Washington The White House on Sunday sought to dampen the idea of a U.S. military strike on Iran, saying the United States is conducting "normal defense and intelligence planning" as President Bush seeks a diplomatic solution to Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
Administration officials - from President Bush on down - have left open the possibility of a military response if Iran does not end its nuclear ambitions. Several reports published Sunday said the administration was studying options for military strikes; one account raised the possibility of using nuclear bombs against Iran's underground nuclear sites.
Britain's foreign secretary called the idea of a nuclear strike "completely nuts."
Dan Bartlett, counselor to Bush, cautioned against reading too much into administration planning.
"The president's priority is to find a diplomatic solution to a problem the entire world recognizes," Bartlett told The Associated Press on Sunday. "And those who are drawing broad, definitive conclusions based on normal defense and intelligence planning, are ill-informed and are not knowledgeable of the administration's thinking on Iran."
Experts say a military strike on Iran would be risky and complicated. U.S. forces already are preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, and an attack against Iran could inflame U.S. problems in the Muslim world.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., said Britain would not launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran and he was as "certain as he could be" that neither would the U.S. He said he has a high suspicion that Iran is developing a civil nuclear capability which in turn could be used for nuclear weapons, but there is "no smoking gun" to prove it and justify military action.
"I understand people's frustration with the diplomatic process," Straw said. "It takes a long time and is quite a subtle process. The reason why we're opposed to military action is because it's an infinitely worse option and there's no justification for it."
The U.N. Security Council has demanded Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program. But Iran has so far refused to halt its nuclear activity, saying the small-scale enrichment project was strictly for research and not for development of nuclear weapons.
Bush has said Iran may pose the greatest challenge to the United States of any other country in the world. And while he has stressed that diplomacy is always preferable, he has defended his administration's strike-first policy against terrorists and other enemies.
"The threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally Israel," the president said last month in Cleveland. "That's a threat, a serious threat. It's a threat to world peace; it's a threat, in essence, to a strong alliance. I made it clear, I'll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally."
Stephen Cimbala, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies U.S. foreign policy, said it would be no surprise that the Pentagon has contingency plans for strike on Iran. But he says the administration's hint of military strikes is more of a show to Iran and the public than a feasible option.
"If you look at the military options, all of them are unattractive," Cimbala said. "Either because they won't work or because they have side effects where the cure is worse than the disease."