WASHINGTON — Top diplomats from the United States and its closest allies gathered this fall in Washington to hammer out a common approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions. But the mood quickly soured.
Dispensing with the usual diplomatic niceties, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton simply read aloud a U.S. position paper. In it, the administration refused to back European negotiations with Iran and instead insisted that Tehran be dragged before the United Nations Security Council to condemn it for concealing a nuclear weapons program.
Irked, the Europeans demanded to know what good it would do to bring Iran before the U.N. when Washington knew it could not muster enough Security Council votes even to slap Tehran's wrist.
Bolton referred them to another U.S. position paper.
"He was not willing to discuss anything," said one stunned participant.
The incident, sketched here from interviews with four people who either attended or are familiar with the meeting of officials from the Group of Eight industrialized nations, is circulating in the diplomatic world as evidence of European frustration with the Bush administration.
Bolton's office had no comment. But critics say it is also emblematic of how divisions within the administration have kept the U.S. from either wholeheartedly joining the European approach or coming up with an alternative.
A bruising round of negotiations with Tehran last month left the Europeans more skeptical than ever about Iran's claim that its nuclear power program was peaceful. But Europeans also are mistrustful of U.S. intentions, top experts said.
Some see the lack of a coherent U.S. strategy for solving the Iranian nuclear standoff as a tacit decision by the stalemated Bush administration to bide its time and hope the situation in Iran turns to its advantage by next year.
Facing diplomatic gridlock, unappealing military options, internal ideological divisions and major domestic and foreign political constraints stemming from the Iraq war, Washington has little choice but to watch and wait.
Some prominent conservatives are arguing for a preemptive U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, but State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council officials have been insisting in recent weeks that military action is not under discussion.
"We do not want American armies marching on Tehran," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said late last month.
"Nobody's seriously talking about military options because it doesn't make any sense," said a senior administration official. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official called the notion of a preemptive strike "a dumb idea."
"It's uninformed and irresponsible to suggest that there is a military solution to this program," the official said. "Diplomacy is our approach, and it's not a stalling tactic."
U.S. officials will not discuss what they will do if diplomacy fails. U.S. hard-liners, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, reject making deals with the theocracy in Tehran, and more moderate officials say it isn't clear the religious conservatives in control in Iran are eager to engage with "the Great Satan" either.
Other officials said the United States and its allies have many options short of military action with which to isolate and punish a government that they believe persists in trying to develop nuclear weapons.
"At the end of the day we may have to do it," said another senior official, referring to military action. "We're not at the end of the day yet."
Still, the administration's apparent lack of a strategy worries many people in Washington and abroad.
"I don't think this administration has decided on what its Iran policy is going to be, but one thing is clear: It's not going to be war," said an Iran expert in the Defense Department.
Washington's war planners have updated their scenarios for a possible showdown with Iran. The national security bureaucracy has conducted war games, and officials have been "gaming out" other ways the United States could respond if diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon were to fail.
But they describe the efforts as "prudent contingency planning" that should not be interpreted as saber-rattling. If anything, the process of studying a potential conflict with Iran seems to have made some Bush administration officials more cautious. One possible outcome that alarms planners, senior officials say, is that Tehran might order terrorist retaliation if the United States were to strike Iranian nuclear targets.
U.S. officials are particularly worried about the potential for Iran to use the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, which it funds and supports, to hit American targets in Iraq, step up attacks in Israel, target U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, or even to strike inside the United States.
American officials have called Hezbollah "the A-team" of terrorism, potentially more deadly than Al Qaeda, with possibly dozens of cells around the world.