- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2010

If diplomacy fails and Iran gets a nuclear bomb, the U.S. still would have ways to discourage Tehran from using the weapon.

But there are limits on what even the world’s sole superpower can do to contain a nuclear-armed Iran and blunt its influence in the volatile Middle East.

U.S. officials insist they are not resigned to a nuclear Iran and are pressing negotiations to prevent Iran from joining the world’s club of nuclear-armed nations. At the same time, the administration and the Pentagon clearly are anxious to avoid a military confrontation with Tehran.

So Washington has set in place — but not completed — the building blocks of policies to make certain an Iran armed with atomic weapons does not threaten its neighbors.

Those elements include a newly revised defense shield for Europe, plans for coordinated missile detection and defense systems in the Persian Gulf and deeper defense ties to Gulf Arab states fearful of Iran.

The Pentagon has been quietly building up anti-missile systems in the Gulf region for months to reassure Arab allies including Bahrain and Qatar and to signal to Iran that aggression against its neighbors would not go unanswered.

“The department’s primary focus continues to be enhancing regional security cooperation with our Middle Eastern partners,” Michele A. Flournoy, undersecretary of defense, told Congress last week. “This focus not only reassures anxious states in the region but also sends a clear signal to Iran that pursuit of nuclear weapons will lead to its own isolation and in the end make it less - not more - secure.”

Last week, Gen. David H. Petraeus said additional Patriot 3 anti-missile weapons are being installed in the Gulf area. U.S. and allied naval forces, he said, are interdicting smuggled arms from Iran to its Islamic allies Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The U.S. also is disrupting Tehran’s supply lines for what Gen. Petraeus called “prohibited items,” technology linked, directly or indirectly, to its disputed nuclear program.

Meanwhile, U.S. military officials are monitoring the growing range and sophistication of Iranian missiles, the presumed delivery system for any eventual Iranian nuclear warhead. There is growing concern that these missiles also might be used to deliver conventional weapons against Iran’s neighbors.

The Iranian missile arsenal includes midrange ballistic missiles capable of hitting Arab states, Israel and Central Europe as well as short-range Iranian missiles that could be used against U.S. forces in Iraq.

The Defense Intelligence Agency recently said that with outside help, Iran one day could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.

Obama administration officials and military leaders say that as Iran nears the point — perhaps a year away — when it could build a bomb, the room for military and diplomatic maneuvering by the U.S. is shrinking.

President Obama has said Iran cannot be allowed to become a nuclear-weapons state. Despite that red line, there is a strong distaste among military leaders and the White House for seeking to resolve the Iranian problem with military force.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and others have not budged from their view that a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran’s known nuclear-development facilities would not prevent Tehran from eventually building a bomb.

Instead, they warn, an attack on Iran’s suspected weapons sites could cause a far-reaching and unpredictable backlash.

For now, the administration’s main focus is on winning support in the U.N. Security Council for a new round of economic sanctions, imposed because of Iran’s purported failure to comply with its responsibilities as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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