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Debate Intensifies About Possible Military Attack on Iran


There has been wide-ranging debate in Washington and the Middle East recently regarding the possibility of a military attack on Iran's nuclear program. The war of words between the United States, Israel and Iran has escalated and has military and political experts considering the consequences. VOA Correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this background report from Washington.

Top officials in the White House and Pentagon believe Iran is continuing on a path to build nuclear weapons, but estimates vary on when Tehran could complete the components for an actual bomb.

World powers have been pressing Iran to stop its uranium-enrichment program and have offered a new set of incentives for the Tehran government to back away from a plan that could lead to nuclear weapons.

U.S. President George Bush has repeatedly committed to diplomacy as the first choice to curb Iran's nuclear program, but he has also consistently declined to rule out the use of military force.

"I have always said that all options are on the table," said President Bush. "But the first option for the United States is to solve this problem diplomatically."

Debate on the issue of a military campaign against Iran skyrocketed in recent weeks and the rhetoric is getting hotter.

No one is advancing a timetable for military action, but former State Department official Elizabeth Cheney, a daughter of the vice president, says the United States will not tolerate a nuclear Iran.

"We can not live with it," she said. "It is an existential threat to Israel. It is a significant threat to American national security."

While military action against Iran is being debated, other activity has been underway in the Middle East.

American and allied naval forces just concluded a series of military exercises in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet says the drill was aimed at protecting oil installations.

A top Iranian official recently threatened to shutdown strategic oil shipping lanes and Iran's Revolutionary Guards are also engaged in highly visible training maneuvers.

Tehran is also testing ballistic missiles and Iranian officials say some of those weapons could reach Israel and other U.S. allies in the region.

Last month, the Israeli Air Force carried out large-scale exercises that were believed by many analysts to be a rehearsal for a possible attack against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Robert Satloff, says Iranian nuclear weapons would be disastrous.

"It would inflame a regional arms race," he said. "It would perhaps, lead to terrorists getting nuclear weapons, it is a huge danger. For Israel, the danger is exponentially worse. A regime whose leaders have publicly committed to destroying the state of Israel are spending their national wealth to acquire the means to implement that threat."

Iran denies it has a nuclear-weapons program and says it is enriching uranium to be used for generating electricity.

Tehran has responded to the incentives package presented by the European Union, and E.U. representatives say they hope to resume negotiations later this month.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki says he does not believe there will be war between Iran and the United States or Israel.

"The Israeli government is facing a political breakdown within itself and within the region, so we do not foresee such a possibility for that regime to resort to such craziness," he said. "The United States, too, is not in a position where it can engage in, take another risk, in the region."

Military analysts say an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be complicated, quite unlike the one-time strikes Israel did in Iraq in 1981 and more recently in Syria.

Given the commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's top military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, says an attack on Iran would be difficult.

"Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us," he said. "That does not mean we do not have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging. And also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict."

Those consequences are likely to include retaliation from Iran. Officials say Israel and the U.S. naval fleet in the Persian Gulf would be the first targets if the country were attacked.

With President Bush in his last year in office, Middle East experts like Rob Satloff say time may be running out on definitive action.

"I think people are looking to President Bush to see whether there will be any finality on the Iran issue under his watch or whether he merely hands off the issue to a successor," he said. "And finality, few things are more final than an act of military force."

Military analysts say an attack on Iran would require a sustained campaign that would target the countries' retaliatory capabilities first and then strike the nuclear targets.

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