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Use of force debate persist on Iran

By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

02/11/06 -- WASHINGTON (
Reuters) - In a private meeting with European diplomats this week, a former senior U.S. official raised the idea of launching a dozen B2 bombers in an air raid aimed at crippling key Iranian nuclear facilities.

The suggestion was at odds with current U.S. and European strategy, which has emphasised patient diplomacy to resolve a major security challenge for Western powers -- keeping Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

But it underscored how questions about possible use of force persist even Iran has been reported to the U.N. Security Council this month, triggering a new diplomatic phase that could lead to sanctions and later, anything more.

The military possibility "comes up whenever we've been around (Washington)," talking with administration officials and congressmen, a European diplomat told Reuters, but "we don't see the military option as being anywhere near in view."

Western powers accuse Iran of developing an atomic weapon, while Tehran insists it aims to produce only civilian energy.

U.S. President George W. Bush and top aides have said repeatedly that military action against Iran's growing nuclear infrastructure remains possible. Bush reaffirmed last weekend that Iran's nuclear ambitions "will not be tolerated."

But unlike the run-up to the Iraq war, when Bush touted a post-Sept 11 doctrine of pre-emptive action against a gathering threat, the administration has not played up the force option.

Especially in light of continuing turmoil in Iraq, talk of military action against Iran scares many foreign leaders, diplomats say. That made it harder for Western allies to secure last weekend's vote of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency shifting Tehran's case to the more powerful Security Council.

DELAY, NOT DESTROY

"Now that Security Council referral is in prospect, people are saying we must be focussing on the military option," said the European diplomat, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"But both on diplomacy and also in terms of how Iran's nuclear program is developing, we have not taken a quantum leap in the last two weeks ... I don't think the bombers are warming up on the runway," he said.

U.S. warplanes could destroy some Iranian nuclear plants but many facilities are unknown or underground, so the best outcome for the West would be a delay in Iran's nuclear capability, not its destruction, officials and experts say.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, aiming to calm anxieties, told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday military action is not inevitable even if Iran develops a bomb.

But others say that force, while fraught with potential dangers like further inflaming hostility in the Muslim world, may ultimately be deemed necessary, at least by Washington.

"There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option and that is a nuclear-armed Iran," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a possible 2008 U.S. presidential candidate, told CBS Television.

Barring some dramatic near-term advance in Iran's program, Washington and its allies likely will not have to consider this option for a year or more, officials and experts say.

Some experts have predicted that Israel, feeling threatened by Iran, could take early pre-emptive action. Bush may have eased such concern when he told Reuters last week the United States would "rise to Israel's defence" if needed.

Reuters 2006. All rights reserved

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