The Bush administration, which partly justified its war against Iraq by stressing concerns that Saddam Hussein had revived his nuclear weapons program, calls a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable. At his news conference Wednesday, President Bush said he hopes international pressure will convince the Iranians that "development of a nuclear weapon is not in their interests," but he added that "all options remain on the table."
Foreign intelligence officials told The Times that the Central Intelligence Agency, which has long contended that Iran is building a bomb, has briefed them on a contingency plan for U.S. air and missile attacks against Iranian nuclear installations. "It would be foolish not to present the commander in chief with all of the options, including that one," said one of the officials.
A CIA spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny that such a plan has been drafted. "We wouldn't talk about anything like that," she said.
There is precedent for such a strike. Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed a French-built nuclear reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 shortly before it was to go online. The attack set back Iraq's nuclear program and drove it underground.
Taking out Iran's nuclear infrastructure would prove tougher, said Israeli military planners and outside analysts. For one thing, the facilities are spread around the country and small installations are still secret. At least one key facility is being built to withstand conventional airstrikes.
Contacts between Washington and Tehran are very limited, and analysts said U.S. decision-making is still dominated by a distrust of Iran rooted in the taking of American hostages during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and an ideological aversion to negotiating with a regime regarded as extremist.
"The administration does not have a strategy because there is a fight in the administration over whether you should even deal with this government in Iran," said George Perkovich, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
For now, the Bush administration is pinning much of its hopes of containing Iranian nuclear ambitions on the same international inspection apparatus that it blames for failing to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
So far, the U.N.-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency, based here in Vienna, has preferred negotiation to confrontation with Iran.
In a June 16 report to the 35 countries represented on the agency's board, its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, criticized Iran for concealing many of its nuclear activities. But he resisted U.S. pressure to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was created in 1968 to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
Inspections are continuing along with Iranian roadblocks to a thorough examination, according to officials monitoring the progress. Still, IAEA officials hope to have a clearer picture of Iran's nuclear program by Sept. 8, when a follow-up report to the board is due.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry did not respond to telephone requests for interviews or to written questions for this article. Iran said last year that it plans to build six civilian reactors to generate electricity for its fast-growing population of 65 million. Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi has said that allegations that Iran is concealing a weapons program are "poisonous and disdainful rumors" spread by the United States.
Iran's civilian nuclear energy program started in 1974 and was interrupted by the Islamic Revolution. It got back on track in 1995, when Russia signed an $800-million contract to complete the commercial reactor at Bushehr, which is scheduled to come online next year.
Russia also promised to sell Iran the uranium fuel to power the reactor. But Iran maintains that it wants to develop its own nuclear fuel-making capability, a position that has roused international suspicions.
Typically, nations with civilian nuclear programs buy fuel from the countries that export the reactors because the fuel-making process is complicated and expensive. In the most common way to make the fuel, uranium ore is converted to a gas and pumped into centrifuges, where rotors spinning at twice the speed of sound separate isotopes. The process concentrates, or "enriches," the uranium to the point that fission can be sustained in a reactor, which pumps out heat to drive electrical turbines.
The same enrichment process can concentrate fissionable uranium at greater levels to produce material for a bomb.
Countries that try to enrich their own uranium or manufacture plutonium in special reactors are immediately suspected of trying to join the elite nuclear arms club. Israel, India and Pakistan developed their own plants for producing fissile material for bombs under the guise of commercial reactors.