They lean forward over their coffee and whisper. They huddle in paneled faculty lounges and mutter in soundproofed rooms in Washington and Langley, Va. In newsrooms they speculate irreverently and cynically, trying to one-up each other with tidbits teased out of informal sources.

What are they talking about?

Whether the United States should, will, launch a military strike at Iran's nuclear facilities.

Most of the argument in U.S. policy circles is about whether pre-emptive bombing would be effective in stopping Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Is it better to try to "contain" a nuclear-armed Iran, or bomb Iran and risk sharply intensifying the wrath of the Arab world and embroiling the region, including Israel, in bloodshed?

Little of the debate focuses on whether it is right for the United States to unilaterally bomb a country that is not presently attacking or threatening to attack it.

But why didn't we do anything serious early on to dissuade the Iranians from going after nuclear weapons?

It's been clear for two decades that Iran was attempting to build them, and for most of that time we expressed "deep concern," passed resolutions, lectured them, and sought vainly to lure them into serious negotiations.

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The Iranians concluded that we weren't prepared to do anything forceful to stop them. By kicking the can down the road, we unwittingly encouraged the terrible course we seek now to thwart at the eleventh hour.

The Iranian people live under a despicable regime, an oppressive dictatorship that inflicts incalculable harm on its own people, particularly women. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will be in a position to exercise far greater leverage in the region against Israel, against us, against other Middle Eastern countries. And no one thinks it will exert that leverage for peaceful or democratic purposes.

Let's be clear: It is not in our interest or anyone else's -- except a small group of Iranian mullahs -- for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran is a dangerous prospect we should work mightily to avoid. I have argued that for years -- for 20 years, as a matter of fact. And I argued long ago for financial, trade and oil sanctions that are extremely tough. But we took the softer, easier path of unforceful measures and delay.

Now Iranian nuclear scientists are being assassinated in the street, presumably by foreign powers. The road of escalation lies open to both sides, and that may lead to armed conflict of one form or another.

Should we unilaterally bomb another country with which we aren't at war and which is not preparing to attack us?

Will there be an open discussion if the president decides we should bomb Iran? Will there be a congressional debate, time for public reaction, and a vote in which elected officials have to go on record? Will the question of whether Iran should be bombed as a result of violating UN resolutions come before the Security Council and be voted on?

The United States has always stood for the rule of law. We used to stand against the use of force except in self-defense. Now we seem to be considering unilateral aggression.

I am troubled about the wisdom of unilaterally launching a military strike on Iran. We haven't done that to other powers that acquired nuclear weapons without the approval of the international community -- including as weak and bad an actor as North Korea. Do we have any clear principles today about the use of force? What values, in the final analysis, do we stand for and stand by?

We Americans often complain about having more than an entire year of lengthy, wordy, arduous political campaigning before our presidential elections. Is it too much to hope that some small portion of that time might be taken to discuss an issue as consequential as whether to attack Iran?

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.