During the last few days, U.S. President George W. Bush has turned up the heat on Iran and its suspected nuclear arms program. As RFE/RL reports, Bush's comments appear to reflect a key policy decision by his administration.
Washington, 20 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- President George W. Bush has drawn a clear line in the sand, saying the United States and its allies will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.
Speaking ahead of a key decision on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Bush urged the international community on 18 June not to allow the Islamic republic to develop nuclear weapons. "Iran would be dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon," he said.
The U.S. president, who has also repeatedly encouraged Iranian students engaged in protests against the Islamic regime, added, "We will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon."
Yesterday (19 June), a senior U.S. official told "The New York Times" that Bush's message had been thought out and premeditated. "It's not like this spilled out," he said, noting that Bush has been extensively involved in talks with aides about Iran recently.
In Tehran, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said shortly before Bush's remarks that his country is not trying to build nuclear weapons.
Analysts say Bush's remarks appear to have put an end to months of ambiguity over at least one of aspect of U.S. policy toward Iran. Kenneth Katzmann is a Middle East expert with the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress. He told RFE/RL: "The administration is working on some sort of a presidential directive or a formal policy finding on Iran. I took [Bush's] comments to mean that that aspect of the Iran policy review, on the nuclear issue, has been decided. And the decision has been is that it should be U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
But Bush has so far offered no strategy on how to prevent Tehran from building atomic weapons. Most experts believe that while the U.S. retains a military option -- such as a precise strike against Iranian nuclear facilities -- Washington for the moment is concentrating on diplomacy.
Bush's remarks came ahead of a decision on Iran's nuclear program yesterday by the UN nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based IAEA. Inspectors from the IAEA, acting on tips from American and other intelligence agencies, say they have found a nuclear-enrichment program in Iran that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
Washington had been hoping the agency would produce a resolution yesterday condemning Iran's failure to comply with international nuclear safeguards.
The U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Kenneth Brill, argued in a debate on 18 June that Iran is "aggressively" using its civilian nuclear resources to pursue weapons and questioned whether inspectors could ever thoroughly account for Iran's atomic activities.
The next day, however, the IAEA did not condemn Iran. Instead, it issued a reprimand, urging Tehran to sign an Additional Protocol that would allow wider nuclear inspections by the agency. "The [IAEA] board [of governors] shared my concern about the failure of Iran to declare certain activities, materials, and facilities and took note of the corrective actions being taken by Iran with the assistance of the agency [and] requested that that corrective action be completed as early as possible," IAEA chief Mohammad el-Baradei told reporters.
Khatami has said that Iran is prepared to allow unfettered inspections by the IAEA but expects the international community to recognize Iran's right to acquire advanced, peaceful nuclear technology.
Diplomats said the resolution was the best possible outcome for Iran, but it is hardly toothless.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush welcomed the resolution, adding that Iran must comply with it. "If Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons," Fleischer asked, "why wouldn't they cooperate fully and completely with the IAEA?"
Among other criticisms, the resolution said Iran bought 1.8 tons of uranium in 1991 and started building facilities to enrich uranium without telling the IAEA. But it added that Iran is taking steps to correct the situation.
Analysts largely agree that Washington's strategy from here will be to continue its diplomatic efforts to force strict nuclear inspections on Iran and North Korea, which is also suspected of violating international accords on the production of atomic weapons.
Washington also appears intent on working with its allies to develop an antiproliferation system for interdicting ships and aircraft suspected of transporting nuclear materials into and out of rogue countries believed to be working on weapons of mass destruction.
Analyst Katzmann said that, so far, U.S. diplomacy appears to be forging a consensus that Iran should at least be confronted about its nuclear program. However, Katzmann added: "They haven't got down to hard choices yet about sanctioning or how strong to come at Iran on this. There are some countries that might oppose international sanctions or any major enforcement. So for now, everybody seems to be on board -- but they haven't really faced the hard choices yet."
University of Michigan professor Raymond Tanter, an Iran expert and former U.S. official, said that after the war in Iraq, the international community may be more interested in keeping the Iran issue within international institutions, as opposed to disagreeing with the U.S. to an extent that forces Washington to "go it alone."
Tanter said when the Iran issue finally gets to the UN Security Council, Washington will hope this time to have the full support of France and Russia, permanent Security Council members who opposed the war in Iraq.
"If the United States has a coalition within the United Nations that includes France and Russia on both Iran and North Korea, then I don't see how Iran and North Korea can hold out. But if the United States fails to build that coalition, then I see the likelihood of a surgical strike [by the U.S. on Iran] increasing. And I'm talking in months, not years," Tanter told RFE/RL.
Tanter added that a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is only a final option. He said that because Iran's facilities are more numerous and spread out, a strike would be more difficult than when Israeli attacked an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 to prevent Baghdad from building the bomb.