LONDON: Nobody sees military action as the best way to tame Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions, but as the rhetoric heats up, mutual miscalculation could suck Tehran and Washington into an unpredictable showdown.
European-sponsored talks have yet to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear enrichment programme, which could help it build a bomb. With post-war Iraq in turmoil, the world is jittery about any fresh instability in the oil-supplying Gulf region.
While US President George W. Bush has emphasised diplomacy in dealing with Iran, he has not ruled out a military option and Vice President Dick Cheney has said Israel might act alone. "There's a 50-50 chance of an air strike," said Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at Scotland's St Andrew's University.
"This not because of deliberate policy in the Pentagon or Iran, but the tensions, the sensitivities, the paranoia are so high that the potential for slip sliding into something is very high," he said, noting the absence of direct communication between the diplomatically estranged protagonists.
Other analysts say the chances of a US or Israeli attack are slim, but Iran could face UN sanctions if the European Union negotiations led by Britain, France and Germany fail.
"Military action is not an option. It is technically possible for the United States, either with the Israelis or on their own, but it is not wise," said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "The involvement in Iraq has tied US hands for any major conflict with Iran."
For now Washington is letting the EU3 pursue efforts to get Iran, which says its nuclear programme has only peaceful purposes, to scrap potentially weapons-related work like uranium enrichment in return for trade deals and other incentives.
But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week the Europeans should join Washington in threatening Iran with referral to the UN Security Council if it fails to agree.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami dented European hopes when he said on Wednesday that his country would never give up the quest for nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment.
CALIBRATED SANCTIONS?: Analysts say UN sanctions could include a halt to peaceful nuclear cooperation, a ban on foreign investment, reduced diplomatic ties or travel curbs on Iranian leaders.
Sanctions on Iran's oil exports seem unlikely in view of the potential impact on world oil prices and the global economy. Washington bars US firms from operating in investment-hungry Iran. It has put pressure on those evading the ban through foreign subsidiaries and wants European firms to fall into line.
US giants such as Halliburton and General Electric Co., who have used subsidiaries to get round the embargo, have said they will do no new business in Iran. Britain's oil major BP has also said US pressure is keeping it out.
Washington's tough line may reinforce EU3 diplomacy by brandishing a stick in Tehran's face, but any deal would also need at least US endorsement, if not direct involvement. But it refuses to engage with what Rice calls a "loathed" regime. Bush has vowed to stand with Iranians who want liberty.
Ansari said such talk of regime change was dangerous and unrealistic, arguing that the US refusal to recognize the reality of Iranian clerical rule undercut serious diplomacy. Khatami, speaking on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, promised a "burning hell" for any aggressor.
The lame duck president steps down after elections in June, and a power struggle among conservative clerics could influence nuclear policy much more than the outgoing reformist's words.
Ansari said pragmatists such as ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would be keener than Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Revolutionary Guard hard liners to cut a deal. -Reuters
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