At the conclusion of a debate among Republican presidential hopefuls, which otherwise featured different questions for different candidates, all the participants were asked to address what their Fox News hosts called a "quite plausible" scenario concerning Iran.
In that hypothetical situation, the Islamic Republic was about to or had already developed a nuclear weapon, had spurned international inspectors and was intensifying its threats again Israel, while the UN had authorized some sanctions but not the use of force - and Israel had said it would need to take action of its own.
All of the candidates on stage except Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said allowing Iran to get nuclear weapons was unacceptable, with most indicating that military action should be contemplated.
"You're dealing with a nation that talks about genocide, that talks about Israel being a 'one-bomb state,'" said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. "It is unacceptable to the world for us to have a nuclear Iran and there's no price of oil which would justify that outcome."
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, countering Paul's assertion that deterrence could work against Iran just as it did with the Soviet Union, said during the Wednesday night debate that the most immediate threat is that the "single biggest state sponsor of Islamic terrorism" would pass nuclear material on to terrorists rather than use a bomb itself.
"Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot, but it was because he pointed like a thousand missiles at Soviet cities," Giuliani said to warm applause.
But Paul got the biggest cheer from the crowd when he concluded, "We don't have to resort to war every single time there's a confrontation. They are not a threat to Israel. Israel has 200 to 300 nuclear missiles and they can take care of themselves. So you shouldn't assume that we have to jump in and go to war, and we certainly shouldn't do it without the consent of Congress."
Paul also won the debate according to Fox viewers, who text messaged in their votes following the event, garnering 33 percent of the support in comparison to 18% for Huckabee, 15% for Giuliani and 14% for Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Though many of the candidates said they didn't like to address hypotheticals, several also said this was one scenario that wasn't so far-fetched.
"Your hypothetical is closer to reality than many of us appreciate," said McCain, who also echoed earlier comments that Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
Indeed, the question comes at a time of increasing discussion about the likelihood of US President George W. Bush taking military action against Iran during his final year in office as the Persian power continues to defy international demands that it halt the enrichment of uranium.
The Heritage Foundation recently used exactly such a scenario when it wanted to simulate an energy crisis. In its formulation, American strikes against nuclear targets resulted in Iran blockading the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.
That action caused the price of oil to "skyrocket" in the simulation, according to Heritage senior fellow James Carafano, who led the exercise. But the conservative thinktank, consulting with a wide range of agency experts, found that the US would quickly be able to reopen the straits and oil prices would fall back down, primarily because Iran depends on the export of oil and wouldn't want to maintain an embargo for long.
"This was not a scenario [asking], 'Should you attack Iran or not?'" or looking at such an attacks' implications, Carafano clarified. Its purpose was to create and deal with a potential energy crisis.
Still, he said, the foundation chose this turns of events because it's "realistic" if hypothetical.
"The use of military force has serious and long-term consequences, and you're an idiot if you don't think about them," he added. "The last thing you want to do is start a war and step into the dark."
Another international policy expert, Ilan Berman, who studies Iran at the American Foreign Policy Council, said that reality means the US military needs to be planning for a possible confrontation with Iran.
"Any time you have a situation like this, serious military planning is a prudent course of action," Berman said, adding that the reports "trickling out" about military planning and build-ups don't foretell any particular course of action.
"We have plans drawn up for everything, for Saudi Arabia and for Canada," he explained. The Pentagon has called these reports "merely speculation." Berman added, though, that as the diplomatic and political tracks that the administration prefers continue to yield little progress, "They have to be thinking, 'What if this doesn't work?'" The longer that Iran proceeds with its nuclear activity, Berman said, "the more likely that force will be necessary."
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