Speed Read: Is Washington Pushing To Overthrow Iran?

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FARS NEWS AGENCY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses Iranian ambassadors in Tehran, Mar. 13, claiming his country will not back down "one iota" on its nuclear program

As the Iran nuclear issue comes under discussion at the UN Security Council, there appears to be mounting discord among the major players over how to deal with Tehran. The U.S., supported by Britain and France, wants to escalate pressure on Iran and set ultimatums; Russia and China — both of whom hold veto power in the Council — want less pressure and more time for a negotiated solution to work. But underlying the diplomatic arm-wrestling are conflicting agendas and interests, chief among those Washington's. And now that the Bush Administration has ratcheted up the rhetoric about Iran in recent days, questions over Washington's real intentions may make any resolution of the crisis that much harder to achieve. Here are a few of the key issues at the heart of the ongoing confrontation.

Does the U.S. seek regime change in Iran?

President Bush last week reminded journalists that Iran was a member of his "Axis of Evil," raising the question of whether his administration's goal is merely to curb the nuclear ambitions of that country's ruling mullahs. After all, three years ago the Bush Administration went to the Security Council to make a circumstantial case against Iraq's weapons program that turned out to be a prelude to Operation Iraqi Freedom. After talks on Iran in Washington last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "It looks so déjà vu, you know."

Most estimates concur that even if Iran decided to kick out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and pursue nuclear weapons, it would be somewhere between three and ten years away from its goal, but U.S. officials have begun portraying Iran as a grave and imminent danger. The U.S. also appears to be throwing the book at Tehran, with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recently accusing it of unspecified meddling in Iraq, and Secretary of State Rice calling Iran "the central banker for terrorism."

The Washington Post reports that the debate on Iran policy inside the Bush Administration is being won by the hawkish element that favors a more aggressive approach aimed at ousting the clerical regime. It recently allocated $75 million for activities designed to promote democracy and undermine clerical rule in Iran, and is reportedly gearing up the State Department for a more activist role in relation to Iran. The problem facing Washington this week, however, is that very few countries share a regime-change agenda for Iran, and if they suspect that this is the motive driving the nuclear confrontation, Washington may find it much tougher to keep allies on board.

Is there actually a military option for dealing with Iran?

Although such close allies as Britain strenuously insist that military action is unthinkable, Washington claims that all options remain on the table. Still, a full-blown invasion and occupation of Iran appears to be beyond the capacity of the U.S military right now. U.S. forces are already overstretched by the three-year deployment of some 130,000 soldiers in Iraq, and Iran is three times the size (in area and population) of its neighbor.

Even the most sanguine proponents of military action talk in terms of "surgical strikes" designed to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. The more optimistic believe this could strike a psychological blow that could precipitate the internal collapse of the regime; more sober advocates simply maintain that such action would set back Iranian nuclear ambitions by years. Skeptics warn that military action would actually unite the country behind the regime, reinforce its determination to go nuclear, and prompt retaliation throughout the region as well as on oil markets.

Are sanctions an effective alternative to military action?

Not really, for the simple reason that they're unlikely to happen. China, for example, views sanctions that affect global oil supplies (Iran is the world's fourth-largest producer) as a more immediate national security threat than Iran's nuclear program; the ruling party's official newspaper warned last week that comprehensive sanctions "are unbearable for the current world oil market and large oil-consuming countries." The U.S. is currently seeking to assure key allies that alternatives can be found to Iran's oil capacity, but the consensus on global oil markets tends to be skeptical.

So what will happen next at the Security Council? The Bush Administration remains committed to the pursuit of a diplomatic solution, even if its more hawkish element believes diplomacy is bound to fail but remains necessary solely to prove the need for a more confrontational approach. Many of the countries that have backed Washington's diplomatic efforts on Iran's nuclear program oppose both regime change and economic sanctions. China wants a brief statement of concern from the Security Council before sending the matter back to the IAEA and giving more time for Russia to negotiate a compromise; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Monday that despite the agreement in Vienna to refer the issue to the Security Council, there is no consensus among the key Council members on how to take the matter forward. Meanwhile the U.S. wants the matter to stay at the Council and Tehran to be given tight deadlines for compliance, believing Iran will simply play for time in continued negotiations — particularly in the face of disagreement among the Council members.

Even before agreement is reached with Russia and China, the U.S., Britain and France will seek support from the remaining ten members of the Council — Argentina, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Peru, Qatar and Slovakia. But absent any smoking-gun evidence of Iran maintaining a weapons program, and considering Washington's credibility problem after the Iraq WMD fiasco, the U.S. and its allies may struggle to maintain the momentum of efforts to turn up the heat on Tehran. Indeed, their best hope may lie in Iran rattling its own sabers so much that it actually alienates the two powers it needs most at the moment, Russia and China.