Is the U.S. planning military action in Iran?

Washington and the European Union are on a collision course over how to neutralize Tehran's nuclear capabilities.

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Pentagon hawks have begun discussing military action against Iran to neutralize its nuclear weapons threat, including possible strikes on leadership, political and security targets. With a deadline of Monday for Iran to begin an agreed freeze on enriching uranium, which can be used to produce nuclear weapons, sources have disclosed that the latest Pentagon gaming model for “neutralizing” Iran’s nuclear threat involves strikes in support of regime change.

Although the United States has made clear that it would seek sanctions against Iran through the United Nations should it not meet its obligations, rather than undertake military action, the new modeling at the Pentagon, with its shift in emphasis from suspected nuclear to political target lists, is causing deep anxiety among officials in the U.K., France and Germany.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to meet on Thursday to decide whether to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for being in breach of nonproliferation measures.

Sources close to the Bush administration have warned that British Prime Minister Tony Blair will have to choose between the E.U.’s pursuit of the diplomatic track and a more hard-line approach from the White House. While President Bush clearly favors more stick and less carrot, it is not yet clear what the stick might be: U.S. administration sources say targeted airstrikes — by either the U.S. or Israel — aimed at wiping out Iran’s fledgling nuclear program would be difficult because of a lack of clear intelligence about where key components are located.

Despite America’s attempt to turn up the heat on Iran, analysts remain deeply uncertain whether the increasingly bellicose noises that are coming from Bush administration figures represent a crude form of “megaphone” diplomacy designed to scare Iran into sticking to its side of the bargain, or evidence that Washington is leaning toward a new military adventure.

Details of the emerging Pentagon thinking come as U.S. officials have spent the past week turning up the pressure on Iran before the deal comes into force. U.S. officials are expected to meet with European diplomats and IAEA officials to complain about Iran’s continuing production of substantial quantities of uranium hexafluoride, which can be used in a weapons program. Although not explicitly barred in the accord, U.S. officials believe it amounts to a serious show of bad faith by Iran.



Speaking on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Bush ratcheted up the pressure on Iran. “It is very important for the Iran government to hear that we are concerned about their desires and we’re concerned about reports that show that, before a certain international meeting, they’re willing to speed up the processing of materials that could lead to a nuclear weapon,” Bush said.

Referring to the European countries that negotiated the deal with Iran, Bush added: “They do believe that Iran has got nuclear ambitions, as do we, as do many around the world.

“This is a very serious matter. The world knows it’s a serious matter, and we’re working together to solve this matter.”

Under a pact reached by the European countries and Iran last week, Iran is due to suspend all uranium enrichment, while it negotiates a deal in which it would receive trade incentives and peaceful nuclear technology.

Sunday, the British Foreign Office tried to play down fears that Iran is already breaching the deal that was negotiated with the E.U., insisting that the IAEA be allowed to issue its own verdict on Tehran’s compliance this week. “We will wait and see what the report is: The Iranians have got until Nov. 25,” said a spokesman.

But Whitehall sources said the U.K. accepted that Iran had a complex and extensive nuclear program that could not be shut down overnight. “There is a lot of speculation that is unfounded. Obviously there have been a lot of concerns in the past, but there’s a deal on the table and we hope that they will stick with it,” said one.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has just announced his resignation, told reporters that U.S. intelligence had seen hard evidence that Iran was close to putting a nuclear weapon on a long-range weapons system. The allegation was immediately challenged by officials in the State Department, who said the information, which had come from a single “walk-in” source, had yet to be verified.

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