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Iran, North Korea, Pakistan Top 2007 Nuclear Issues

A surprising U.S. intelligence report on Iran's nuclear ambitions, a decision by North Korea to dismantle its weapons program and concern over stability in Pakistan were all major news stories during 2007 and dominated discussion regarding nuclear issues during the past year. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details in this report from Washington.

In early December a new assessment that represented the consensus view of all 16 American intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had probably halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program, as of mid-2007, remained frozen.

The report represented a sharp reversal of an estimate issued by the same spy agencies in 2005, which said Iran was believed to be working to develop nuclear weapons.

Following the new appraisal, President Bush insisted there would be no change in U.S. policy toward the government in Tehran.

"Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," said Mr. Bush.

Iran is continuing to enrich uranium, a program Tehran says is for producing electricity. Analysts say the uranium has not yet reached the level of purity necessary for nuclear weapons.

Iran denies having nuclear weapons ambitions.

However President Bush says the new intelligence estimate shows Iran secretly tried to circumvent the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

"This report is not [saying], okay, everybody needs to relax and quit report," he said. "This is a report that says what has happened in the past can be repeated and that the policies used to cause the regime to halt are effective policies. Let's keep them up, let's continue to work together."

Critics of the Bush administration's policy toward Iran, including opposition Democrats in the U.S. Congress, welcomed the intelligence findings and urged the White House to tone down its rhetoric toward Iran.

Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel spoke for Democrats in the House of Representatives.

"We now have the NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) report on Iran and we can abandon a policy based on hype and fear and go to a policy that is clear-eyed and hard-headed as it relates to Iran," he said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quick to praise the new assessment and declare victory in the dispute over his country's nuclear ambitions.

The Iranian president called the report a step forward and vowed that Iran would stand firm behind its right to obtain nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

While the Bush administration is still seeking United Nations approval for more sanctions against Iran, senior analysts like Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress say the intelligence report has removed the justification for any military action against the Tehran government.

"It took the military option, the idea that we would attack Iran because of an imminent threat from a nuclear program, not just off the table, but threw it out of the room," he said. There is no one, really, in Washington who believes that the president can order a military strike on Iran or that there is a justification for doing that."

In February, after nearly four years of international diplomatic efforts, North Korea agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang shut down its main nuclear reactor and has agreed by the end of the year to declare all of its nuclear facilities, materials and existing weapons in return for energy assistance and diplomatic incentives.

Earlier this month, President Bush took the extraordinary step of sending a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

"What the president wanted to remind everybody is that the next step in this is a complete and accurate declaration by the North and the president expects it to be accurate," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Analyst Joseph Cirincione does not expect full disclosure from North Korea regarding its nuclear program, but does expect enough cooperation to complete the agreement.

"I think North Korea is likely to finish this deal," he said. "I believe that the North Korean leadership are close to, may have already made the strategic decision, that their regime, the stability of their regime, their personal prosperity, is better assured making a deal for the nuclear weapons than in continuing to be a rogue regime trying to pursue these nuclear weapons."

Cirincione says the prospect of al-Qaida or another terrorist organization obtaining and using a nuclear weapon poses the greatest risk to the United States and other countries.

He believes the world is closer to that possibility now than it was at the beginning of this year.

Cirincione says he is most concerned about the situation in Pakistan, which he says has enough nuclear material for up to 100 weapons.

He says the government has been unstable.

Cirincione says there are strong Islamic fundamental influences in the military and security services and Pakistan has armed Islamic groups operating within its territory.

"Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan. He is closer to getting a nuclear weapon at the end of 2007 than he has ever been before," he said. "Pakistan could go from a major ally to our worst nuclear nightmare overnight. It underscores the importance of controlling these weapons and controlling these materials wherever they are, irrespective of the geopolitical orientation of the countries that have them."

In December, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf reinforced government control of his nation's nuclear arsenal by giving the country's National Command Authority, made up of top civilian and military officials, complete authority over the research, development and production of nuclear technologies.

Pakistani army officials say the security of the nation's weapons is foolproof and warned against creating what they called "irresponsible alarm."