Over the past week the Bush Administration has issued more warnings to Iran that it must abandon its nuclear aspirations and end support for terrorism. On Thursday, there was a press report that the U.S. military has acknowledged that it is updating its war plan for Iran. In this background report, VOA's Serena Parker examines U.S. policy options toward Iran.
The United States Central Command says it is updating its war plan for Iran. According to the Washington Post, a senior U.S. officer called the planning part of the "normal process." The news comes one week after President Bush's State of the Union address to Congress and the American people, in which he singled out the theocratic regime in Iran as a threat.
"Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror -- pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve."
The president said the United States is working with European allies to make clear to Iran's ruling mullahs that they must abandon their quest for nuclear weapons and end their support for terrorist groups. He also said the United States supports those Iranians who seek democracy and freedom.
Mark Palmer is a former U.S. State Department official active in promoting democracy across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He says the fact Mr. Bush devoted part of the State of the Union address and almost his entire inaugural address to the importance of democracy indicates the value it has for the president. It also explains why Iran is a frequent topic of the Bush administration.
"He has made this the number one priority in the second administration: To help people who are willing to stand up for their freedom."
Ambassador Palmer, pointing to the success of recent elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, says the Bush Administration wants free and fair elections in Iran.
The U.S. Congress has also expressed its support for democracy in Iran. Michael Ledeen, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a research organization in Washington, notes there are bills pending on Iran in both the Senate and the House.
"Both call for the government of the United States to do everything in its power to support the transition to democracy in Iran. That's the essence and they allocate funds for groups working for democracy in Iran, both within the country and outside."
However, regime change in Iran -- whether by democratic revolution or peaceful means -- may not come easily, according to Hadi Semati, professor of political science at Tehran University in Iran. Mr. Semati, a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, says the Iranian state is still strong.
"Institutions and structures are intact and formidable. Bureaucratic structures are fairly resistant and consolidated. There is a cohesive core support at the base of the Islamic Republic and the regime, despite a crisis of legitimacy and a widening gap between state and society."
Mr. Semati cautions that President Bush's remarks, as well as comments by Secretary of State Condolezza Rice about "regime change" in Iran, may not be in the long-term interests of the United States. He fears the tough talk could strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Iran and harm efforts to persuade Iran not to seek a nuclear weapons capability.
And right now, says Ken Pollack, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, it is the nuclear issue that is most pressing.
"It is clear that the administration really does like this idea of regime change or democratization -- selective though it may be -- and it's decided that Iran is a good place to push this agenda. But the principal reason Iran is on the agenda and the principal issue the United States needs to deal with is the nuclear issue."
President Bush, who says a nuclear Iran would be unacceptable, hasn't ruled out a military option to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, but for now the Bush Administration is supporting efforts by Britain, France and Germany to persuade Iran to comply with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
And Mr. Pollack says the diplomatic approach, rather than a military operation, is probably the best way to win over the people of Iran.
"The Iranians are very proud people. We have seen them respond nationalistically. We have seen them bristle at even the hint of U.S. interference in their affairs. And I think that if we tried to do this (military invasion), we would be forcing the Iranian people into the hands of their regime."
Although opinion may be divided on the best way to deal with Iran, all analysts agree that the administration has no interest in strengthening the hand of Iran's hard-liners.