Nuclear Iran can be stopped
Washington – If diplomacy should fail and Iran were to get a nuclear bomb, the US still would have ways to discourage Tehran from using the terrifying weapons.
There are limits, however, on what even the world's sole superpower can do to contain a nuclear-armed Iran and blunt its influence in the volatile Middle East.
US officials insist they are not resigned to a nuclear Iran and are pressing negotiations to prevent it from joining the world's club of nuclear-armed nations. At the same time, the administration and the Pentagon are clearly eager to avoid a military confrontation with Tehran.
So Washington has set in place, but not completed, the building blocks of policies to make certain an Iran armed with atomic weapons does not threaten its neighbours.
Those elements include a newly revised defence shield for Europe, plans for co-ordinated missile detection and defence systems in the Persian Gulf and deeper defence ties to Gulf Arab states fearful of Iran.
The Pentagon has been quietly building up anti-missile systems in the Gulf region for months, to reassure Arab allies like Bahrain and Qatar, and to signal to Iran that aggression against its neighbours would not go unanswered.
"The department's primary focus continues to be enhancing regional security co-operation with our Middle Eastern partners," Defence Department Under-secretary Michele Flournoy told Congress last week.
"This focus not only reassures anxious states in the region, but also sends a clear signal to Iran that pursuit of nuclear weapons will lead to its own isolation and in the end make it less, not more, secure."
Last week, General David Petraeus said additional Patriot 3 anti-missile weapons were being installed in the Gulf area. US and allied naval forces, he said, also are interdicting arms smuggled from Iran to its Islamic allies Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The US also is disrupting Tehran's supply lines moving what Petraeus called "prohibited items", technology linked, directly or indirectly, to its disputed nuclear programme.
Meanwhile, US military officials are monitoring carefully the growing range and sophistication of Iranian missiles, the presumed delivery system for any eventual Iranian nuclear warhead. There is growing consternation that these missiles might also be used to deliver conventional weapons against Iran's neighbours.
The Iranian missile arsenal includes mid-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Arab sates, Israel and central Europe, as well as short-range Iranian missiles that could be used against US forces in Iraq.
The Defence Intelligence Agency recently said that with outside help, Iran could one day develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
Obama administration officials and military leaders said that as Iran nears the point, perhaps in a year's time, when it could build a bomb, the room for military and diplomatic manoeuvring by the United States was shrinking.
President Barack Obama has said Iran cannot be allowed to become a nuclear weapons state. Despite that red line, there is a strong distaste among military leaders and the White House for seeking to resolve the Iranian problem with military force.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairperson Admiral Mike Mullen and others have not budged from their view that a US or Israeli military strike on Iran's known nuclear development facilities would not prevent Tehran from building a bomb eventually.
Instead, they warn, an attack on Iran's suspected weapons sites could cause a far-reaching and unpredictable backlash.
But US military and diplomatic officials also worry about subtler questions. One is what should the US do if Iran should develop the full range of technologies, know-how and materials to build a bomb but stop just short of assembling one? What would be the appropriate, proportionate response?
New round of economic sanctions
For now, the administration's main focus is to win support in the UN Security Council for a new round of economic sanctions, imposed because of Iran's alleged failure to comply with its responsibilities as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
These penalties would be a starting point for additional economic and trade penalties imposed by the US, individual European allies or others.
The Obama administration hopes that by inflicting economic and diplomatic pain, it can persuade Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions and avoid military action.
But some experts have warned the US must have a plan for containing a nuclear-armed Iran, if sanctions and other measures fail.
In a statement on Sunday, Defence Secretary Robert Gates made it clear that the Obama administration is grappling with the question of what to do against Iran's nuclear programme short of war.
Defence planning process
Gates referred to an Iran memo he wrote in January that identified "next steps in our defence planning process" where further policy decisions would be needed in the weeks and months ahead.
He offered no specifics about what the memo contained, but said it had presented questions and proposals to advance the internal discussions.
Gates submitted the memo after the expiration of Obama's deadline for Iran to accept his offer to hold direct nuclear talks.
Those talks, had Iran agreed to them, would have been a test of Tehran's assertions that it has no intention of building a nuclear bomb.
But even as Gates submitted his memo to the White House, the administration was shifting its focus to gathering international support for new sanctions against Iran.
The sanctions path is far from smooth. China in particular is reluctant to impose harsh new penalties on Iran, from whom it imports a substantial portion of its oil, although in recent days Beijing has agreed to begin discussing possible sanctions.