For Bush and Kerry, a growing arms threat with no clear answers


Election 2004

October 27, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Although neither President Bush nor Sen. John Kerry says much about it, whoever wins the White House Nov. 2 will likely face a hostile Iran moving quickly toward developing nuclear weapons as American troops continue to battle a stubborn insurgency in neighboring Iraq.

Bush and Kerry insist that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. But each would have to work with a limited range of diplomatic tools and the knowledge that military strikes would merely delay Iran's becoming a nuclear weapons state, analysts say.

Tehran is widely suspected of being capable of producing a nuclear weapon in a few years, posing a threat to Israel, Iraq and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, and giving Iran powerful new leverage to achieve regional dominance. The most pessimistic U.S. assessment is that Iran could have the know-how for a bomb by next summer.

"Iranian acquisition is nearing an inevitability," said a Bush administration official familiar with recent intelligence reports who declined to be named.

Iran says its nuclear program is for the peaceful purpose of generating electricity.

U.S. military officers in Iraq have expressed growing concern about how Iran is taking advantage of the chaos and supporting insurgents, particularly the Shiite Muslim forces of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who recently signed a truce with Iraqi officials after a bloody standoff in the holy city of Najaf.

"Proponents of the war said that one of its benefits would be to intimidate other countries. But the positive effect has since become a negative," said Gary Samore, a specialist in weapons proliferation at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

Ammo for Kerry

Iran's defiance has handed political ammunition to the Kerry campaign, which accuses the Bush administration of sitting on the sidelines as the threat from Tehran grew.

"While these developments have been under way, the Bush administration has had no Iran policy because of the deep divisions that exist between the State Department on the one hand and the Defense Department and the vice president's office on the other," Kerry adviser Wendy Sherman said in a recent speech. "We cannot afford this kind of a vacillation any longer."

The Bush diplomacy

Bush administration officials reject the criticism, saying that they have been working steadily to convince Europe and Russia that Iran's nuclear program poses a serious threat to the Middle East and to Southern Europe.

After more than a year of diplomacy, the Bush administration appears to have the votes on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to have Iran's nuclear program placed before the United Nations Security Council, putting Tehran under a harsh international spotlight.

"They don't want to be a pariah. They don't want to be ostracized," a senior Bush administration official said of Iran.

The administration acquiesced to, but did not endorse, a last-ditch effort by Britain, France and Germany to persuade Iran to halt development of nuclear weapons materials in exchange for trade incentives and technology for peaceful nuclear power. Europeans are now skeptical that Iran will comply before the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency next meets Nov. 25, at which point the IAEA board is likely to refer Iran to the Security Council.

Some analysts doubt that moving the issue from Vienna, Austria, home of the IAEA, to U.N. headquarters in New York would achieve much beyond symbolism.

With the world price of oil now above $50 a barrel, the Security Council is unlikely to impose an embargo on imports of Iranian oil, one of the main sources of revenue for Tehran.

The options on Iran

Despite the administration's eagerness to enlist the Security Council and exert diplomatic pressure, neither Bush nor Kerry has ruled out the use of military force if diplomacy fails.

But Iran's nuclear facilities are so widely dispersed that analysts say military action would be unlikely to achieve more than a delay in weapons development while rallying Iranians behind the hard-line regime.

The Kerry approach does not differ markedly from the president's, though his campaign stresses that he would lead a united front that would include Europe and Japan in an effort to pressure Iran.

"We should be leading our European partners and make this a high priority with Russia and China," said Kerry foreign policy adviser Susan Rice.

In line with the Europeans, Kerry backs assisting Iran with a peaceful nuclear program, provided that spent nuclear fuel is removed and Iran does not develop a full nuclear fuel cycle. The Bush administration sees no need for Iran to have any nuclear energy program, given its large oil and gas reserves.

Kerry has also suggested that he would open a public dialogue with Iran, although aides say this would be limited to seeking cooperation on narcotics interdiction and the pursuit of al-Qaida operatives, and would probably come after an international effort to halt Tehran's nuclear program.

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