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Is it time to prepare for a nuclear Iran?

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Get ready for a nuclear Iran, but don’t concede it.

That’s a view emerging from the conservative end of the spectrum of Middle East policy thinkers here at a time when the pro-Israel community is grappling with how to deal with the issue between presidential administrations.

John Bolton, the former Bush administration U.N. ambassador and nuclear proliferation negotiator, raised eyebrows when he said as much at a forum two weeks ago at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a fellow. This week he elaborated in a conference call organized by The Israel Project.

"I think unfortunately it’s pretty close to inevitable," Bolton said, referring to Tehran’s developing a nuclear weapon. "Iran has completely indigenous mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle, all the way from enrichment to nuclear weaponization. By the end of this year they’ll have enough for two more [weapons] — and that’s just what we" and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, know.

"We have to" consider the prospect of a nuclear Iran, agreed Tom Neumann of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

"Although when you start along that road, you mathematically make the concession that there’s nothing to do about it — and I’m not prepared to make that concession," he said.

Bolton emphasized that he was not throwing up his hands, but noted that political transitions in the United States and Israel were chewing up the time for action.

President  Bush did not have time to take effective steps, and President-elect Barack Obama is committed to exploring diplomatic outreach in the first instance, said Bolton.

"Absent action by Israel, which may or may not be possible, Iran is closer than ever to achieving that nuclear weapon," he said.

Bolton was saying aloud what has been bruited about behind the scenes in the pro-Israel community for several weeks.

Pro-Israel insiders say the prospect of a nuclear Iran is informing strategies of how to lobby on the subject with the incoming Obama administration and fueling support for a strategy outlined by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primaries. During a nationally televised debate April 16, answering a question about how she would respond to an Iranian strike against Israel, Clinton said that Tehran should expect a devastating response and proposed the idea of providing similar assurances to other American allies in the region.

Liberal critics portrayed Clinton as a hard-liner, even though her comments actually marked a significant departure from the line of argument that all steps — including military ones — must be taken to prevent Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb. In proposing a U.S. nuclear umbrella in the Middle East, she rejected the view that the Islamic regime in Tehran was driven only by a theological commitment to destroying Israel, arguing instead that deterrence could work against the mullahs.

Obama countered that he was not prepared to concede the possibility of a nuclear Iran.

Earlier this month, however, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that an Obama official had leaked the incoming administration’s support for extending the reach of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to protect Israel.

Bolton dismissed that plan, saying it would be of small comfort to Israel. Deterrence, he added, was not of much use with a "theocratic regime like Iran where the afterlife is more prized than life on earth."

Although support among pro-Israel figures was growing for Clinton’s "nuclear umbrella" proposal, no consensus has emerged, if only because the idea would appear to concede the Iranian bomb.

Neumann encouraged an acceleration of strategies: intensify existing sanctions; give third parties that deal with the United States and Iran an either/or choice; and make overtures to Russia, a country that continues to do business with Iran.

"In my conversations with Russians, they understand Iran is a problem for them as well," he said, saying the country was torn between sustaining a natural trading partnership during an international economic crisis and the threat an Islamic bomb could pose to Russia’s allies in the Caucasus.

Bush echoed that point, suggesting that transition officials from the incoming and outgoing administrations — who are cooperating closely on national security issues — were considering outreach to Russia as a strategy.

"We’ve found common ground on Iran, believe it or not," Bush said of Russia in a relaxed and chatty exit appearance Dec. 18 at the American Enterprise Institute. "People don’t think we have, but I know we have. And that is that the Russians are just as worried about Iran developing a nuclear weapon and the capacity to deliver it as we are."

Russia would likely seek a rollback of U.S. ambitions in its neighborhood, including plans to bring former Soviet republics into the NATO alliance and to install an anti-missile network in Eastern Europe.

Finding common ground with Moscow gibes with Israel’s strategy, relayed earlier this month when Shaul Mofaz, the transportation minister who represents Jerusalem in the Israel-U.S. strategic dialogue, met with Bush administration transition officials.

"We must go to the next step with Russia and China," Mofaz said.

China also maintains close ties with Iran, but is not averse to containing its nuclear threat.

Mofaz would not concede the prospect of a nuclear Iran, saying he hoped to cooperate with Obama’s stated plans for "tough diplomacy." Israel had only two red lines when it came to such an outreach, he said: a timetable to keep the Iranians from using talks to bide time and no enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil.

The latter stipulation is unrealistic when Iran is already enriching uranium, said Trita Parsi, who directs the National Iranian American Council. Instead, he counseled expanding the "thin line" between enriching uranium for civilian nuclear purposes and enriching it to manufacture a weapon.

"It is obviously a thin line between having the capacity to weaponize and weaponizing, but it is a line that can be made thicker," Parsi said, arguing that inspection could be effective.

Condoleezza Rice, the outgoing U.S. secretary of state, had a surprise meeting in New York last week with the major powers guiding international Iran policy and with Arab nations that fear a nuclear Iran. She suggested more such meetings were in the offing.

The Iran issue also was raised in a Dec. 18 meeting between the representatives of 29 national Jewish organizations and Obama transition officials. Transition officials asked Jewish leaders to come armed with proposals, to be posted on the change.gov Web site; the top item on a 47-page submission from The Israel Project was "Stopping the Threat of Iran."

"Time is running out to stop Iran, the leading state sponsor of terror, from achieving nuclear capability," it began.

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said pro-Israel groups should prepare for the long haul.

"It is important to realize that diplomatic engagement with Iran is not a quick fix," he said. "Such an effort will not be easy. It will almost certainly be a long and arduous process. We fully realize that its success is not a foregone conclusion, but it must be seriously and ardently pursued."

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