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Powell: US Concerned About Iran Developing Nuclear Weapons - 2003-03-14

Secretary of State Colin Powell says revelations in recent days about the extent of Iran's nuclear program vindicate the Bush administration's tough approach toward the Islamic government in Tehran. In congressional testimony Thursday, Mr. Powell also stressed U.S. support for Iranian reformers and their youthful supporters.

Mr. Powell says new information about Iran's nominally-peaceful nuclear program, which emerged after a visit to previously secret nuclear sites in that country by U.N. inspectors, has reinforced deep concerns among U.S. officials that Iran is using its nuclear power infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons.

International Atomic Energy Agency officials last month were invited by Iran to tour two facilities in central Iran that were identified last year by an Iranian dissident group as a uranium enrichment facility and a plant to refine uranium ore.

U.S. officials are still awaiting a formal report from IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei on his findings. But U.S. press accounts have said Bush administration officials briefed by the U.N. have been stunned by the extent of the Iranian nuclear program, and that the facilities nearing completion will give Iran the capability to build several nuclear bombs each year.

Appearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee, Secretary Powell said the Iranian nuclear effort is far more extensive that commonly believed and, among other things vindicates, President Bush's listing of Iran last year as part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iraq.

"We've raised this issue repeatedly. We've talked about the "axis of evil" and been criticized for it," said Mr. Powell. "And lo and behold, we discover they had a far more robust nuclear infrastructure that could be used for weapons development than people had thought, or wanted us to believe. We were seen as suspicious, and we shouldn't be moving in this direction, but now we have a real concern. When you marry that up with their continued support for terrorist organizations that foment terror in Lebanon and other places throughout the Middle East, I believe that our concerns with respect to Iran were well founded."

Mr. Powell said under questioning the United States has given Iran no ultimatum about what it would do if it continues "moving down this road" toward a nuclear weapons capability. But he says it has made clear to the Iranians, and those supporting Iranian nuclear efforts, including Russia, that it finds the activity "irresponsible."

Iranian officials have said repeatedly their program is for peaceful purposes only, though officials close to Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were quoted by The Washington Post this week as saying Iran has a right to develop nuclear weapons to counter Israel's presumed arsenal.

The secretary of state also said in his testimony that the United States has been trying to put out a message of support for Iranian reformers and young people in what he described as a "battle" underway between the country's political leadership under President Mohamed Khatami and the religious leadership of Mr. Khamenei.