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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

You may think the president who was willing to go to war with Iran has left office. If you think that, you may want to think again. President Obama says he wants to use diplomacy with Iran, but during his campaign, he said he would do everything in his power to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. His top military adviser, Admiral Mike Mullen, recently used the same words as a past administration.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): With all options remaining on the table, including, certainly, military options.

INSKEEP: U.S. intelligence estimates suggest Iran could produce weapons- grade material as soon as the year 2013, which means the U.S. might one day face a choice: Accept a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military means to try to stop it. This week, we're reporting on Iran and nuclear weapons. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly begins by asking what a military strike might look like.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Let's run through a range of possible scenarios. Defense officials say any strike on Iran would include Iran's known nuclear facilities, such as Natanz and Isfahan. The target list would probably go well beyond those, says Jeffrey White, a former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.

Mr. JEFFREY WHITE (Former Chief of Middle East Intelligence, Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency): If we decide that we have to use force, I think we would go with a broader option, attack more facilities.

KELLY: Such as Iran's air defenses, ballistic missile sites, and the naval assets Iran might use to retaliate. Chuck Wald, a retired four-star Air Force general, says to do it properly, you would not be talking about a one-time strike.

General CHUCK WALD (U.S. Air Force, Retired): From a military standpoint, this would be a sustained activity over a period of time, more like weeks and months than days, let's say.

KELLY: Putting aside for a moment the question of whether that's remotely politically palatable for Americans at home or U.S. allies abroad, there are serious practical challenges to consider. Iran's nuclear and military facilities are spread across the country, and the nuclear sites are believed to be buried deep underground. Could U.S. bombs hit them? General Wald says yes.

Gen. WALD: There are new weapons that have been developed. They're coming along pretty quick. There's a 30,000-pound penetrator that the Air Force is getting ready to field that penetrates quite a bit.

KELLY: There's also the question of whether the U.S. knows enough about Iran's nuclear facilities to sufficiently set back their program. Iran is believed to maintain undeclared clandestine sites. And as one U.S. intelligence official puts it, if we don't know about them, we can't hit them. Still, the military experts we consulted, including General Wald, say U.S. strikes could deliver a serious blow to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Gen. WALD: This is a viable option. Whether it's desirable or going to be doable, that's something else, but we have an option. Now, does anybody in their right mind want to attack Iran? No, not a bit. But sometimes you've got to do things you don't like to do.

KELLY: But Wald admits attacking Iran could unleash terrifying consequences -among them, the near certainty that Iran would retaliate. Here's Nicholas Burns, who was the Bush administration's point man on Iran.

Ambassador NICHOLAS BURNS (Former Undersecretary, State Department): Iran is a strong state. It's a very large state. It would surely strike back. And if it struck back, we might end up with a third war in the Middle East and South Asia, after Afghanistan and Iraq. Can we handle a third war?

KELLY: Burns says Iran would use Hamas and Hezbollah to attack U.S. interests, Israel, moderate Palestinians. Iran would make life deeply unpleasant for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And after all that, Ambassador Burns argues U.S. strikes would only set back Iran's programs, not destroy them.

Amb. BURNS: I'm not aware of any scenario where military force resolves the problem. What we're really talking about here is Iranian scientists trying to master the fuel cycle, master the process of enriching uranium. It's very difficult to bomb human knowledge.

KELLY: There is another possibility to consider in all this: that Israel might attack Iran. Israeli officials have made clear they're losing patience with U.S. attempts to engage Iran diplomatically. And as the clock continues to tick, the likelihood of Israel attacking on its own is rising, says Jeff White, the former Pentagon intelligence official.

Mr. JEFF WHITE (Former Pentagon Intelligence Official): There might actually be a way out for the Obama administration. I'm not saying they're encouraging it. But if the Israelis conducted a successful attack, it would take a lot of the pressure off the administration.

KELLY: Pressure to do something to slow Iran's march towards a nuclear weapon. But this scenario has downsides, too. Jeff White notes the U.S. would probably be blamed for an Israeli attack, whether or not it was involved, and the negative consequences might play out the same as with a U.S. attack. Still, as Iran inches closer to a bomb, the risks of military action must be weighed against the risk of doing nothing - a calculation that U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are well aware of.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): A nuclear-armed Iran would be profoundly destabilizing to the entire region - certainly to Israel, and a threat to the United States and other states as well.

KELLY: Secretary Gates delivered that assessment at a tense press conference last month in Jerusalem. He said he hopes to persuade Iran's leaders that it's in their own security interests not to build a bomb. Clearly, military action is not the way the Obama administration wants to go, says Pentagon veteran Jeff White. But if diplomacy doesn't work, he adds, that could force the administration to think hard about its last resort.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: We're going to be exploring this issue through much of the week, and you can get an overview of what's to come at the new npr.org.

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