush administration appears ready to choose a more defined course - and it's likely to be a tougher line. Experts say the new approach toward a nation the US sees as a key source of instability and terrorist activity in the region might even involve covert or overt pursuit of regime change.
Since Sept. 11, "we've held to a middle ground," says Flynt Leverett, who until March was the senior director for Middle East affairs in the National Security Council. "But now important people in the administration are pushing the regime change option."
High-level administration officials are expected to meet Thursday to begin formulating a clearer policy towards Iran. Another meeting set for earlier in the week involving lower-level officials was replaced when it was decided a decision was going to require high-level participation, sources close to planning for the inter-agency meeting said.
A more muscular approach to Iran - perhaps including support for internal resistance groups that at least in one case have been included on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations - is expected to prevail because of strong support from the Pentagon and some members of the NSC. The State Department prefers dialogue, sources say.
On the nuclear issue, evidence is accumulating that Iran is building a string of uranium-enrichment facilities, a move that if proven would suggest Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons - in violation of its signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
On Tuesday, an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), reported at a Washington press conference the existence of two previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facilities. The group, whose past revelations have largely proven credible, says the two facilities west of Tehran suggest the Iranian regime is seeking to protect a weapons program from foreign military targeting by dispersing operations.
"This revelation proves the [Iranian] regime has a deceptive but very well-thought-out program for developing nuclear weapons," says Ali Safavi, a member of the NCRI's foreign-affairs committee.
One factor that might explain an accelerated nuclear program is the Iranian regime's desire to avoid Saddam Hussein's fate, some analysts say. Even as US policy towards Iran hardens, the Iranian regime is taking its cue from the way its two fellow members of the Bush "axis of evil" list have fared since the president's pronouncement in his State of the Union address 16 months ago.
The Hussein regime, halted in its dream of joining the global nuclear club, is a thing of the past, while the regime in Pyongyang, North Korea, already in possession of rudimentary nuclear weapons and pursuing more, has had talks with Washington.
But the other issue worrying the Bush administration is what it sees as Tehran's support for international terrorism. Topping the current list of concerns is evidence of Al Qaeda operating from Iran. After the US said they have intelligence suggesting senior members of Osama bin Laden's group had prior knowledge of the recent Saudi Arabia bombings, Iran this week announced the arrest of several suspected Al Qaeda members.
But just what level of Al Qaeda operatives are in Iran, and how much control the Iranian regime has over them, remains unclear. "They aren't in Tehran operating with the support of the Iranian regime, says Mr. Leverett, now with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Leverett says the Al Qaeda members are in an inaccessible region of northeastern Iran, and may be operating with the knowledge and even the protection of the local contingent of Iran's revolutionary Guards, but not with regime support.
Beyond Al Qaeda, Washington sees Iran as the world's major sponsor of terrorism because of its support for Hizbullah, the Lebanon-based organization. Washington's recent stab at dialogue with Tehran was not encouraged when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visited Lebanon in mid-May and was thronged by in a turnout of Lebanese Shiite Muslims orchestrated by Hizbullah.
Pressure on Tehran from Washington is expected to grow in the coming weeks in several ways. The administration is expected to press the IAEA at a mid-June meeting to find Tehran in violation of its international nonproliferation agreements.
At the same time, Congress is likely to press for removal of the People's Mujahedeen, a group within the umbrella Iranian resistance council, from the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Mr. Safavi, the Iranian opposition official, says a growing roster of members of Congress wants a policy that supports anti-regime forces. He predicts pressure will end up swaying the administration to adopt a policy that uses "all means available" to resist the mullahs.
Such action, however, risks pushing US policy too far in the direction of regime change that might harden the current government and not be well received by the flowering pro-democracy forces inside Iran.
"What has me worried is that a 'regime change' policy may not work in a time frame that allows for achieving what we seek," including stopping the nuclearization of Iran, says Leverett. "The broad-based strategic dialogue has a better chance, but I see no one [in the administration] willing to plea for that."