Israel's security establishment, The Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday, does not believe President Bush would resort to military force if all else fails to halt Iran's drive to nuclear power. But former Israeli ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon, speaking to us the next day, argued emphatically that "the US will not allow Iran to go nuclear."
Would-be president Senator John McCain has declared that "there's only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option. That is a nuclear-armed Iran."
But newly confirmed Defense Secretary Robert Gates contends that such military action is almost unthinkable, "except as a last resort and if we felt that our vital interests were threatened" - suggesting that the US could tolerate a nuclear Iran.
Former secretary of state James Baker, back in the Washington spotlight, for his part, is advocating direct engagement with Iran, as with Syria, as a means to try and achieve stability in Iraq.
And all the while, determinedly and unimpeded, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's experts press forward toward their nuclear goal. As our lead story on Thursday revealed, that race ahead is not without its complications. Iran is making slower progress than it would have wished. Mastering the operation of centrifuges is proving highly complex. But North Korea managed to clear all the hurdles and build the bomb; nobody doubts that Iran, unless forced to a halt, will clear them too, and sooner rather than later.
Even as it negotiates technological obstacles, Iran is simultaneously, and with growing effect, attempting to create the sense that its nuclear quest is irreversible, that a nuclear Iran is a fait accompli. Early in 2007, the likelihood is that it will declare that quest a success. The program has reached fruition, Ahmadinejad will crow. The doubters have been disproved. It's a whole new ball game.
Formally at least, the international community has regarded the Iranian nuclear program as suspect, and Ahmadinejad's professions of solely peaceful intent as unreliable.
Via the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Security Council and a series of diplomatic initiatives, it has sought answers and clarifications and assurances. It has offered carrots and threatened to wield sticks. To no avail.
There have been brief periods of limited cooperation, with some details provided on past activities. But as soon as the lies and lacunas in its answers have been exposed, Iran has halted interaction.
The IAEA, seeking access to documents, to key players, to suspect sites, has been rebuffed. Its pressure on Teheran to meet existing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations in enabling inspection of specific sites has been rebuffed. So too, needless to say, its efforts to have Iran ratify and implement additional requirements for greater transparency and wider monitoring and thus to reduce the opportunity for clandestine nuclear development.
The hope that Iran could be persuaded to desist for a while from enrichment, from reprocessing, from the construction of heavy-water facilities - as a means of resurrecting international confidence - has, predictably, proven empty.
The theoretical consequence of such defiance is gradually escalated punitive action. But month after disunited month, the key international players have failed to find consensus even around a lowest-common-denominator package of sanctions. September, October, November - each confidently cited as the month when the Security Council would be galvanized into action - all passed harmlessly by.
The Russians have been the hamperers-in-chief - purportedly concerned by the scale of the contemplated sanctions package, but in truth averse to the entire notion of a sanctions process, regarding even the most limited use of the stick as the start of a slippery slope inevitably descending, via insistent Iranian defiance and consequent heightened pressure, into war. China has not been far behind.
The IAEA has also contributed to the fostering of the desired Iranian impression that it's all too late now anyway; that Iran cannot be stopped and must instead be coaxed into implementing voluntary limitations on the use of its nuclear capabilities.
The Iranians themselves, of course, are only too happy to note that the likes of Japan have for years held themselves back from the brink - only weeks away from a bomb should they choose to press ahead - entirely within the legitimate framework of the outdated NPT, with full international consent. What's all right for Japan, the leaders of Iran steadfastly argue to wide domestic endorsement, should be all right for them, too.
Despite all this, and despite James Baker's engage Teheran appeal to the Bush administration, it may yet come to pass, and possibly even this month, that an American- and European-impelled sanctions resolution gains Security Council approval. The next Security Council, taking office in the new year, is deemed more problematic than this one. So the haggling is in high gear now over terms, including the question of whether the Russians will be prohibited from completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
THERE ARE those in the Israeli corridors of power who regard even a very limited sanctions resolution as being of real potential significance. For one thing, it would start the ball rolling, with the threat of more to come if Iran does not start cooperating. For another, it would signal that the international community and the would-be nuclear Iran are formally on a collision course. This would further raise the risk premiums of investment in Iran. And it would legitimize more serious sanctions on Iran by individual countries. The governments of Italy and Germany, two of the European nations with the deepest economic interests in Iran, for instance, might be moved to pull back.
There are those in the Israeli corridors of power, indeed, who believe that sanctions could yet have the desired effect. Ahmadinejad assiduously champions the image of an immensely potent Iran - key to developments on the oil markets, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon and with the Palestinians. Along with that of Hassan Nasrallah, it is Ahmadinejad's portrait that is being carried even by Moslem brotherhood demonstrators in Egypt.
