WASHINGTON - A year after President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a new strategy toward Iran, a behind-the-scenes debate has broken out within the administration over whether the approach has any hope of reining in Iran's nuclear program, according to senior administration officials.
The debate has pitted Ms. Rice and her deputies, who appear to be winning so far, against the few remaining hawks inside the administration, especially those in Vice President Dick Cheney's office who, according to some people familiar with the discussions, are pressing for greater consideration of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
In the year since Ms. Rice announced the new strategy for the United States to join forces with Europe, Russia and China to press Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, Iran has installed more than a thousand centrifuges to enrich uranium. The International Atomic Energy Agency predicts that 8,000 or so could be spinning by the end of the year, if Iran surmounts its technical problems.
Those hard numbers are at the core of the debate within the administration over whether Mr. Bush should warn Iran's leaders that he will not allow them to get beyond some yet-undefined milestones, leaving the implication that a military strike on the country's facilities is still an option.
Even beyond its nuclear program, Iran is emerging as an increasing source of trouble for the Bush administration by inflaming the insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and in Gaza, where it has provided military and financial support to the militant Islamic group Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip.
Even so, friends and associates of Ms. Rice who have talked with her recently say she has increasingly moved toward the European position that the diplomatic path she has laid out is the only real option for Mr. Bush, even though it has so far failed to deter Iran from enriching uranium, and that a military strike would be disastrous.
The accounts were provided by officials at the State Department, White House and the Pentagon who are on both sides of the debate, as well as people who have spoken with members of Mr. Cheney's staff and with Ms. Rice. The officials said they were willing to explain the thinking behind their positions, but would do so only on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Bush has publicly vowed that he would never "tolerate" a nuclear Iran, and the question at the core of the debate within the administration is when and whether it makes sense to shift course.
The issue was raised at a closed-door White House meeting recently when the departing deputy national security adviser, J. D. Crouch, told senior officials that President Bush needed an assessment of how the stalemate over Iran's nuclear program was likely to play out over the next 18 months, said officials briefed on the meeting.
In response, R. Nicholas Burns, an under secretary of state who is the chief American strategist on Iran, told the group that negotiations with Tehran could still be going on when Mr. Bush leaves office in January 2009. The hawks in the room reported later that they were deeply unhappy - but not surprised - by Mr. Burns's assessment, which they interpreted as a tacit acknowledgment that the Bush administration had no "red line" beyond which Iran would not be permitted to step.
But conservatives inside the administration have continued in private to press for a tougher line, making arguments that their allies outside government are voicing publicly. "Regime change or the use of force are the only available options to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability, if they want it," said John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations.
Only a few weeks ago, one of Mr. Cheney's top aides, David Wurmser, told conservative research groups and consulting firms in Washington that Mr. Cheney believed that Ms. Rice's diplomatic strategy was failing, and that by next spring Mr. Bush might have to decide whether to take military action.
The vice president's office has declined to talk about Mr. Wurmser's statements, and says Mr. Cheney is fully on board with the president's strategy. In a June 1 article for Commentary magazine, the neoconservative editor Norman Podhoretz laid out what a headline described as "The Case for Bombing Iran."
"In short, the plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force - any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938," Mr. Podhoretz wrote.
Mr. Burns and officials from the Treasury Department have been trying to use the mounting conservative calls for a military strike to press Europe and Russia to expand economic sanctions against Iran. Just last week, Israel's transportation minister and former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, visited Washington and told Ms. Rice that sanctions must be strong enough to get the Iranians to stop enriching uranium by the end of 2007.
While Mr. Mofaz did not threaten a military strike, Israeli officials said he told Ms. Rice that by the end of the year, Israel "would have to reassess where we are."
The State Department and Treasury officials are pushing for a stronger set of United Nations Security Council sanctions against members of Iran's government, including an extensive travel ban and further moves to restrict the ability of Iran's financial institutions to do business outside of Iran. Beyond that, American officials have been trying to get European and Asian banks to take additional steps, outside of the Security Council, against Iran.
"We're saying to them, 'Look, you need to help us make the diplomacy succeed, and you guys need to stop business as usual with Iran,' " an administration official said. "We're not just sitting here ignoring reality."
But the fallout from the Iraq war has severely limited the Bush administration's ability to maneuver on the Iran nuclear issue and has left many in the administration, and certainly America's allies and critics in Europe, firmly against military strikes on Iran. On Thursday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the international nuclear watchdog agency, warned anew that military action against Iran would "be an act of madness."
The debate over "red lines" is a familiar one inside the Bush White House that last arose in 2002 over North Korea. When the North Koreans threw out international inspectors on the last day of that year and soon declared that they planned to reprocess 8,000 rods of spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium, President Bush had to decide whether to declare that if North Korea moved toward weapons, it could face a military strike on its facilities.
The Pentagon had drawn up an extensive plan for taking out those facilities, though with little enthusiasm, because it feared it could not control North Korea's response, and the administration chose not to delivery any ultimatum. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon last October, and American intelligence officials estimate it now has the fuel for eight or more weapons.
Iran is far behind the North Koreans; it is believed to be three to eight years away from its first weapon, American intelligence officials have told Congress. Conservatives argue that if the administration fails to establish a line over which Iran must not step, the enrichment of uranium will go ahead, eventually giving the Iranians fuel that, with additional enrichment out of the sight of inspectors, it could use for weapons.
To date, however, the administration has been hesitant about saying that it will not permit Iran to produce more than a given amount of fuel, out of concern that Iran's hard-liners would simply see that figure as a goal.
In the year since the United States made its last offer to Iran, the Iranians have gone from having a few dozen centrifuges in operation to building a facility that at last count, a month ago, had more than 1,300. "The pace of negotiations have lagged behind the pace of the Iranian nuclear program," said Robert Joseph, the former under secretary of state for international security, who left his post partly over his opposition to the administration's recent deal with North Korea.
Copyright 2007 NewYork Times Company