By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
WASHINGTON - At a time when the violent insurgency in Iraq is vexing the Bush administration and stirring worries among Americans, events may be propelling the United States into yet another confrontation, this time with Iran. The issues have an almost eerie familiarity, evoking the warnings and threats that led to the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and stirring an equally passionate debate.
Like Iraq in its final years under Saddam Hussein, Iran is believed by experts to be on the verge of developing a nuclear bomb. In Iraq, that proved to be untrue, though this time the consensus is much stronger among Western experts.
In addition, as with Iraq, administration officials have said recently that Iran is supporting insurgencies and terrorism in other countries. Recently, top administration officials have accused the Tehran government of backing the rebels in Iraq, something that officials fear could increase if Iran is pressed too hard on its nuclear program.
A parallel concern in Washington is Iran's continued backing of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group that the administration and the Israeli government say is channeling aid to groups attacking Israeli civilians. Israel also warns that Iran's nuclear program will reach a "point of no return" next year, after which it will be able to make a bomb without any outside assistance.
The Bush administration has yet to forge a clear strategy on how to deal with Iran, partly because of a lack of attractive options and partly because there is a debate under way between hard-liners and advocates of diplomatic engagement. But in another similarity with the Iraq situation before the war, Washington is in considerable disagreement with key allies over how to handle the threat.
Britain, France and Germany say Iran's nuclear program is unacceptable, but they also warn that a confrontation could backfire and that incentives as well as punishments need to be presented to Tehran. Threatening sanctions - a cutoff in oil purchases, for example - is not viewed as credible or likely to get much support, they say.
European views cannot be dismissed, especially after the discord over Iraq, administration officials say. Last weekend, under European pressure, the United States agreed to defer its demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency immediately refer Iran's noncooperation on nuclear issues to the United Nations Security Council, where sanctions might be considered.Instead, Iran was given two more months to show that it was cooperating.
Still, even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the leading advocate of diplomacy in Mr. Bush's inner circle, cites a gathering threat from Iran.
"Diplomacy does not mean failure to look in the lion's mouth," Mr. Powell said in a recent interview. "Diplomacy doesn't mean pretending something isn't there when it's there. The Iranians have a nuclear weapons program, and I keep telling everybody it is the responsibility of the international community to apply all the pressure we can."
With Iran policy in a state of flux, there is a drive among conservatives to reach out to Iranian dissidents and exiles seeking to overthrow the government, much as efforts were made with Iraqis in the 1990's. Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, is sponsoring legislation favoring "regime change," with what some say is the tacit backing of administration conservatives.
Last year, when it was trying to reach out to Tehran for cooperation on Iraq, the administration stated that it did not support regime change in Iran, though President Bush also spoke out in favor of greater democracy there.
Administration officials say that there was an internal debate last year but that the idea of giving aid to dissidents who might try to overthrow the Iranian government had been dropped for lack of any credible groups to support.
Yet the cause of regime change in Iran is expected to be revived if President Bush is re-elected, administration officials say. Leading the charge is John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for nonproliferation, who gave a speech last month saying that Iran's conduct did not "bode well for the success of a negotiated approach to dealing with this issue." A colleague called him "the self-appointed tip of the spear" in the discussions.
In an interview, Mr. Bolton declined to comment on whether regime change was appropriate for Iran, other than to say that even without outside support, widespread unhappiness among Iranians over a lagging economy and stifling religious rule could bring a "revolution from below."
"When the old regime in South Africa collapsed they got rid of their nukes," Mr. Bolton said. "When Ukraine became independent they did the same. At a time of profound dislocation, it is not inconceivable that a new government in Tehran might be persuaded to drop its nuclear program."
On the other side of the spectrum, some at the State Department say no solution is possible without a discussion of benefits to the Tehran government if it changes its behavior, or without progress in the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians.
Some experts call for a "grand bargain" that would involve an across-the-board agreement in which changed behavior by Tehran on all fronts would be negotiated in return for normal relations and investment from the West.
Still other experts say that such an approach is overly ambitious and that "selective engagement" on a few crucial issues, including steps to stabilize Iraq, should be tried first. That view is advocated by a Council on Foreign Relations committee led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, a director of central intelligence in the early 1990's.
In three and a half years the Bush administration has tried engaging Iran, but little has come of its efforts. Diplomatic contacts at low levels were suspended in May of last year. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, is charging the Bush administration with ignoring the Iran problem. Mr. Kerry said last month that the United States "must work with our allies to end Iran's nuclear weapons program and be ready to work with them to implement a range of tougher measures if needed."
For all the talk about new policies, few administration officials or policy makers and experts outside the administration think that any new approach will be unveiled soon.
A final unpredictable factor in the discussions involves Israel, which some intelligence experts say would be willing to strike one or more Iranian weapons sites, as it did with the French-built nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981.
Israeli and American officials insist that the idea of a strike against Iranian sites is impractical. Nevertheless, some diplomats were rattled by a recent warning from Iran's defense minister, Vice Adm. Ali Shamkhani, that Iran would retaliate if Israel tried any such thing.
"I'm frankly very pessimistic about the future," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy. "We have to offer a carrot as well as brandishing a stick. But this administration is too busy and they don't want to think about it. I don't think very much is going to happen until after the American election."