But, it is argued in some quarters, there's another side to the picture. Iran is grappling with high inflation, with rising unemployment, a money drain, a growing dependence on imports of refined oil and falling production in its oil industry because of lack of financial infusion - real vulnerabilities.
Ahmadinejad, it is recognized, will not be deterred. He cleaves to a vision of Islamic hegemony, anticipating the 12th imam's apocalyptic messianic dawn, shunning and deriding those who would delay that era through compromise and capitulation. His mentor, Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, attacked even the infallible Ayatollah Khomeini for having halted the bloodshed that speeds that messianic arrival by agreeing to the Iran-Iraq cease fire. Now the blood is flowing freely again - in Iraq, in Lebanon. Ahmadinejad, far from staunching it, has allocated funding for the lavish refurbishment of the Jamkaran shrine in the holy city of Qom in anticipation of the dawning, in his life time, of the glorious era.
Much of the revolutionary "establishment" rejects this vision as false messianism. Much of the revolutionary "establishment," it is further believed by some here, is not willing to risk Ahmadinejad's extremism triggering its fall from power. There is a wide desire for nuclear progress, but not at the ultimate cost of the collapse of the regime.
The true source of power in Iran, supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is suggested, may conclude that sanctions, complementary action by other countries, and the risk to the continuation of the revolution, comprise so grave a combination as to necessitate at least a suspension of the nuclear program.
But there are lots of problems with this analysis. The balance of power within the Iranian leadership is far from clear, for a start. It may get clearer next Friday, December 15, when elections are held for the 86-member "Assembly of Experts" that supervises, elects or ousts the supreme spiritual leader.
Ahmadinejad would like his mentor Mesbah-Yazdi and his supporters installed and outweighing Khamenei's allies headed by the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Were Mesbah-Yazdi to prevail, the "comforting" notion that Ahmadinejad would not really have his finger on the button even if Iran went nuclear - and that "pragmatist" Khamenei holds all the important cards in Teheran - would shatter. Mesbah-Yazdi is said to have ruled that the use of nuclear weapons is legitimate under Islamic law.
The other dominant problem is that the international community has to date shown a staggering inability to exert concerted pressure over Iran - just as it has failed to unify over everything from Iraq to global warming. The world stakes could not be higher, yet myopic thinking has consistently triumphed.
EVEN THE most optimistic of Israeli officials, meanwhile, recognize that any effort at international unity over Iran would have significant direct implications for Israel. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair is by no means the only prominent player to be arguing passionately that for the necessary alliances to galvanize against Iran, progress will have to be made on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
If the international community can be seen to be trying to make peace in the Middle East, Israel is being told, there is far more potential for the major powers and moderate Arab states to come together and follow the sanctions route on Iran, and even move beyond sanctions to military action if necessary. Deprive Ahmadinejad of one of the flashpoint issues that brings him so much popularity at home and across the region - his genocidal hostility to an Israel depicted as ruthlessly oppressing the Palestinians - and he is a diminished foe, an enemy easier to counter.
World leaders may appreciate that the most generous and dovish of Israeli governments could hardly build a lasting peace with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian leadership insistently bent on the destruction of the Jewish state. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's appeal to the Palestinians for progress, issued last week at the grave of David Ben-Gurion, may well have stemmed from explicit or implicit pressure from key international leaders for Israel to at least be seen to be trying to make constructive headway. The best-case scenario on Iran, in other words, sees Israel pressured to make concessions as a precondition for the necessary international coalitions to take shape against Iran.
Discussions with key Israeli officials leave no doubt that, given the choice between the fait accompli of a nuclear Iran or last-resort Israeli military intervention, they desperately want neither. The insistent line is that the Iranian regime is vulnerable, if only the international community can agree on concerted action. The insistent line is that a nuclear Iran is a global, not a solely Israeli problem, and that the international community, rather than Israel, is the best-placed to address it.
But these same officials also note that the coming year, 2007, will be crucial, and that if Iran is not stopped in the next 12 months, and is able to claim to have produced significant quantities of fissile material, the prospects of it subsequently being thwarted will range between slim and non-existent. Other regional players, moreover, will have despaired and begun their own quest for nuclear capabilities.
Heard over and over, too, in the corridors of power here is the assertion that, whatever happens, Ahmadinejad's Iran will not determine the destiny of the Jewish state. That would seem to suggest a confidence that either the nuclear program, or its presidential champion, will be stopped, one way or another.
But given the sober assessment of 2007 as the make or break year, and given the international community's determined foot-dragging, it gets harder and harder to comprehend the sources of that official Israeli confidence.