WASHINGTON - A hostile country led by anti-American ideologues appears close to developing its first nuclear weapon and, as a U.S. election approaches, the president and his advisers debate a pre-emptive military strike. Newspaper columnists demand action to stop the nuclear peril.
The country was China, the year was 1963 and the president was Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Now it is Iran that is said to may be bent on acquiring nuclear arms, and President Bush who has declared that "unacceptable." Some U.S. officials and outside commentators are again pushing for a pre-emptive attack.
But the White House and its partisans may be inflating the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, say experts on the Persian Gulf and nuclear deterrence. While there are dangers, they acknowledge, Iran appears to want a nuclear weapon for the same reason other countries do: to protect itself.
Bush, by contrast, has suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran could bring about World War III. The president and his top aides, along with hawkish commentators, have suggested that Iran might launch a first strike on Israel or the United States, or hand nuclear weapons to terrorist groups Tehran supports.
There is "only one terrible choice, which is either to bomb those (Iranian nuclear) facilities and retard their program or even cut it off altogether, or allow them to go nuclear," Norman Podhoretz, a foreign policy adviser to GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, said last month.
"Would I like Iran to have a nuclear bomb? No," said Robert Jervis, a Columbia University professor of international politics who has written widely on nuclear deterrence. But, "the fears (voiced) by the administration and a fair number of sensible people as well, just are exaggerated. The idea that this will really make a big difference, I think is foolish."
Even some commentators in Israel, whose leaders see themselves in Iran's crosshairs, present a more nuanced view of the potential threat than the White House does.
An Iranian nuclear bomb could present Israel "with the real potential for an existential threat," Ephraim Kam of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv wrote in February.
But Kam noted that Israel has its own unacknowledged nuclear deterrent - estimated at 100 to 200 warheads - larger than anything Iran could marshal for years to come.
Despite Iran's "messianic religious motivations," he wrote, "it is highly doubtful that Tehran would want to risk an Israeli nuclear response" by attempting a first strike.
Moreover, Iran, which says its nuclear research is aimed at generating electric power, is not thought to be close to having a nuclear weapon. In the worst-case scenario, it could have enough highly enriched uranium, a basic weapon ingredient in weapons, in two to three years.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to report next week on whether Iran has cleared up questions about its past nuclear work. The IAEA's judgment will influence whether the U.N. Security Council imposes new sanctions on Iran for failing to suspend uranium enrichment.
Bush administration officials insist that Iran is different from other countries that have sought and acquired nuclear weapons.
The world's known nuclear club is comprised of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
"Iran has been willing to share technology and arms with terrorists and inappropriate regimes, in the way these others haven't," said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The underlying facts of Iran and of nuclear weapons are different than these other cases," the official said. "I think they would behave differently."
In fact, U.S. ally Pakistan provided nuclear weapons technology to Iran and Libya, and North Korea has sold ballistic missiles in several Middle Eastern countries.
Iran's government is "a regime that is very aggressive in pursuit of its goals," added former undersecretary of state Robert Joseph, a conservative. "Having nuclear weapons would make it even more aggressive."
It is difficult to judge whether Iran would be deterred from using nuclear weapons because the West has limited understanding of the government in Tehran and the United States has mainly indirect communications, analysts say.
"We haven't talked to the Iranians well enough. We talked to the Soviets all the time," said former CIA analyst Judith Yaphe, now at the National Defense University. She added: "But I don't trust someone like (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadenijad to understand where the red lines are."
Others, including Columbia's Jervis, say the U.S. government has not examined in depth how a nuclear armed Iran might behave for a simple reason: Bush's policy is that Iran will not be allowed to have the bomb.
U.S., Israeli and European concerns about a nuclear Iran generally fall into three categories:
The first is that it would hand over a nuclear weapon to terrorists, hoping to elude responsibility for an attack on Israel or America.
But Kam, the Israeli analyst, wrote that the chance of this "appears low." A more serious worry, he wrote, is that Iran could deter Israel from acting against Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist proxy that opposes Israel's existence.
Mohsen Sazegara, who helped found Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and is now a U.S.-based dissident, also predicted Iran would not engage in nuclear terrorism. "If I found out somebody was thinking of this, I'd have to say I don't know my country," he said.
The second concern is that a nuclear-armed Iran would prompt Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to seek their own bombs, sparking an arms race in the perpetually unstable Middle East.
"They're all talking about it now," Yaphe said. "That's a bad thing."
The third is that Iran, because of its radical religious government, will not be deterred from using nuclear weapons. Podhoretz said during a PBS debate that with Iran under the control of clerics and the "religious fanatic" Ahamadinejad "there's no assurance that self-preservation or the protection, preservation of the nation, will deter them."
But Jervis noted that in the early 1960s, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung "was foaming at the mouth" with anti-Americanism.
President Johnson took no military steps to stop China from going nuclear, and it tested a weapon in 1964.
Iran's leaders suspect the United States wants to overthrow them. "Nuclear weapons mainly protect the homeland," Jervis said.
© 2007 McClatchy Newspapers