The Obama administration is quietly laying groundwork for a long-range strategy that could be used to contain a nuclear-equipped Iran and deter its leaders from using atomic weapons.
US officials insist they are not resigned to a nuclear Iran and are pressing negotiations to prevent it from joining the world's nuclear club. At the same time, however, the administration has set in place the building blocks for policies to contend with an Iran armed with atomic weapons.
Those elements, former officials and analysts said, include the newly revised defense shield for Europe and deeper defense ties to Gulf states that feel threatened by Iran.
Andrew Kuchin, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said administration officials clearly are thinking about how to contain an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
"It would be pretty irresponsible on our part if we didn't," he said.
The administration shies away from talking about a nuclear-armed Iran, believing that such talk implies that the United States has given up hope of stopping the Iranians from getting the bomb.
"It is our clear policy that an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability is unacceptable, and we are working with our allies and partners to ensure that Iran desists from working toward such a capability," said Colin Kahl, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
In recent weeks, US diplomats have pushed with the country's international partners to nudge Iran into agreeing not to use its nuclear facilities to build atomic weapons.
Several negotiating sessions in Geneva have led to a UN draft plan under which the Iranians would ship enriched uranium out of the country for processing instead of using their own nuclear sites, which also could be used to build weapons covertly. Iran indicated Tuesday it might agree, but details still are being worked out.
But if Iran stays on a nuclear arms path, the administration's only realistic choice is to deter it from using them, said Richard Kugler, a senior consultant to a policy research center at National Defense University.
The administration's move this year to reconfigure an interceptor and radar system to protect Europe against short- and medium-range missiles already is a clear element of deterrence aimed at a nuclear Iran. The proposed system is based on the assumption that the missiles would be Iranian and carry nuclear warheads.
"So the initial steps are being taken" in that direction, said Kugler, who sees that move as taking the United States toward "extended deterrence," a sort of umbrella over neighbor-nations threatened by a nuclear Iran.
That is akin to a controversial "defense umbrella" concept that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned publicly in July. Those comments angered Israel, which said it sounded as if the United States was conceding Iran was going nuclear and preparing to live with it.
Clinton insisted her comment was meant to show Iran that it would not profit from building an atomic bomb.
Extended deterrence would be meant to protect friends and allies in the Middle East and Europe from the threat of an Iranian nuclear attack - not unlike the security umbrella the United States provided for Germany during the Cold War, when the central threat was seen as either a Soviet land assault or a nuclear attack.
Some question whether such an argument can dissuade Iran, but retired Gen. John Abizaid, who oversaw US military operations in the Middle East from 2003-07, says he thinks that a nuclear-armed Iran would make rational judgments.
"The historical evidence would suggest that Iran is not a suicide state," he told a University of Virginia conference Oct. 5. "So it's my military belief that Iran can be deterred."
Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said in an AP interview that Washington is mistaken in insisting that it would be intolerable for Iran to have nuclear weapons.
"Just as the world tolerates North Korea and Pakistan, it would have to tolerate Iran as well," she said.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>