Despite President Bush’s claim on April 10 that talk of U.S. plans to use nuclear weapons against Iran is “wild speculation,” a number of civilian and military experts are convinced that precisely such an option is on the table.

Bush’s remarks were prompted by recent reports in The New Yorker and The Washington Post that his administration has drawn up a list of over 400 bombing targets in Iran. At least some of the sites — those situated in reinforced bunkers, for example — would likely be targets of U.S. tactical “bunker-buster” nuclear weapons, experts say.

The Bush administration alleges that Tehran seeks to develop nuclear weapons and must be stopped from doing so. The Iranian government vigorously disputes that claim and argues its nuclear research is aimed exclusively at generating electricity.

“We are party to all international agreements on the control of weapons of mass destruction,” wrote Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, in an April 7 New York Times op-ed. “We have never initiated the use of force or resorted to the threat of force against a fellow member of the United Nations. We have not invaded another country in 250 years.”

Zarif pointed out that Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and that his country is committed to strictly abiding by its provisions. Most important, he wrote, the International Atomic Energy Agency “has concluded time and time again that there is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.”

However, in a manner eerily reminiscent of Bush administration claims that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, U.S. officials are harping on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon capabilities.

Seymour Hersh, writing in the April 17 issue of The New Yorker, noted that the Bush administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy, “has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a major air attack.”

The veteran investigative journalist said, “President Bush’s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change,” noting that Bush has an almost messianic belief that “saving Iran is going to be his legacy.”

But regime change is not an end in itself. Hersh quotes an unnamed high-ranking diplomat in Vienna: “This is much more than a nuclear issue. That’s just a rallying point. … The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next 10 years.”

In that regard, the U.S. objective dovetails with its occupation of Iraq. Both nations have enormous oil reserves, ranking only second or third to Saudi Arabia. In addition, some pundits have said that an attack on Iran before the 2006 elections might help boost the Republicans’ election chances.

Worrying that a massive air attack on Iran could provoke a catastrophic conflagration throughout the Middle East, a number of senior military and policy analysts have bridled at the prospect and have threatened to resign, Hersh wrote.

But the danger is mounting with each passing day. One European official told him, “There is a belief that diplomacy is doomed to fail. The timetable is short.”