The White House, sensitive to President Bush's image as a war hawk, is dismissing reports that there is the possibility of a military strike on the country that Bush included among nations forming the "axis of evil," CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante.
"The president's priority is to find a diplomatic solution to a problem the entire world recognizes," White House counselor Dan Bartlett told The Associated Press on Sunday. "And those who are drawing broad, definitive conclusions based on normal defense and intelligence planning are ill-informed and are not knowledgeable of the administration's thinking on Iran."
Mr. Bush and other administration officials have said repeatedly that the military option is on the table. Several reports published over the weekend said the administration was studying options for military strikes, and an account in The New Yorker magazine raised the possibility of using nuclear bombs against Iran's underground nuclear sites.
The New Yorker article written by Seymour Hersch quotes one former senior intelligence official as saying that Mr. Bush views Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "potential Adolph Hitler," and Hersch says some inside the Pentagon have proposed using tactical nuclear weapons to penetrate the increased defenses.
Hersch tells The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm that while the administration is publicly advocating diplomacy, there are clandestine American forces in Iran right now.
"They're on the ground, they're collecting intelligence. They're talking to the ethnic minorities inside Iran that oppose the government and they're also getting ready to pick target," Hersch says. "In order for the bombs to be accurate, men on the ground have to be there to paint the target. It's all part of the obvious planning for an offensive if we decide to have one."
The Washington Post reported Sunday that Britain – Washington's closest ally in the War on Terror – is already planning for a potential U.S. strike. But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., called the idea of a nuclear strike "completely nuts."
Straw said Britain would not launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran and he was as "certain as he could be" that neither would the U.S. He said he has a high suspicion that Iran is developing a civil nuclear capability that in turn could be used for nuclear weapons, but there is "no smoking gun" to prove it and rationalize abandoning the plodding diplomatic process.
"The reason why we're opposed to military action is because it's an infinitely worse option and there's no justification for it," Straw said.
Meanwhile, a top European Union official said Monday that the 25-nation bloc should consider sanctions against Iran, including a visa ban on nuclear officials, because Tehran refuses to cooperate with the United Nations on its nuclear program.
"We have to begin thinking about that possibility," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told reporters outside an EU foreign ministers meeting.
Solana ruled out, however, that EU would back any military action.
"Any military action is definitely out of the question for us," he said.
Solana said that the EU would await Iran's response to a U.N. Security Council call for a halt to uranium enrichment before considering any actions. Iran has so far rejected international demands for clarity over its nuclear intentions.
"Iran has to respond to the Security Council. We have to be prepared in case they fail," Solana said.
Defense experts say a military strike on Iran would be risky and complicated. U.S. forces already are preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, and an attack against Iran could inflame U.S. problems in the Muslim world.
"Surely, the reports will spur debate about U.S. military action against Iran, particularly since U.S.-Iran talks regarding Iraq are tentatively scheduled for mid-April and because U.S. military action would be opposed by most world leaders," CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk says.
The U.N. Security Council has demanded Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program. But Iran has so far refused to halt its nuclear activity, saying the small-scale enrichment project was strictly for research and not for development of nuclear weapons.
Bush has said Iran may pose the greatest challenge to the United States of any other country in the world. And while he has stressed that diplomacy is always preferable, he has defended his administration's strike-first policy against terrorists and other enemies.
"The threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally Israel," the president said last month in Cleveland. "That's a threat, a serious threat. It's a threat to world peace; it's a threat, in essence, to a strong alliance. I made it clear, I'll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally."
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros would not comment Sunday on reports of military planning for Iran. "The U.S. military never comments on contingency planning," he said.
Stephen Cimbala, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies U.S. foreign policy, said it would be no surprise that the Pentagon has contingency plans for a strike on Iran. But he suggested the hint of military strikes is more of a public show to Iran and the public than a feasible option.
"If you look at the military options, all of them are unattractive," Cimbala said. "Either because they won't work or because they have side effects where the cure is worse than the disease."