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U.S. Pursues Diplomacy on Iran Nukes

Two leading conservative groups are urging the Bush administration to adopt a policy of regime change in Iran as the diplomatic brinksmanship game between Tehran and Western countries escalates in the run-up to a crucial meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency early next month.

The Committee on the Present Danger issued a policy paper Monday in Washington, calling for stiffer sanctions against Iran and urging the administration to “energetically assist” dissidents to bring about regime change in Tehran. The Foundation for the Defence of Democracies released new polls showing American support for a limited military intervention by the U.S. and its allies. Both groups strongly supported military intervention in Iraq.

The call comes amid mounting alarm over Iran’s nuclear plans. Israeli officials warn that Iran is nearing a “point of no return” after which its efforts to produce nuclear weapons cannot be countered.

The administration, however, appears determined for now to pursue a diplomatic course to halt Iran’s nuclear efforts, issuing perfunctory calls for Iranian democratization but avoiding any build-up to military confrontation of the sort that preceded the Iraq war.

American officials are currently working with their European counterparts to build an international coalition, including key actors such as Russia, China and India, to refer Iran’s nuclear activities to the Security Council for eventual sanctions. Such a referral could be approved at an emergency session of the International Atomic Agency, scheduled for February 2 in Vienna.

Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, stressed in an interview that American military action should be considered only as a last resort. He echoed similar statements made by a variety of American lawmakers since Iran restarted its nuclear activities a few weeks ago.

“We favor sequencing,” May said. “We would like to see the Security Council take sanctions against Iran. If this fails, we should try to work with our European allies to impose severe penalties. If they are not willing to help, then we should consider unilateral action, with a military option as a last resort.”

Lawmakers from both parties have issued calls for sanctions in the past week, including Democratic senators Hillary Clinton of New York, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Bill Nelson of Florida. Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, an honorary co-chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger, said this week that he was submitting sanctions legislation to Congress.

Israeli military and intelligence chiefs have claimed repeatedly that Iran is only months away from the “point of no return,” which they define as the time when Iran will be capable of producing weapons-grade fissile material without outside assistance. Prominent neo-conservative pundits William Kristol and Chales Krauthammer have also recently voiced similar concerns.

Israeli officials have spoken in the past of a “point of no return” as a point at which a reactor begins operation and no longer can be attacked without risking catastrophic fallout. It was not clear whether the recent use of the term to mean self-sufficiency represented a change on Israel’s part.

Several nuclear experts interviewed by the Forward contested the very notion of a point of no return, claiming it is essentially an arbitrary measure used for political purposes. Most countries, including the United States, focus their estimates on when Iran actually might manufacture a nuclear device, they said.

Israel revised its own assessment last summer, and now believes that Tehran will be able to build a device in 2012 — not between 2007 and 2009, as previously estimated.

“The ‘point of no return’ concept is not a valid one, and the voices in America and in Israel using it to push for a quick solution are misleading,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. Wolfsthal is a former senior Energy Department official. “This is a made-up term by those who want immediate action and are unhappy with the idea that Iran will not master the technology to produce nuclear weapons for years.”

Earlier this month, Iran resumed uranium-enrichment research, breaching an agreement with Britain, France and Germany. In response, the three European countries have joined the United States in urging that Iran be referred by the international atomic agency to the Security Council. The allies are now hoping to convince Russia and China, which wield veto power in the Security Council, to agree to a gradual approach toward eventual sanctions against Iran.

While travel bans and asset freezing are mentioned as possible sanctions, the most efficient stick — an oil embargo — is considered unlikely since it probably would jolt the already tight oil market. Iranian officials actually have raised the possibility of cutting oil supplies on their own in response to international action against Tehran.

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