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The Obama administration has been busy this week defending itself against charges that it has no plan to deal with Iran moving ahead on a nuclear weapons program. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged writing a memo outlining policy decisions that need to be made. Vice President Joe Biden today said he expects the United Nations will soon approve new sanctions on Iran. But officials have been hard-pressed to say what policy, if any, could keep Iran from becoming a nuclear state.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: If the Obama White House is unnerved by the critics who say it hasn't figured out where it's going on Iran, there's no outward sign of it. General Jim Jones, the president's national security advisor, speaking about the administration's Iran policy last night, made this sweeping declaration.

General JIM JONES (National Security Advisor): The United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

(Soundbite of applause)

GJELTEN: So no backing down. If the Iranians are set on getting a nuclear weapon, the United States is set on stopping them. But how?

President Obama came into office ready, in General Jones' words, to engage Iran on the basis of mutual respect. The idea was to dissuade the Iranian government from developing nuclear weapons. But Jones, speaking before the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, said he sees no indication that Iran's leaders want to resolve these issues constructively.

Gen. JONES: Therefore, we are now working actively with allies and partners to increase the cost of Iran's continued failure to live up to its international obligations.

GJELTEN: The cost: economic sanctions. The administration's willingness to give diplomacy a chance in Iran did win it international support. U.S. officials are hopeful that tougher U.N. measures, combined with some unilateral sanctions, could yet compel the Iranians to foreswear nuclear weapons.

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, is skeptical.

Ms. SUZANNE MALONEY (Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution): The Iranians have not proven that economic pressure from outside the country has an impact on their security decision-making.

GJELTEN: But let's say sanctions do work and the Iranians agree to restrictions on their nuclear program that make bomb building impossible. Presumably, the United States and its allies would want to make sure the Iranians keep their word. That would mean outside inspections, like the ones David Kay carried out in Iraq in the 1990s.

Dr. DAVID KAY (Former U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector): Large-scale physical inspection is very, very hard to carry out. It takes a lot of personnel. It takes a lot of intrusive equipment for environmental monitoring and for looking underground, GPS monitoring of military sites. And what everyone needs to remember about Iran and inspections: There is a huge element of distrust.

GJELTEN: When Saddam Hussein agreed to inspections in Iraq, his army had just been defeated. When the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to verifiable arms reductions, it was because both sides saw it in their interests. David Kay says neither applies in the case of Iran.

Dr. KAY: Lacking a political agreement between the Iranian regime, its neighbors, the United States, and others, I don't see effective verification as being possible.

GJELTEN: This raises the possibility that the United States or Israel may ultimately decide military action will be needed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The United States knows where many, if not all, of Iran's nuclear facilities are located. Some are buried but the U.S. and Israel have bunker-busting bombs. An initial strike creates a hole; one or more bunker busters dropped directly into that hole could destroy whatever is underneath - except for this: Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, a targeting expert, says the Iranians have lately been building tunnels at their nuclear sites.

Colonel SAM GARDINER (Air Force, Retired): The problem with tunneling is you don't know where it goes. You can see the entrance, but does it go left, does it go right, does it go down very deeply? Which makes it very difficult to identify how to put a weapon on it.

GJELTEN: Former nuclear inspector David Kay makes another observation: Destroying all of Iran's nuclear facilities will not destroy its weapons knowledge.

Dr. KAY: Sure, you can take away the capability of doing it. But once a human knows how to do something, the replication is easier the second, third and fourth time.

GJELTEN: So the development of an Iranian bomb could be delayed, but not prevented. No wonder U.S. military commanders, preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, have made clear their reluctance to proceed with military action in Iran.

There is one other scenario: A new, more pragmatic government could take over in Tehran. But that, too, is hard to imagine right now. The opposition movement there has been brutally suppressed in the last few months. And a senior U.S. official who focuses almost exclusively on Iran says U.S. policy is not now directed at regime change.

Considering the problems with all options - engagement, sanctions, military action, regime change - the United States and its allies may yet decide they have to accept a nuclear Iran. But if President Obama has reached that conclusion, no one in his administration is ready to say so.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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