Iran's nuclear ambitions continue to provoke widespread concern, particularly in the United States.  Meanwhile, Tehran has agreed to meet with U.S. representatives to discuss the situation in Iraq. 

International experts say that Iran is perhaps six-to-nine months away from mastering the centrifuge process of uranium enrichment, a key step in a five-to-10-year process of building a nuclear bomb.  So why hasn't the world made a more timely effort to stop the program?

Political analyst Thomas Barnett, author of the book Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating, in which he offers his vision for U.S. military strategy, says that for many years Iraq helped divert international attention from Iran's nuclear program. ?Saddam was the big counterbalance to Iran for the last 25 years and he had a significant force.  And as long as Saddam was around, not only was he a potential counterbalance to Iran's ambitions in the region, but he also attracted the vast majority of outside interest because of his actions. So what we basically did was we got rid of Saddam and we got rid of the Taleban, the two entities that were easily Iran's worst enemies in the region,? says Barnett. 

Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

The removal of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq resulted in a shift of power from the Sunnis who had waged the 1980's war against Iran to the Shiites who make up the majority of the population in Iran as well as Iraq. Thomas Barnett says that by removing Iran's adversaries the U.S. helped Iran become the biggest military power in the region after Israel.  However, he adds, Iran's fear of an attack from Israel or an invasion from the West has also increased.  This has made Tehran determined to become a nuclear power.  But Thomas Barnett says Tehran is more interested in creating a strong deterrent than in producing nuclear weapons. 

?I think what they want to achieve, first and most obviously, is some sort of guarantee - however achieved - whether it's through negotiations over an entire array of possible security regimes connected to the weapons themselves, or their facilities themselves, or whether it just forces some sense of alliance between Iran and enough countries to include possibly the United States itself.  They want some insurance that we are not going to invade them,? says Barnett.

Some analysts agree. Many also say that despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric against Israel, Iran has no plans to attack its nemesis. Trita Parsi, a Middle East specialist at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says that during the Cold War, Iran and Israel actually cooperated on many security issues.  With a threat from the Soviet Union gone, the Iran-Israel relationship changed.

?Suddenly, Iran and Israel after the Cold War found themselves being the two most powerful states in the region.  And rather than potential security partners, they started to view each other as rivals.  In late 1992, prior to Iran's sponsorship of anti-Israeli terror, Israel made a sudden U-turn and started to depict Iran as a global and existential threat,? says Parsi.

Trita Parsi notes that at the same time, the United States rebuffed Iran's attempts to come out of its isolation and play a bigger role in regional security.  So, he says, Tehran began to see the Middle East peace process as a threat to its influence in the region and began to support Palestinian radicals and terrorist groups, such as Hamas.  It also began forming alliances with its oil-rich neighbors along the Caspian Sea as well as with Russia and China, many analysts say, to counter-balance U.S. power in the region.

Alternative U.S. Strategies for Iran

Many analysts say bombing Iran would not eliminate its nuclear program because most of the facilities are deep underground and scattered around the country.  And they warn that a U.S. attack could produce some unwanted results. 

?It won't have much effect other than it will make us feel good.  It will knock their program back a bit.  They can always jack it up at that point.  It will unite the Iranian people against us, which will be a shame because this is the population that actually likes us.  It's the government that we have problems with.  But the population overwhelmingly likes America, wants connectivity with America, does not want violence with America and really wants to engage the outside world,? says political analyst and author Thomas Barnett .   He adds that instead of trying to isolate Iran, the United States should tap into the desire of young Iranians to be connected with the rest of the world.  The majority of Iran's population, about 70 percent, is under the age of 30.

Barnett says, for example, the United States might accommodate Iran on its nuclear ambitions if Tehran recognized Israel's right to exist and renounced its support of terrorist groups.

But many analysts say Iran would see such an offer as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States.  Middle East analyst Ilan Berman, Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, says this is how Tehran perceives Washington's offer to discuss stability in Iraq with Iranian delegates.

?I think this sets a very dangerous precedent because, as seen from Tehran, this is not likely to be seen as a goodwill gesture.  Rather, it is likely to be seen as a manifestation of American weakness -- that the U.S. is very stressed in Iraq, the U.S. requires Iranian assistance and the U.S. no longer can handle the situation without appealing to Tehran for help.?

Ilan Berman says Iran's nuclear program under its current anti-Israeli and anti-western regime is dangerous to the whole world and must not be allowed to continue.  Bombing might be an emergency solution, he says, but Middle East security will improve only when Iran's leadership wants to live in peace with its neighbors and the rest of the world.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.