One day after Iran's foreign minister downplayed the likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli strike against his country's nuclear facilities, a prominent Washington-based expert on the Middle East says there are no easy options for preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. VOA's Michael Bowman has details.

Wednesday, President Bush repeated his commitment to diplomacy to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.  Separately, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he believes Iran remains on a path to build nuclear weapons. 

But the admiral suggested the United States would be hard pressed to wage a military campaign targeting Iran's nuclear facilities, given ongoing U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, told the Associated Press he does not believe a U.S. or Israeli attack on his country is likely at present. "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.  The United States, too, is not in a position where in can take another risk in the region."

Whether or not the United States and Israel are planning a military strike against Iran has become a point of fierce debate among experts and reporters in Washington and beyond.  In an article in the New Yorker magazine last month, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the Bush administration has stepped up covert operations in Iran.

For Michael Eisenstadt, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Security Studies program, military action or inaction against Iran are both highly problematic.  Eisenstadt, who recently co-authored a report on the consequences of a preventive military strike targeting Iran's nuclear facilities, took part in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

Eisenstadt says part of the uncertainty about the best way forward stems from the fact that no one outside the Bush administration can say for sure just how much intelligence the United States possesses on Iran's nuclear program. "If you do not have the intelligence required to provide you with a high degree of confidence that you can impose significant damage on the [Iranian nuclear] program, there is no point in bombing.  If you do not have the intelligence, prevention becomes all risk and no reward."

Eisenstadt adds that destroying Iran's nuclear facilities would likely require multiple military strikes over an undetermined period of time.  Therefore, he says, American public support for such a campaign would be needed, as well as a perception of legitimacy for the campaign in the eyes of the international community.

Yet Eisenstadt does not appear comfortable with the idea of leaving Iran's nuclear destiny in the hands of slow-paced multilateral negotiations in which Tehran has, at times, been a reluctant participant.  He argues that time is of the essence when it comes to reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"It took the U.S. intelligence community four years to come to the conclusion that in 2003 Iran had apparently suspended its weapons design work.  If our intelligence capabilities have not improved since then, it could be four years from now until we figure out whether they have resumed work on their weapons program.  And the problem is, that puts us in the middle of the timeframe when they could have a nuclear weapon.  We may not know about such a decision until it is too late [to stop it]."

Despite these misgivings, Eisenstadt says he does not believe that all hope is lost on the diplomatic front.  If negotiations with Iran are to succeed, he says the international community will have to offer Tehran benefits for limiting its nuclear ambitions, as well as punitive measures for intransigence.