WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group of ambassadors, retired generals and foreign policy experts is warning against a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities without a more thorough public discussion to weigh the costs and benefits.

In a paper and letter to be released Thursday, the group argues that an attack could delay Iran's development of a nuclear weapon for up to four years, but would have other consequences, such as rallying the Iranian people behind the current regime and solidifying the government's hold on power.

The group, which includes retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former National Security advisor Brent Scowcroft and former deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who served in Republican administrations, doesn't oppose military action across the board. But members argue that the country needs a more thorough debate about the consequences of an attack on Iran.

"Big national security decisions are not easy to make," said veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to the United Nations, who helped organize the group. "As you go ahead we think the national debate of the issue should be well informed... people should understand it is not a slam dunk, these are very hard issues."

In an interview, Mr. Pickering said if it turns out that the U.S. or Israel struck Iran's nuclear facilities before Tehran had decided to build a nuclear weapon, any Iranian opposition to building a nuclear weapon in Iran could evaporate.

But the paper doesn't rule out the need for any military involvement, and Mr. Pickering said it argues that a strike may be required if Tehran moves to build a weapon.

An attack could deter nuclear proliferation by other countries and demonstrate American commitment to protecting its allies in the Middle East, the group believes. The paper also argues that any strike is likely to damage Iran's military capabilities. But it concludes that a strike wouldn't destabilize the regime.

Among the Democrats endorsing the paper are former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.

The former officials and experts are wading into a sometimes emotional political and foreign policy issue. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has attacked President Barack Obama's handling of Iran during the election campaign.

Foreign policy issues have been a strength for Mr. Obama, but some Republicans believe he is vulnerable to criticism for his handling of Iran and Israel. Nonetheless, the cautious approach to military force advocated by the group could benefit Mr. Obama.

Some signatories said they worried about the impact of the fall campaign on the debate over Iran.

"I am deeply concerned an issue of grave consequence to our national security might fall victim to a campaign season in which the various sides will amplify their rhetoric to gain political advantage making this issue subject more to politics than to the gravity of discussion it deserves," said retired Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold.

Lt. Gen. Newbold said that, despite the success of limited military operations in Libya or Kosovo, there is more to a military campaign than an initial strike. "I think there isn't a full appreciation of all of the consequences of a military strike," he said.

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