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US, Europeans Differ Over How to Respond to Iran's Illegal Nuclear Activities - 2003-11-20

In Vienna, member states of the UN Nuclear Agency are discussing its report uncovering Iran’s illegal development of weapons-grade nuclear materials. They are divided over how to respond, with the United States pushing for possible sanctions while European nations insist that more intrusive inspections should take place before Iran is punished. Jeff Lilley has this report on the Iranian nuclear problem.

The report released last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, says U .N. nuclear inspectors found no evidence Iran has a nuclear weapons program, but it accuses Iran of deliberately hiding efforts to produce nuclear bomb ingredients. The U.N. nuclear agency says it needs more time to answer a key question: does Iran intend to use its nuclear program to make bombs?

Iran maintains it has a peaceful nuclear program allowable under its international treaty obligations. But high-ranking officials in the Bush administration say that’s not true. In a speech last week, John Bolton, the Bush administration’s top arms control official, said the IAEA report makes clear Iran has been concealing its efforts to produce nuclear materials because they are part of a secret program to build nuclear weapons.

Some analysts fear that if Iran succeeds in stalling U.N. inspectors, it could have a nuclear arsenal within three years. They warn that could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and increase the nightmare scenario of Iran making a nuclear weapon available to terrorists.

Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center here in Washington says the Bush administration is in a race against time: “There’s a two-track problem in Iran. On the slow track, you have clear signals that Iran is building towards some climax where ultimately greater political reform is inevitable, but it’s a slow track and there have been many disappointments, and it may take many more years before you get a truly reformed government in Tehran. But the other problem is there is a fast track, and the fast track is what they are doing on the nuclear front, as is abundantly made clear in this IAEA report.”

So far in trying to halt Iran’s nuclear program, the Bush administration has worked with other countries. Some analysts believe these multilateral efforts are paying off. They say the pressure of an October 31st IAEA deadline forced Iran to admit it had made “mistakes” in reports about its nuclear programs and prodded the Tehran government to agree with England, France and Germany to accept more stringent inspections of its nuclear facilities as well as suspend its uranium enrichment efforts.

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the Bush administration is not satisfied and wants more answers from Iran, including why international inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium, a nuclear bomb ingredient, at several sites:

“The administration will continuously remind allies and Iran and the world about what Iran has not yet done and what are the continual demands by the IAEA for additional information. So, for instance, the question of how the heck did that HEU, that bomb grade uranium, ‘contaminate,’ in the Iranians’ words, some of their equipment. We need to have a convincing explanation from the Iranians, and their explanation that, ‘Oh, it’s a mystery to us’ is really not going to be good enough.”

But international solidarity toward Iran may be fraying. The Bush administration wants the U.N. nuclear agency to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council because of Iran’s violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which calls on states without nuclear weapons to forego developing them in exchange for the benefits of nuclear power. The Security Council could then impose sanctions on Tehran.

But the Europeans want to avoid punitive measures and build on Iran’s latest agreements to be more cooperative. They say the Iranians are now providing “honest data.”

Reuel Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says the European approach of engagement is bound to fail. He believes the Iranian clerics are bluffing to buy time so that they can develop a nuclear weapons program:

“What they are going to do is the tried and true European approach: Let’s engage and have a talk about it. Well, these folks are not children. These are very serious men, and they have looked at the map and determined that for both internal and external reasons, the nuke is a good idea. I would suggest the only way you are going to dissuade the clerics, who have been raised on a diet of real politics, is to, in fact, point out to them that military or economically there is going to be hell to pay.”

It’s not clear what military measures might work. Some analysts maintain the Bush administration is overextended fighting an insurgency in Iraq and trying to stabilize Afghanistan. But Mr. Gerecht says the United States has to reserve a military option while pressing for economic sanctions: “You have to have a verification regime that you can be absolutely certain to ensure the Iranians can’t cheat because if you read that report there is a track record of cheating. Either we are going to threaten the military option or the economic option or do both in symmetry. You have to have a serious threat, and you need to have it up front, not later.”

Some analysts are wary that a harsh approach to Iran could lead to conflict. Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA warned that “things could very easily get out of control” if the issue is referred to the Security Council.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. He says the United States should learn from its current difficulties in Iraq that diplomatic channels need to be exhausted before any kind of military action is contemplated: “If we do not go through these steps, and we do anything like covert or overt military action, it is going to make Iraq look like a welcoming party. It’s going to make our treatment of Iraq look incredibly mellow.”

Some analysts say a diplomatic deal won’t work unless Iran’s security concerns are addressed. These include being surrounded by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Israel’s status as the sole nuclear power in the Middle East and its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, which has been at the center of problems in U.S – Iranian relations for the past two decades.

One idea is to fashion a deal along the lines of what the United States and its partners in Northeast Asia are attempting with North Korea, which claims it already has nuclear weapons.

Ray Takeyh, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, says such a plan with Iran could start with an agreement on nuclear issues and then branch out to include security matters: “ The deal the North Koreans are going to get, in a sense some sort of security and economic relationship in exchange for viable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, can work similarly in Iran today.”

Diplomatic efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear issues will ultimately hinge on the country’s commitment to work with international organizations. By declaring a willingness to clear up past cover-ups and allow more intrusive inspections, Iran’s clerics appear to be emerging from two decades of isolation. It remains to be seen if they are sincere.