America and Iran are locked in a test of wills over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Is there a way out short of war?
U.S. News has also learned from U.S. and western officials and analysts of these other developments:
-- Iran has stepped up deliveries of short-range rockets and other military supplies to its terrorist ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, showing its capability to retaliate against Israel. Officers from Iran's Revolutionary Guards are said to be present and in command of the rockets.
-- The number of flights between Iran and Syria, an ally, has jumped in recent months, reflecting increased movements of military and intelligence personnel. Iranian officials are seen as wanting to send a signal that Iran can project its power.
-- Air defenses are being increased at nuclear facilities. Also, U.S. intelligence is studying whether Iran's radical Revolutionary Guards are exerting greater influence over the nuclear program at the expense of the country's civilian energy establishment.
-- Iranian officials have been moving billions of dollars from Europe into banks in Dubai and East Asia. This comes as some European banks have been advised by regulators to prepare for sanctions that include the freezing of Iranian accounts.
-- Some Bush administration officials are unhappy with the consensus intelligence community assessment that Iran could attain a weapons capability sometime between 2010 and 2015, based on assumptions about its ability to overcome technical problems. More-hawkish officials view the CIA, scorched by criticism over its exaggerated reports on Iraqi nuclear efforts, as timid on Iran, and Vice President Dick Cheney is said to have recently criticized the intelligence assessment in private as "too cautious."
-- Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency suspect that Iran's nuclear scientists used its negotiating period with the Europeans--during which enrichment was suspended--to overcome centrifuge-related problems so that Iran is now able to speed up enrichment work.
-- With Bush emphasizing diplomacy, tensions have emerged between the White House staff and more-hawkish members of Cheney's office. The two camps "are not talking to each other too much" on Iran, says a knowledgeable official.
-- Senior Bush administration officials are increasingly skeptical that diplomacy can stop the Iranian nuclear drive. That is fueling a new commitment of money and attention to promote democracy inside Iran--a strategy they hope will foster "regime change."
The stakes in this dispute are enormous, and the risks of miscalculation are growing, too. The dawn of a nuclear-capable Iran could be a walk on the wild side--the Bomb in the hands of the very state rated the top sponsor of terrorism and where some leaders aim to rekindle the fervor of its Islamic revolution. In addition to raising the threat to Israel, a nuclear Iran could inspire rivals in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey to go nuclear.
Trying to avert such a scenario is imperative, but the problem is how. On Iran, it seems, even the more attractive policy options will need a lot of luck to succeed (read, an Iranian change of heart, or regime), while the other options are rife with danger. Policymakers privately bemoan their choices as "lousy."
Along with Europe, the administration envisions a step-by-step ratcheting up of pressure on Iran. Russia and China, with commercial and energy interests there, oppose sanctions, and they wield veto power on the U.N. Security Council. Both also fear a replay of Bush's march to war in Iraq. One former administration official calls it "the barnacles of Iraq."