WASHINGTON - President Bush bats away talk of bombing Iran's disputed nuclear sites as "wild speculation." But plodding diplomacy hasn't borne fruit so far, and the administration is facing a hard truth: There may be no way to stop Iran from getting the bomb.
The Bush administration's choices are few and fraught with problems. They include a military strike to end or slow Iran's alleged drive to acquire the ability to build nuclear weapons, international diplomacy, and direct U.S. negotiations - and concessions - to persuade Tehran that it has more to gain from giving up weapons than from building them.
The U.S. could also throw up its hands and do little as Iran acquires nuclear know-how, and figure it is possible to deter Iran from using any weapons it may build - just as the U.S. has been able to deter nuclear threats from the former Soviet Union and China.
"All the options are pretty unattractive right now except for continuing to talk," said Mitchell Reiss, former director of policy and planning at the State Department under President Bush. He is now vice provost of international affairs at the College of William and Mary.
The Bush administration accuses Iran of seeking weapons under the cover of a legitimate program to develop nuclear energy for electrical generation. Iran denies it.
Iran's announcement last week that it is now "a nuclear country" that can enrich uranium helps make the Bush administration's point that the Islamic regime is on a drive for nuclear technology that the West finds troubling.
The administration has won a diplomatic coup it sought for more than two years - a United Nations Security Council review of Iran's nuclear record. That victory may be short-lived, however, if Iran refuses to back down and erstwhile U.S. partners and allies refuse to go along with harsh international sanctions that might force Tehran's hand.
The end of the Security Council process is likely to become clear in the next few weeks, either with the imposition of some kind of binding sanctions or the rejection of that course.
U.S. diplomats are now talking hopefully about a Plan B for limited international sanctions with a hodgepodge of other countries, and such inconveniences for Tehran as a European travel ban on senior Iranian leaders.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns is carrying proposals for possible next steps at the Security Council and beyond to Iran strategy sessions in Moscow on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the assumption that Tehran will ignore a nonbinding rebuke the council issued last month.
Privately, some current and former administration officials say they concluded long ago that the United States had little chance of stopping Iran on its own and only a slim hope that even the kind of concerted international effort now under way could succeed.
The Islamic regime in Tehran seems to be playing the diplomatic game more skillfully than the West, and some analysts say Iran figures it can wait out the current wave of international alarm over its ambitions.
There really isn't an or-else when U.S. officials say, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did last week, that Iran must comply with the world's demands to come clean about its nuclear program and renounce weapons.
Rice says, with some cause, that the proud and globally engaged Iranian nation does not want to risk "international isolation" as a cost of building a bomb. She notes that Iran fought to keep its case out of the Security Council. Now, Iran hopes its commercial partners Russia and China will protect it now that the case is before them.
Both Russia and China oppose sanctions and want the Iran standoff defused another way.
Still, from Washington's perspective, diplomatic coercion offers the greatest number of exits from a bad situation, so it is the only course that officials openly discuss.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack offered the usual tough talk on Monday.
The Iranian government, he said, "is confronted with a basic crossroads decision: Do they continue the path of confrontation, which they are currently on, or do they choose the pathway of diplomacy?"
Iran's announcement about uranium enrichment came against a backdrop of new discussion of detailed U.S. contingency plans for military strikes on the facilities where Iran is making those technical advances. When asked, Bush and Rice say the military option is on the table, but do their best to make the idea seem far-fetched.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have been saying for months that the administration may be too quick to discount a military strike. But several recent technical assessments say a strike might only buy time by destroying apparatus but not the expertise to rebuild it.
In addition, the administration knows an attack would destroy the diplomatic goodwill among its European allies it has worked hard to build, while strengthening the mullahs' hands at home and among Muslim neighbors.
Meanwhile, last week's report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies is sobering.
"One thing was already clear long before these Iranian claims," authors Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan wrote. "There was nothing the U.N. or U.S. could do to deny Iran the technology to build a nuclear weapon.... Both the claims of the Iranian president that Iran had made a major breakthrough, and President Bush's responding statement that Iran would not be allowed to acquire the technology to build a nuclear weapon, seemed to be little more than vacuous political posturing."
Anne Gearan covers diplomacy for The Associated Press.