Amid rising speculation about the possibility of an Israeli or United States bombing attack on Iranian nuclear facilities earlier this month, a major study produced for the US Air Force by a top defense think-tank concluded that US military action against Iran was "likely to have negative effects for the United States".

The study, by the Rand Project Air Force, a division of the California-based Rand Corporation, was released on July 9, the same day that Tehran test-fired medium- and long-range missiles in an apparent response to reports the previous week that Israel had carried out secret exercises designed to simulate a raid on Iran''s nuclear facilities the previous month.

Amid all the fireworks, however, the report, which also called for a multi-faceted strategy designed to encourage democratic development in Iran, was ignored by the mainstream media.

Entitled "Iran''s Political, Demographic, and Economic Vulnerabilities", the 156-page report also called for Washington to "tone down" its policy statements supporting "regime change" and to "discourage Iranian ethnic groups from revolting against the regime". Both policies, it said, are likely to be counter-productive.

Instead, according to the three main authors of the study, Washington should adopt a more patient approach, "designed to create conditions for effective relations [with Tehran] over the long haul".

As with the Soviet Union, "[W]ith Iran, the US government will again need to keep an eye on the long term, communicating with the current government but also encouraging more discussion among Iranians and more contacts and interactions between Iranians and Americans."

"Societies and governments change. The US government has some ability to foster favorable trends in Iran, but these policies will take time to come to fruition," said the report, which also noted that Iran "appears to be on its way to becoming a nuclear power".

Speculation about a possible attack on Iran''s nuclear facilities has, in fact, subsided somewhat over the past three weeks, although the issue has flared again as a result of successive visits by Israel''s chief of staff and defense minister, Ehud Barak, over the past week. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that top US officials had reassured Barak that the military option was still "on the table".