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(photo credit: AP)
While stressing that diplomacy is the first course for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, the White House is not ruling out a military response and says "normal defense and intelligence planning" is under way.
The White House, sensitive to President George W. Bush's image as a war hawk, is trying to play down the possibility of a military strike on the country that Bush included among nations forming the "axis of evil."
"The president's priority is to find a diplomatic solution to a problem the entire world recognizes," Bush counselor Dan 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."
Bush and other administration officials have said repeatedly that the military option is on the table. Several reports published over the weekend said the administration was studying options for military strikes, and an account in The New Yorker magazine raised the possibility of using nuclear bombs against Iran's underground nuclear sites.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in an interview with the BBC, called the idea of a nuclear strike "completely nuts."
Straw said Britain would not launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran and he was as "certain as he could be" that neither would the US. He said he has a high suspicion that Iran is developing a civil nuclear capability that in turn could be used for nuclear weapons, but there is "no smoking gun" to prove it and rationalize abandoning the plodding diplomatic 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," Straw said.
Defense experts say a military strike on Iran would be risky and complicated. US forces already are occupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, and an attack against Iran could inflame US problems in the Muslim world.
The UN 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."
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros would not comment Sunday on reports of military planning for Iran. "The US military never comments on contingency planning," he said.
Stephen Cimbala, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies US foreign policy, said it would be no surprise that the Pentagon has contingency plans for strike on Iran. But he suggested the hint of military strikes is more of a public 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."