Deja vu all over again?

Sound familiar?

Once more, a member of President Bush’s “axis of evil” is denying strident warnings from Washington that it is pursuing lethal weapons amid reports of the United States planning for a military strike if diplomacy fails.

The current gamesmanship between the United States and Iran has eerie echoes of the high-stakes drama that preceded war in Iraq.

Whether the escalating dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions leads to another military gambit in the Middle East depends on a broad range of factors, from Iran’s own political makeup to Bush’s diminished credibility _ at home and abroad _ in the wake of the Iraq war.

One key difference between the build-up to war with Iraq and the present struggle over Iran focuses on the United Nations: While the Security Council had passed numerous resolutions demanding that Iraq disarm going back to the 1991 Gulf War, it has passed only one mild measure on Iran _ just two weeks ago.

And while Saddam Hussein had a track record of having used chemical weapons _ against neighboring Iran in the 1980s, and against Iraq’s own Kurdish people _ Iran appears a long way from developing nuclear weapons, much less using them.

“Iran is five to 10 years away from having a nuclear weapon,” said Joseph Cirincione, director of nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “We have time to try diplomacy. The right combination of carrots and sticks could work with Iran just as it worked with Libya. We should be looking to change this regime’s behavior, not to overthrow the regime.”

Insisting that it is developing nuclear technology for peaceful, civilian power needs, Iran has spurned a March 29 Security Council statement urging Tehran to freeze its uranium-enrichment program.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Tuesday that Iran has “joined the group of countries which have nuclear technology,” saying it had mastered the means of enriching uranium. A top nuclear official announced plans Wednesday to expand the nuclear program by installing over the next few years thousands of the centrifuges that, as they spin, enrich uranium.

In Moscow, Stephen Rademaker, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said Iran could produce a nuclear bomb within 16 days if it installs 50,000 centrifuges at its plant in Natanz.

Cirincione, though, said Iran risks suffering setbacks if it cuts too many corners.

“It’s a formidable challenge to ramp this up,” he said. “A lot of countries can build a Cessna (aircraft), but only a few can build a 747. The scaling up is not automatic. If they were doing this by the book, the Iranians would be going a lot slower. They’re skipping stages here. They’re not testing these machines before they put them into operation, and they may come to regret that if, say, the cascade collapses later on.”

A cascade is a group of thousands of centrifuges spinning together for long periods to produce even low-level enriched uranium.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday urged the Security Council to take strong steps against Iran when it takes up the problem again in late April.

China, which has been the most reluctant among the Security Council’s five permanent members to take aggressive action against Iran, expressed displeasure over its recent nuclear progress.

“We are concerned about the events and the way things are developing,” said Wang Guangya, Chinese envoy to the United Nations. “I hope the Iranians will take note of the reaction and be more cooperative.”

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the United States would publicly push for a tougher Security Council resolution threatening Iran with sanctions if it continues to enrich uranium. But he said Washington would likely go along with European negotiators who want a measure requiring stepped-up inspections for Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which with its director Mohamed ElBaradei earned the Nobel Peace Prize last year, has had inspectors in Iran for three years.

But the IAEA said its work has raised many questions requiring tougher inspections. ElBaradei was scheduled to meet with Iranian officials in Tehran on Friday, and Rice called him Wednesday and urged him to take a tough stance.

Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said U.S. and Iranian leaders appear to be trying to rattle each other with a war of words.

“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,” Cordesman said.

Clawson agrees with Cirincione’s assessment that there is still time for a diplomatic solution, but he says the window of opportunity might be closing.

“We’re at the stage where diplomacy could resolve this with a little bit of luck and a little bit of hard work and a lot of cooperation from the allies,” Clawson said. “But if it doesn’t, we’re going to be in a big problem real fast.”

Cirincione said the United States should meet Iran’s request for bilateral negotiations _ in addition to the multilateral talks of the last three years led by the European Union and Russia _ while Clawson thinks direct U.S.-Iranian talks would be a bad idea.

And while Cirincione believes “there is no military option” that wouldn’t have devastating impact on U.S. security, Clawson is amused by the current alarm bells over possible Pentagon planning for such action.

“The same people who complained that we weren’t prepared for the follow-up to the Iraq invasion are now complaining that we are preparing for the follow-up in Iran,” he said.

Cirincione said the current impasse over Iran proves that Bush’s gamble in Iraq was a failure.

“The Iraq invasion was supposed to send a message to Iran,” he said. “Well, guess what _ they got the opposite message. Instead of moving slower (toward nuclear weapons), they raced faster.”