WASHINGTON -- Although a recent inspection found no evidence of nuclear weapons research, U.S. officials believe that Iran is engaged in a determined, long-term effort to develop nuclear weapons with the help of technology from China.
Over the last few years, China has provided Iran not only with technology similar to that used by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in developing nuclear weapons but also with a mini-reactor and other items useful for nuclear weapons research.
"I don't think the Iranians are going about it in such a brutish fashion as Saddam Hussein," one State Department official said. "Their program is much more subtle. . . ."
Iran now ranks, along with North Korea and the Commonwealth of Independent States, among the top concerns of U.S. officials worried about the spread of nuclear weapons. CIA Director Robert M. Gates testified in Congress last month that Iran "is building up its special weapons capability as part of a massive . . . effort to develop its military and defense capability." Iran is looking to China to supply missiles and nuclear technology, he said.
China contends that all of its nuclear help to Iran has been above-board and that the facilities it is helping Iran develop comply with the legal safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last November that China has supplied Iran with nuclear technology "only for peaceful purposes."
But U.S. sources said that the Bush administration recently has urged China at "very senior levels" to stop helping Iran's nuclear program. "We're trying to tell the Chinese that in this case, you've got to go beyond the letter of the law [the atomic energy agency safeguards]," an administration official said.
From Feb. 7-12, four inspectors of the atomic energy agency toured six Iranian nuclear facilities and found no evidence of a weapons program. "The activities . . . were found to be consistent with the peaceful application of nuclear energy," the international agency said in its report.
But the report noted that its conclusion that Iran's purposes are peaceful was limited to the sites visited by the team and only for the specific six-day period of the inspectors' visit. U.S. officials said that the agency's report was very carefully worded and does not contradict their view that Iran has embarked on a plan to develop nuclear weapons.