Iran's Nuclear Defiance Troubles White House

The Bush administration remains frustrated with Iran's continued refusal to stop a program to enrich uranium. But there are deep divisions inside the administration with how to address the Iranian threat.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There's growing debate within the Bush administration about ways to prevent Iran from continuing its program of uranium enrichment and perhaps developing nuclear weaponry. Nowhere is that debate as intense as at the Pentagon, which would be called upon should diplomatic efforts fail at the State Department. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has this report.

TOM BOWMAN reporting:

For months now, American diplomats have been working with European governments on a plan to end Iran's nuclear program. The plan includes promises of trade and technical help, and if that doesn't work, a variety of economic and trade sanctions.

But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who advises the Pentagon, says that time for talking with the Iranian government is over. His approach? Regime change.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former House Speaker): I think there should be a very aggressive track of trying to undermine and replace the dictatorship. I mean, I have zero hope that we will diplomatically get anywhere with the Iranians.

BOWMAN: Gingrich and other Pentagon advisors, including Richard Perle, are calling for covert support for democratic groups in Iraq. They also want the U.S. to beam in opposition TV and radio reports, much like it did in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. And the prospect of American military action must also be on the table.

Mr. GINGRICH: You don't have to rush to it, but I think it can never be very far away in the sense of saying that we cannot live in a world where you have a North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapon, because we're literally going to run the risk of losing several American cities.

BOWMAN: There is no consensus among analysts that Iran is even intent on building a nuclear weapon, and some say if they are, it will take years. Still others, such as Harlan Ullman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies say even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, the country can be contained, much as the Soviet Union was by the West.

Israeli leaders say they will never tolerate a nuclear-armed Iraq. Iran's president has publicly called for the destruction of the Jewish state, and Iran is believed to be providing the missiles to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon that are raining down on northern Israel.

That has led some analysts to predict that Israel might launch an air strike on Iran. After all, Israeli war planes destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear facility in 1981. But Pat Lang, who once ran the Middle East Section of the Defense Intelligence Agency, says the Israelis don't have the stealth fighters, long-range bombers, and the re-fueling aircraft of the U.S. military.

Mr. PAT LANG (Former Head of Middle East Section, Defense Intelligence Agency): With regard to the Israelis, I really think they lack the capability to do more than to mount a robust and substantial one-time strike against a particular Iranian nuclear facility.

BOWMAN: A one-time strike would do little to halt Iran's nuclear program. It has dozens of sites scattered around the country, some deeply buried. That means an effective military attack on Iran could only be done by the Americans: cruise missiles fired from ships, B-2 war planes hammering Iranian nuclear facilities.

And how would the Iranians respond? They would unleash a wave of short- and medium-range missiles at American bases. Doug MacGregor is a retired Army colonel who has advised the Pentagon.

Colonel DOUG MACGREGOR (Retired, Army): The bottom line is they could strike out and hit virtually all of our fixed facilities in the Persian Gulf, from the Muscat of Oman to Kuwait City, including Qatar, as well as our large bases in and around Baghdad.

BOWMAN: Active and retired military officers say for the past year the Pentagon has been updating military plans on Iran. Nothing, they say, appears imminent, but some privately say that there is at least a possibility of some type of U.S. attack before the end of the Bush administration. Gingrich says there are deep divisions within the administration on the path ahead.

The State Department wants to talk. The Defense Department, he says, is at the very least eager to cut off the growing Iranian help to Iraqi insurgents. In fact, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has publicly accused Iran of sending bombs and fighters over the border into Iraq. But Lang, the retired Defense official, says there are a number of senior officers who oppose getting involved in another military operation in the region.

Mr. LANG: The Joint Staff in Washington and senior commanders are now saying that they really don't want anything to do with a campaign in Iran.

BOWMAN: These officers say the military is too stretched in Iraq. American troop strength there was recently increased by 6,000. The Army is struggling to replace equipment that was lost or destroyed in combat, and they worry about those Iranian missiles hitting American troops.

The Pentagon held a secret war game this spring. It looked at the ripple effects of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. And the effects? More Iranian-sponsored terrorism, a disruption in the world's oil market, direct attacks on U.S. troops and supply lines in the Middle East. One participant said the consensus was that diplomacy, however difficult, remains the answer. Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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