The intelligence on Iraq's nuclear activities proved to be dead wrong after U.S.-led forces invaded last year, but in next-door Iran, there's no question that a vast and varied nuclear infrastructure is rising (or, in some cases, burrowing underground). The Iranians say they intend only to generate electricity and conduct peaceful research. But the same technology that can produce reactor fuel to light Iran's cities can be kept running to make the fissile material for atomic weapons--a goal that is widely suspected.
Even as public attention remains fixed on the deadly insurgency in Iraq, a standoff with neighboring Iran could mushroom into the first international crisis in George Bush's second term. The United States estimates that Iran could field its first nuclear weapon in three to seven years, a prospect Bush has branded "intolerable." Hoping to avert another Mideast war, the three leading European Union powers--Britain, France, and Germany--have been trying to pull off a deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear ambitions. They are facing a deadline of November 25, which is when the board of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency meets in Vienna to review Iran's defiance of earlier demands for full disclosure of its nuclear activities. The IAEA will decide whether to send the issue to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
"No policy " The EU-3 are proposing that Iran forswear work to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium--the key processes in making atomic weapons--and cooperate fully with the IAEA, which has been probing Iran's secretive nuclear work with mixed success. In return, Iran would receive a light-water nuclear reactor (a type that reduces the risk of diversion to weapons use), as well as atomic fuel and future trade benefits. Spent reactor fuel would be removed from the country. Iran has been resisting the main EU demand to suspend all of its work on nuclear fuel for the duration of negotiations. The wrangling late last week jeopardized a potential deal.
A skeptical Bush administration has stayed away from the European effort, neither endorsing nor trying to block it. Administration hawks have quarreled with those favoring dialogue with Tehran: As a result, the administration has been unable even to issue a formal strategy on Iran. "They have no policy toward Iran," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They have subcontracted it to the Europeans, and the Europeans have subcontracted it to the IAEA." Yet across the administration's spectrum of views, there is apprehension. "Even the most dovish Middle East watcher in this government is pretty realistic about Iran's intentions," says one U.S. official. "Iran is not going to fulfill any agreement with the EU."
The Pentagon, U.S. News has learned from two officials, is revising contingency plans that originated with the Clinton administration for attacking Iran's nuclear plants. Officials describe the planning as routine for a global trouble spot and say that Bush continues to look for a diplomatic solution. Since late summer, they have also studied options in case Israel, as it has hinted, decides to hit Iran's nuclear sites in raids reminiscent of its 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. The Bush administration recently agreed to sell Israel 500 bunker-busting smart bombs of a sort that could be used in such an operation. Secretary of State Colin Powell has urged Israel to give diplomacy time to work, and few officials doubt that strikes would be costly, inflaming anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli passions, spawning terrorist reprisals, and giving extremists a boost across the Islamic world.
Hit or miss. Opinion is divided on whether U.S. military action would justify the risks. "You can't have confidence you could get everything, but you sure could have confidence you could get a lot of it," a high-ranking official, who considers pre-emption an eventual possibility, said in an interview. "It's not the case militarily that you have to get everything to really set their program back." But other officials say U.S. intelligence has not located all of Iran's nuclear facilities--and they concede that strikes would do little to expunge Iran's nuclear know-how and could instead inspire the Islamic Republic to launch a crash program to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. "It would be very difficult to delay them more than a year or two," says a skeptical senior adviser. "Can we do it again and again? The military option is poor. I just don't see the use of military power here."
Even so, the political dynamic in Washington is making a confrontation with Iran more likely. Sentiment in Congress has been building to pass an "Iran Liberation Act," making regime change in Tehran official U.S. policy. One reason: Iranian interference in Iraq. "As we get bogged down in Iraq, it increases the temptation to look for others to blame," says one official. "The Iranians do have a hand in it, no doubt. . . . You put all this on a scale, and it begins to tip the balance in the direction of pre-emptive military strikes."
That scenario--as well as the specter of Iranian nukes and long-range missiles--is what is driving the EU-3's diplomatic bid. The U.S. decision to shun the talks reflects the view of administration hawks that the EU is rewarding cheating by renegotiating a year-old deal that Iran has already broken.
