The Bush administration says the prospect of Iran's obtaining a nuclear weapon is "intolerable," and from the White House to the State Department, officials express considerable skepticism that Europe's efforts to negotiate quietly an end to Iran's nuclear activities will succeed.
Yet though US President George W. Bush threatened Iraq before the war there, he has said almost nothing about the possibility of resorting to military action in Iran.
That may reflect the fact that Pentagon war planners, reviewing available options, say there are no good options for Bush -- or for Israel, which has expressed even greater alarm about a nuclear-armed Iran if negotiations fail.
Almost unanimously, these planners and Pentagon analysts say there are no effective military ways to wipe out a nuclear program that has been well hidden and broadly dispersed across the country, including in crowded cities. Confronted with intelligence evidence, Iran admitted to inspectors last year that it had hidden critical aspects of its civilian program for 18 years, and even today there are questions about whether all of its nuclear-related sites are known.
The Bush administration has talked about the possibility of going to the UN to seek sanctions against Iran if a recent accord with the Europeans falls apart, as a similar agreement did last year. But the Iranians themselves are aware of the whispers about military strikes, many of them fueled by Israeli officials who view the threat as much more urgent than the Europeans do.
Even so, such talk may amount to little more than bluffing in a high-stakes diplomatic game that the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, recently described as "kind of a good-cop-bad-cop arrangement," with Washington playing the bad cop. But a senior European official related a conversation in which Iranians deeply involved in the talks warned that any military action would be futile.
The official said the Iranians boasted that "they can rebuild the facilities in six months," using indigenous technology. He also said they believed that after any military action to slow Iran's program, they could "develop a weapon as a national cause, with more consensus than now."
Senior officers and Pentagon officials confirm that war planners, in particular Air Force targeting teams, have updated contingencies for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, as they periodically do. But they immediately emphasize that this does not reflect any guidance from the civilian leadership to prepare for military confrontation.
Instead, they say, it is part of an effort ordered by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers to begin a process of refreshing contingency planning throughout the world, an effort inspired by the outdated plan for invading Iraq that had to be radically rewritten before the war there.
"Military planning always continues," said one senior officer based in the Middle East. "We are constantly updating plans."