The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has accused Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the U.S. strategy appears aimed at getting the United Nations to declare Iran in violation of a key nuclear treaty.
Washington, 9 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States expressed concern yesterday that Iran -- which Washington calls the world's top terrorist state -- is secretly developing nuclear weapons in violation of a treaty Tehran has signed.
Voiced by both President George W. Bush and the State Department, the U.S. concern appeared to support a report in "The New York Times" that Washington is putting heavy pressure on the United Nations nuclear agency to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Washington reportedly wants a declaration against Iran to come out of a 16 June meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog based in Vienna.
Addressing reporters at the White House yesterday, Bush said: "I've always expressed my concerns that the Iranians may be developing a nuclear program. I have done so publicly, I have done so privately. As you may recall I've expressed those concerns to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin when I went to Russia. And as I understand, the IAEA [the UN International Atomic Energy Agency] is coming out with a report in June and we'll wait and see what it says. But one of the things we must do is work together to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
Iran's nuclear program is expected to be high on the agenda when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell makes a tour of the Middle East this weekend that will take him to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Powell is also due to visit Russia, which Washington accuses of helping Iran with its nuclear program.
Powell is focusing on making progress on a newly released plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Iran, which is seen a vital backer of Palestinian militant groups such as Hezbollah, is considered to be a key part of any new Middle East security order emerging after the fall of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Although they have no formal relations, U.S.-Iranian ties have been strained recently by the situation in Iraq, where Washington has accused Tehran of supporting radical Shi'ite Muslim groups who seek to install an Iranian-inspired theocracy in Baghdad.
Further straining ties, Tehran says it will not recognize any U.S.-installed government in Iraq. And Washington signed a truce with the Mujahedin Khalq, which opposes the Tehran government, allowing it to keep its weapons although the Iraqi-based group is on the State Department's terrorist list.
The Bush administration is said to be split on just how to deal with Iran, with some at the Pentagon preferring to pile on the pressure through the IAEA while Powell's State Department is said to prefer moving beyond unofficial channels to opening direct talks with Tehran.
Judith Kipper is a Middle East analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. She says that because so many issues are at play in U.S.-Iranian ties right now, she believes Powell's approach would be more appropriate:
"The issues between the United States and Iran are strategic, are global, and are very critical to American interests right now. So it would be a good thing for the United States to open up official channels with the Iranians."
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has said the Islamic Republic wants to improve relations with the United States.
But with yesterday's nuclear allegations, the U.S. hawks appear to have the upper hand on policy toward Iran, which Bush has called part of an "axis of evil" with Hussein's Iraq and North Korea.
The U.S. accuses Iran of secretly embarking on a program to enrich uranium at Natanz in southern Iran, which American officials fear could be used to make nuclear weapons.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that Iran represented a prime example of the nexus between terrorist-sponsoring states and weapons of mass destruction -- the sum of Washington's fears following the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
"Our concern is about the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by a state that's a known supporter of terrorism," Boucher said. "It's been something that the president [Bush] talked about. It's why he talked about the axis of evil. We all understand this to be one of the most dangerous combinations of our age."
The nature of work at the Natanz site was not known until last year.
Diplomats in Vienna familiar with the workings of the IAEA, speaking to Reuters yesterday on condition of anonymity, said IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei was taken aback at what he saw on a visit to Natanz last February. "It's a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant, and they had come a long way," said one diplomat familiar with the findings of the visit and the workings of the agency. "He was struck by the sophistication and the advanced stage of the project." The diplomat added that U.S. officials "want the agency to produce a very critical report" at the IAEA's 16 June board meeting.
An IAEA spokeswoman told the Associated Press yesterday that it is too early to comment on the Iranian program and whether Tehran had violated its commitments to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
A top Iranian official on 6 May denied his country had a nuclear weapons program but told the IAEA his country would not automatically submit to tougher inspections. Iranian officials have said they have nothing to hide because their nuclear program is only meant to generate electricity.
Boucher suggested that such a claim was laughable: "Iran now openly admits that it's pursuing a complete nuclear fuel cycle. We completely reject Iran's claim that it's doing this for peaceful purposes."
Boucher added that states with peaceful nuclear energy programs have nothing to hide. But he said that Iran had done its best to hide its nuclear fuel-cycle activities and that until this year, Iran had been the only state not to accept the IAEA's 1992 call for states to declare new nuclear facilities before construction.
He said Iran agreed to do so in late February only because of intense pressure, but that Tehran has also refused for several years to sign additional protocol with the IAEA, which would improve the agency's insight into Iran's nuclear activities.