By Sonni Efron
WASHINGTON - Diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb may fail, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats say, leaving the winner of today's presidential election with the threat of an Islamic fundamentalist, nuclear-armed regime in Tehran.
The debate over Iran will probably strain a White House that is already preoccupied with Iraq no matter who wins today's presidential election. Bush administration hard-liners are gearing up for the issue in a potential second term, studying options that include striking a deal with the Iranians, pushing for regime change and launching preemptive attacks.
"The argument will be that Iran policy is broken because it was predicated on the false philosophical assumption that Iran can be denied nukes," said an administration official who is familiar with the internal debate.
There is now broad agreement, inside and outside the U.S. government, that Iran will be able to develop a nuclear bomb within a few years. Tehran, for its part, insists that its nuclear program is aimed at generating civilian energy.
Administration hard-liners and their supporters argue that a nuclear Iran would be a regional danger capable of sharing the technology with terrorists. The hard-liners say Iran might use the bomb to threaten Israel or the West. "The argument will be, we need to take action overt and covert" to promote regime change in Tehran, the administration official said.
The government has been unable for four years to reach a consensus on policy toward Iran. Officials are split between those who oppose negotiations and those who believe America must deal with the Islamist regime.
"They have tried and they still do not have an Iran policy because they cannot resolve this [internal"> conflict," said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
If Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry is elected, he may back European plans to offer Iran nuclear fuel for non-weapons purposes in exchange for a commitment to drop its uranium enrichment program. If Iran refused such an offer, Kerry has said, it would undercut Tehran's claims that its nuclear agenda is peaceful.
Among military and foreign policy experts in Washington, discussion of preemptive U.S. attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities is already widespread.
"I've heard discussion of between 20 and 40 [suspected nuclear"> sites you'd want to hit to deter the program," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle East analyst for the CIA who is now at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The administration is "very seriously" studying the possibility of military action against Iran, said Michael Rubin, another AEI scholar who was a U.S. advisor in Baghdad.
"It's fourth down and the two-minute warning is past," Rubin wrote Friday in an e-mail to The Times from Iraq. "Our willingness to forgive and forget has made the situation far more dangerous."
On Capitol Hill, most lawmakers have not yet turned their attention to Iran, but staffers predicted it would become the most urgent foreign policy issue before the new Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is likely to hold hearings early in the session, aides said.
"Iran will be the most pressing foreign policy problem for the next administration, just as Iraq was the biggest problem in this administration," said James A. Phillips, a Middle East and terrorism specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "It looks to me that Iran and the U.S. are on a collision course."
A meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear monitoring group, that could prove to be a crucial turning point is scheduled for Nov. 25 in Vienna. Britain, France and Germany, representing the European Union, have given Iran until that date to comply with IAEA demands that it freeze its uranium enrichment activities in exchange for trade benefits or face possible action, including Security Council sanctions.
On Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ruled out long-term suspension of enrichment activities, and his negotiators threatened to end talks with the Europeans. The Iranian parliament backed Khamenei's position Sunday. More talks are planned for Friday in Paris.
Despite the stalemate, the Europeans and the U.S. may not have enough votes on the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iran's noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to the Security Council.
The United States has insisted that the place to deal with Iran is the Security Council. But the IAEA traditionally makes decisions by consensus, and Russia, a board member, may not agree to take the first step toward sanctions against Iran.
If the dispute goes before the Security Council, diplomats and others say U.S. officials may also not be able to get the votes there for a tougher stance on Iran.
With diplomacy stalled and Iran's nuclear program advancing, preemptive strikes are among the range of U.S. options that includes engagement, deterrence, isolation and containment, and promoting regime change.
The postelection debate will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the crisis that ruptured U.S.-Iranian relations the Nov. 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran with 66 American hostages inside.
With American support for the war in Iraq declining and the Pentagon's attention focused there, an attack on Iran especially before the Iraqi elections planned for January would be politically perilous.
Bombing would be difficult also because the nuclear equipment is small, portable and easily concealed possibly underground, if the locations can be defined at all. In addition, U.S. intelligence on Iranian nuclear sites may be of lower quality than the prewar information on Iraq, analysts said.
A successful bombing campaign would take many days, involve a huge number of targets and "kill a lot of Iranians and possibly some Russians," said Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center in Washington. "It is extraordinarily dangerous because it will completely unite the Iranians behind the hard-liners."
Moreover, if the United States were to attack without Security Council approval, the uproar in Britain could cost Prime Minister Tony Blair his job and endanger the British military commitment to Iraq, Kemp said. Others warn of the possibility of Iranian retaliation through increased funding to militant groups.
But those who believe diplomacy will fail and that America must not countenance a nuclear Iran suggest a different outcome
"A targeted strike might cause some backlash, but the amount of time it will set back their program will be worth it," said the AEI's Rubin.
Gerecht argued that the next president has only two real options: "punt or preempt."
Engagement through negotiations would offer Iran's theocratic regime normalized relations with the United States, membership in the World Trade Organization and a guaranteed supply of fuel for its civilian nuclear reactors in exchange for halting support for militant groups and abandoning its suspected pursuit of nuclear arms.
Bush, who often claims to be "tough on terror," could credibly pursue such a course, experts say. But his advisors are believed to be vigorously opposed to that approach.