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Iran's Nuclear Weapons Ambitions Key International Issue


Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program remains a key problem for the international community. But delegates to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference last month in New York, failed to address that issue.

The United States and Europe believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But Tehran says its program is aimed at producing fuel for peaceful purposes.

In an agreement last year with three European countries - Britain, France and Germany - Iran decided to temporarily suspend its nuclear enrichment program: a technology that could lead to producing nuclear weapons. The United States is not directly involved in the talks, but backs the Europeans, who are continuing their negotiations with Iran.

Daryl Kimball heads the Arms Control Association, an independent organization based in Washington, D.C. He says the three European countries, known as the "EU three," hope the discussions with Iran will make the suspension permanent, in exchange for trade deals.

"Iran asserts that it has a right, under Article Four of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue peaceful nuclear technologies, including uranium enrichment," Mr. Kimball explained. "The EU three, as well as the United States and many other states, argue that because Iran did not fully disclose its activities for some two decades to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and pursued the construction of secret uranium enrichment facilities, it is not to be trusted - and that as a measure of good faith, it should indefinitely suspend its uranium enrichment activities. And they are in the midst of negotiations and are due to come to some conclusion in about a month and a half."

During a meeting at the White House Tuesday, President Bush emphasized to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that the U.S. strongly endorses the Europeans' efforts. Following the visit, Mr. Bush told reporters the message is clear.

"My message is to the chancellor, that we continue to work with Great Britain, France, and Germany to send a focused, concerted, unified message that says the development of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable and a process which would enable Iran to develop a nuclear weapon is unacceptable," the president said.

But newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed to move

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to his supporters
forward with the nuclear program while continuing negotiations with the Europeans.

Many analysts believe the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad will complicate matters. One of those is William Potter, nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"I cannot imagine that the election of a very conservative president is going to make Iran adopt a more flexible and accommodating position in those negotiations," he said.

Mr. Potter believes the United States must be more actively engaged in the ongoing talks.

"There really has to be a package of both incentives and disincentives - carrots and sticks - and I do not think that the package yet has been fully developed," he said. "And I think what the presidential election in Iran means, is that it may be more difficult to put together a package which is agreeable both to the Iranian leadership and the United States. The U.S. has to be very much engaged along with the Europeans. There has to be a kind of 'good cop - bad cop' [routine] - and I think, as some have suggested, it might be desirable for the Europeans to adopt more of a 'bad cop' posture and for the U.S. to adopt more of a 'good cop' posture."

The United States tried to bring up Iran's nuclear program during the recent conference in New York reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, known as the NPT. Ambassador Thomas Graham, former U.S. representative to previous NPT review conferences, says that effort went nowhere.

"It was a standoff over the U.S. desire to, you might say, indict Iran for failure to observe the safeguard agreements that they entered into," Amb. Graham explained. "And I do not think anyone, or at least most countries would not dispute the fact that Iran was in violation - certainly I would not. But Iran did not want to be singled out and they undoubtedly had some Third World allies there. I think with patient and careful diplomacy a way could have been found around that, but one was not found."

Ambassador Graham and other experts believe a concerted effort must be undertaken fairly quickly to find a solution to Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. They say it might require some fundamental changes in policy - such as the United States deciding to normalize political and economic relations with Tehran.