Richard Perle made it sound so simple. The former Pentagon adviser, now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told thousands of open-mouthed delegates to the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby's Washington, D.C., conference on Monday that while, of course, he hoped it wouldn't come to this, Iran's prime nuclear facilities could be devastated on a single night, in a single strike, by a small fleet of US B-2 bombers. Israeli and American diplomats, analysts and uniformed experts I spoke to in the corridors of the conference indicated that, if ever approved, military intervention to thwart Iran's drive to the nuclear bomb would likely be considerably more complex than the Perle scenario of wham, bam and good night Teheran. Yet at a gathering where the Iranian threat dominated almost every major speech and session, there was a palpable sense that we are now entering the end game - the field of heightened rhetoric and last-minute diplomatic maneuvering - with not long to go before words may give way to action. There are those who have held high office in Israel, and others who seek it, who argue that we missed an opportunity five years ago to do to the ayatollahs what was done to Saddam in 1981. A strike at the turn of the millennium, one prominent politician argued to me in a recent conversation, would have required the destruction of only one key target, and would have sent a deterrent message that would have set back Iran's nuclear ambitions by many, many years. True or not, the fact is that, today, this is not Osirak all over again - absolute surprise, a sole target, and no prospect of the enemy's recovery. This is, rather, a face-off against a savvy regime, with multiple, well-protected nuclear sites, a potent counter-strike missile capability and global terror tentacles capable of attempting vicious revenge. The New York Times earlier this week carried a long article exposing the vastly differing assessments as to how far Teheran truly is from bomb-building capability - anything from five to 10 years (say American intelligence agencies) to as little as six months (say Israeli experts). But that Israeli worst-case time frame is evidently focusing administration minds. "These next few weeks are crucial," said a leading diplomat, speaking to me on condition of anonymity. "Time is running out." AIPAC's focused Executive Director Howard Kohr gave comfortably the most chilling presentation to the 4,500 delegates. As the huge video screens in the vast hall of the Washington Conference Center flashed up alternative footage of Adolf Hitler and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kohr paralleled the two regimes, arguing that the similarities in the geo-political climate between March 1933 and March 2006 "are stunning in their likeness, eerie in their implication." But whereas international complacency provided Hitler with the leeway to transform Germany "from a weak power to one with enough military might to carry out his evil plans," Kohr pleaded, "this time we must not ignore the approaching thunder." The AIPAC chief quoted Ahmadinejad, from his notorious December "The World Without Zionism" lecture in Teheran, asserting that "The annihilation of the Zionist regime will come... Israel must be wiped off the map... God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism." And what made the Iranians so dangerous, Kohr argued to frequent bursts of loud applause, was "not simply the words their leaders speak, or the threats the regime makes," but, rather, "the simple fact that it is closer than ever to having the military capabilities to match its evil intentions." For all the drama of Kohr's speech, however, he did not stray anywhere near Perle's military quick-fix territory. He spoke robustly, instead, about the potential utility of sanctions, stressing Iran's vulnerability to economic, political and diplomatic pressures. He spoke of the possibility of targeting "the regime, the wealthy and the unelected mullahs" with travel bans and asset freezing. He noted that Teheran imports 40 percent of its gasoline and mused about the impact of a ban on that flow. He suggested that a decision by the EU, Japan, Australia and Canada to boycott commerce with Iran - cutting its global trade by half at a stroke - would have an "immediate" effect. He praised America's Iran Freedom Support Act for its potential to prompt divestment from foreign companies that invest in Iran's energy sector. Such measures, he argued, would "help dry up the resources necessary for Iran to invest in weapons of mass destruction." But strikingly, while the powerhouse lobby's chief refrained from directly demanding, even as a last option, the most overt intervention of all, several of the US legislators and administration officials who addressed the conference left little room for doubt that they would encourage a resort to force if all else failed. Susan Collins, chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, began her talk with hackneyed jokes about us Jews inventing guilt and her Catholics perfecting it, and about Moses consigning the Israelites to endless wilderness wanderings because of the macho inability to ask for directions. But in a room overflowing with literally hundreds of US legislators and administration officials at Monday evening's gala banquet - the annual AIPAC show of force undimmed by the "classified" materials trial hanging over the head of two of its ex-employees - she quickly graduated to invoking Winston Churchill's characterization of an "appeaser" as "one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last." She branded Ahmadinejad the head not of a government but of "a racist, death worshipping cult" and said his "denial of the Holocaust at the same time as he pledges to repeat it" was evidence of a "twisted" mind, the mind of a crocodile that "must be fed no longer." As ambassadors and envoys from around the world - notably including Afghanistan, Oman, Pakistan and Turkey - listened keenly, the Republican senator from Maine declared flatly: "We cannot allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons capability." Indiana Democrat and presidential hopeful Evan Bayh, was equally blunt: An apocalyptic president seeking nuclear weapons? "Not on our watch," he promised. John Bolton, the Bush administration's ambassador to the UN, devoted his entire speech to the subject of Iran. He quoted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledging that the US "will actively confront the aggressive policies of this Iranian regime," but he also went a mite further: "Given the comprehensive nature of the threat, we must be prepared to rely on comprehensive solutions and use all tools at our disposal to stop the threat that the Iranian regime poses." And the most prized speaker of all, Vice President Richard Cheney, echoed and elaborated on his president, who said in Kabul last week that "Iran must not have a nuclear weapon." Cheney declared that the US "is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the [Iranian] regime. And we join other nations in sending that regime a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon." AHMADINEJAD, IT cannot be stressed too often, had every interest in playing down his revulsion for Israel for at least so long as he has sought international endorsement of his nuclear program. That he has chosen to do precisely the opposite, to both determinedly press on with his nuclear program and to insist repeatedly and publicly on his determination to see Israel eliminated, makes it hard for even the most weasely of crocodile feeders to deny the obvious: that if Iran's president gets his hands on a nuclear weapon, one would have to assume he might use it, against Israel and/or other Western targets. He quoted Bush as having said that "terrorists and terror states" do not generally make "formal declarations" about their WMD intentions - and that, again in Bush's words, "responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense, it's suicide." Nonetheless, the immediate effort is plainly to achieve international support for biting sanctions and to foster any prospect, however faint, of domestic Iranian dissent leading to rapid regime change. What's more, the president right now is singularly unpopular at home, and deeply embroiled overseas in Iraq - not the best base from which to go after the ayatollahs. Perle has said elsewhere recently that "If the President were faced with the choice between Iran crossing the line to become a nuclear weapon state and using force to destroy or significantly delay that prospect, then I believe he would use force," and that there is already "strong contingency planning for that." But for all the rhetoric, and despite Bush's "man of his word" credibility - and given, too, that militarily confronting the Iranian nuclear threat is unlikely to be the straightforward surgery envisaged by Perle - is it truly likely, even if all other avenues were exhausted, that the president would order in the bombers? Leaving the Monday night banquet, I bumped into Moshe Ya'alon, the former chief of General Staff who was also speaking at the conference, and asked him just that question. "We all hope it doesn't come to that," Ya'alon stressed. "But a nuclear Iran? I don't think that's what Bush would want as his presidential legacy."