While the Carter Administration carefully avoided speaking of military intervention in yesterday's warning to Iran, there is a wide range of military options open to the President.
Informed military experts, familiar wit defense capabilities but not with the options the president was considering last night, discussed possibilities ranging from the bombing of Iranian oil fields to the destruction of the F14 fighter planes the United States sold to Iran. But the military sources emphasized the speculative nature of the subject at this point in the Iran crisis.
Either the difficulty or the consequences of the various military actions prompted sources to predict that, unless the hostages are shot, the president will opt for other forms of retaliation.
If the hostages were killed, said one flag officer, any of the punitive plans now in the bottom drawer could turn into military orders. But he stressed that he does not expect this to happen.
Among the military possibilities mentioned:
U.S. Navy aircraft carriers could steam into the Persian Gulf and launch fighter bombers to attack Iran's oil fields.
One government official said it would take years for Iran to recover from such a blow. "It would take their money away from them," is the way he put it.
But along with the military risks, such as a confrontation with the Soviet Union, would come the diplomatic ones. Old friends, such as Japan and West Germany, would be angered by the loss of the source of much of their oil. New ones, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, might feel compelled to protest such an act. Saudi Arabia could end up joining an Arab oil embargo against the United States, officials warned.
Another bombing possibility, which government specialists believe would cause less of an international backlash than attacking the oil fields themselves, would be to strike the Persian Gulf island of Kharg, the loading center for Iran's oil exports.
Here, too, a raid would be a blow to Iran's economy. But, it also would cost oil for several nations friendly to the United States.
An easier target and one that would cause the least international furor, as some officials see it, would be the 77 Navy F14 fighters still believed to be in Iran.
The idea here would be to destroy the planes on the ground, so that the jets' highly advanced technology would not fall into Soviet hands if the commuists should emerge dominant from the current turmoil in Iran.
Of the 80 F14s sold to the shah, two crashed and one is in storage at the Grumman plant on Long Island. Sixty-one of the remaining 77 planes are believed to be in Isfahan and the other 16 at Shiraz.
Only a few of the F14s are believed to be in flying condition because of the lack of spare parts and the Iranians' failure to keep the complicated systems in working order. So the Iranian F14s would pose little threat to an attacker, officals say.
One F14 expert, when asked if American pilots could fly the planes out of Iran, said, "Nobody in his right mind would try that." The source said it would take "about 30 days" to put the planes in flying condition.
The same expert acknowledged that it would be relatively easy to destroy the F14s on the ground by a quick air strike, the way the Israelis destroyed the Egyptian air force in the Six Day War of 1967.
Bombing the holy city of Qom, where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lives, was characterized as a remote possibility. Capturing Khomeini and holding him hostage sounds like just retribution, agreed one official when the question was asked, but the official said that too many things could go wrong.
The United States has the aircraft carrier Midway in the Arabian Sea, along with armed escorts. This battle group could reach the Persian Gulf in a hurry if President Carter decided to rattle the saber or attempted to stop Iranian oil exports.
Military officials said Iran is so far from any U.S. land base that Navy planes flying off carriers would be in the best position to inflict quick punishment from the air.
It would take helicopters flying off carriers to try an Entebbe-type raid with ground troops, officials said. Here again, the distances are too great to make this an attractive option. Also, such an operation would mean high casualities, they added.
None of those military actions makes sense, military officiers said, as long as the American hostages being held at gunpoint in Tehran are not being harmed.
Accordingly, they said, the U.S. military establishment has been frustrated in the same way that civilian police are handicapped when a skyjacker holds a plane full of passengers at gunpoint. Any rash action in either instance risks the lives of those under the gun.
But this whole picture changes once the trigger is pulled. This was the warning that Carter sounded last night.
To underscore that warning to Tehran, Carter yesterday ordered the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk to steam from its port of Subic Bay in the Philippines to the Indian Ocean. The carrier is accompanied by a cruiser and three destroyers.
This marked the first time that the administration admitted to moving military forces toward Iran in response to the hostage situation.