WASHINGTON In some ways, Iran may seem more of a menace in both terrorism and weapons than Iraq did. Still, administration officials are talking as though a military strike is the last thing on their minds.
Iran is closer to having a nuclear weapons capability than Iraq was under Saddam Hussein. And the administration believes al-Qaida operatives working out of Iran were behind the devastating terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia on May 12. Eight Americans were among the 34 people who died.
The ties officials were able to establish between Saddam and al-Qaida seemed less compelling.
But the administration is not ready to do battle with the Iranians. A turning point in its preferred approach, diplomacy, could come this month when the International Atomic Energy Agency, an organization of the United Nations, visits Iran to inspect the country's nuclear facilities.
An IAEA finding that Iran is in violation of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments could put the issue before the U.N. Security Council.
Whatever the council decides, the administration may opt for restraint. Iran is flanked on either side by Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which feature expensive and somewhat messy U.S.-led reconstruction efforts. Success in both is being measured in years, not months.
The political climate does not favor a pugnacious approach. Unlike Iraq, there is no U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Iran dispose of weapons of mass destruction. The administration was able to use a dozen years of council weapons resolutions as a lever to justify force against Iraq.
Nonetheless, Iran is even more a U.S. irritant now than when President Bush designated it an ''axis of evil'' member 16 months ago. Its supposed ties to al-Qaida are causing anxiety, as are disclosures that Iran is producing highly enriched uranium and perhaps plutonium as well.
The opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has been tracking Iran's nuclear development activities though its sources inside Iran.
The administration confirmed an NCRI report last August of a uranium enrichment facility and is now examining a new NCRI claim of two additional enrichment facilities 40 miles west of Tehran. An NCRI spokesperson said last week Iran could have a nuclear weapon by 2005.
The CIA has no official estimate of a time frame. It says Iran is seeking both chemical and biological weapons and is in the late stages of perfecting a medium-range missile.
Analysts wonder if the time will come when Bush will apply to Iran his policy statement on terrorism of last September, as he did to Iraq.
''Our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale,'' he said.
Regime change is not the official policy for Iran, but that certainly is the goal of a large number of Iranians, now weary of the conservative mullahs who have run the country, albeit with some democratic trappings, for 24 years.
Perhaps the most sensitive issue in U.S. relations with both China and Russia is the degree to which both have contributed to Iran's military buildup.
The State Department used exceptionally strong language recently in denouncing China's alleged acquiescence in sales by a Chinese company of materials designed to aid in Iran's missile development.
Russia, meanwhile, may be having second thoughts about its cooperation with an Iranian nuclear reactor under construction at Bushehr.
Russia's second-ranking diplomat expressed concern last week about the existence of ''serious, unresolved questions in connection with Iran's nuclear research.''
Russia had been maintaining that the Bushehr project was unrelated to nuclear weapons development, which is consistent with Iran's own explanation.
Bush was certain to sound out Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue during their meeting in Russia.
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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