That keeps European officials guessing about the U.S. reaction to a prospective deal. They have no doubt, however, about the views of one key administration hawk, John Bolton, the U.S. under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At an October 15 meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations at the State Department, says a European diplomat, Bolton was "arrogant and dismissive" of the EU-3's plan as doomed to fail, but he indicated that his boss, Powell, felt it was all right to try. Another diplomat recalled Bolton's reading from a U.S. policy paper in stiff, "Stalin-like" fashion. The Europeans nevertheless say they will persist. "We have been assured by more senior people in the U.S. government," says a key EU-3 diplomat, that disparaging the diplomatic push "is not their intention." He adds: "Any chance of squeezing a deal out of Iran is immensely preferable to the road of confrontation." Bolton declined to comment for this story.
"A sense of confidence." The diplomatic road, however, is also a bumpy one. At the IAEA, some countries fear providing Washington a pretext for military action. What's more, developing countries like Brazil and South Africa support Iran's right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium for peaceful energy and research activities, provided it does so under international safeguards. Even if the IAEA board agreed to refer the issue to the Security Council, China and Russia, which is helping Iran build a nuclear reactor at Bushehr, oppose slapping commercial sanctions on Iran. That obstacle has spawned European talk of an ad hoc coalition for punishing Iran if it opts to build weapons. The group might include the EU-3, Japan, the United States, and other countries. But with high oil prices and rising demand, there is little chance of instituting an embargo where it would really hurt: on Iranian oil.
For Iran, pursuing nukes would mean abandoning the nonproliferation treaty--as North Korea did--and losing needed European and probably Russian help with nuclear technology. It could also kick off an arms race as neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Egypt respond. And it could trigger dissent from moderates in Iran who want the country to make nuclear energy but not bombs.
Rather, many analysts believe Iran intends to hone its nuclear technologies and prepare the precursor materials required to make bombs quickly--if it decides to. Tehran may regard U.S. troubles in Iraq as blocking the Bush administration from taking on another foe in the neighborhood. Flush with petrodollars and backed by a public that sees joining the nuclear club as a point of national pride, Iranian officials have been preparing to face U.N. Security Council censure. Says Tehran University political scientist Hadi Semati, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "They feel they can absorb the pressure. There's a sense of confidence."
At the same time, the presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has stoked Iran's fears of encirclement. Inside Iran, some analysts portray a nuclear capability as a deterrent to U.S. intervention--and a reflection of Iran's rightful great-power status in the region. "If you're sitting in Tehran and hearing the administration and the neoconservatives and the Congress on regime change," says Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at George Mason University, "it is a real fear."
IAEA examiners have not uncovered evidence that Iran obtained blueprints for a bomb from the nuclear supply network run by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan--or is working on its own design. But Iran's record of denial and concealment over 18 years, as described in six IAEA reports, has deepened suspicions about its aims. "We have no illusions," says a European envoy. And recent developments have intensified the worries. Iran announced that it would resume manufacturing and assembling centrifuges and that it had converted tons of "yellowcake" uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas--the feedstock for centrifuges, which spin the gas at high speeds to enrich it to yield fuel for nuclear reactors or bombs. Iran has also tried to hire away Iraqi nuclear scientists with unknown success, U.S. officials say.
Iran's black-market efforts to buy nuclear parts also continue. U.S. News has learned that Iranian-linked trading companies last year attempted to acquire specialized components for the "cascade" of connected centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Iranian representatives have said it was necessary to make clandestine purchases--albeit for peaceful nuclear technology--to evade foreign efforts to thwart them.
Further, says David Albright, a leading proliferation expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran has so far refused requests by IAEA investigators to enter a munitions production and storage facility at Parchin, as well as other military sites, on the grounds that they are not nuclear facilities covered by the nonproliferation treaty. Some analysts consider Parchin a probable home for testing the high-explosive charges that can trigger a nuclear detonation. A knowledgeable western diplomat in Vienna tells U.S. News that the agency is conducting sensitive discussions with Iran to get access to Parchin and other sites. Few are confident that even a favorable response from Tehran to that--and other demands--would halt the slide toward crisis.
Iran and the bomb
What will it take to thwart Tehran's nuclear aims?
US News and World Report
By Thomas Omestad
"Sentiment in Congress has been building to pass an "Iran Liberation Act," making regime change in Tehran official U.S. policy."