History of mistrust, violence complicates efforts on Iran

U.S. seeks to stifle any development of nuclear weapons

February 20, 2005|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON-The United States, in seeking to stifle any efforts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons, faces choices that range from economic and political concessions to military action but also the troubling prospect that none of the options guarantees success.

American efforts are complicated by decades of mutual mistrust and episodes of bloodshed - and complicated further by the lack of international consensus that Iran either has or is attempting to obtain a nuclear weapons program.

President Bush, in his State of the Union address this month, made the American position clear: "Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror," he said, "pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve."

But Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is to meet with Bush in Europe this week, said Friday that recent Iranian actions "confirm that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear weapons."

Putin's judgment, in the view of some, may be clouded by the fact that Russia is helping Iran build a major nuclear power station, a project that the United States says could be used to help produce nuclear weapons. But some experts question whether Tehran is trying to acquire a nuclear arsenal.

Last week, the head of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said he had seen no evidence in the past six months to support the contention that Iran was secretly working to produce a nuclear bomb.

Moreover, Bush's insistence that Iran is "pursuing nuclear weapons" may carry less weight with U.S. allies than in the past because of the false U.S. assertion that Iraq had possessed an arsenal of banned weapons.

But the Iranians have given Americans and others reasons for suspicion. In 2003, the IAEA's ElBaradei, acting on information initially provided by an Iranian opposition group, determined that Iran had a nuclear program that it had kept secret for 18 years.

Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist at Washington's Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank, said, "They lied and cheated, and now they're trying to get a clean bill of health with the IAEA."

The American options for stopping Iranian nuclear efforts include the following, based on interviews with and writings of regional analysts:

The United States could launch a full-scale military invasion to attempt to overthrow the leadership of the country.

Bush has not taken the military option off the table, but he stressed last week that he is determined to employ diplomacy. "You never want a president to say never," he told VRT Belgian public broadcasting Friday. "But military action is certainly not - it's never the president's first choice. Diplomacy is always the president's first - at least my first - choice."

And neighboring Iraq is a sobering reminder that military action creates problems hard to foresee, and harder for Washington to control. Iran's population is nearly three times that of Iraq's, and it's land area is four times the size, including formidable mountain ranges.

In addition, Iran's supposed desire for a nuclear capability may not be confined to the clerics who run the country. Other Iranians are said to feel the need for such weapons as a deterrent against strikes by the United States or Israel. John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told a Senate panel in June that even "moderates in Iran's governing class ... believe in the pursuit of nuclear weapons."

The United States could authorize smaller-scale military actions, combining commando-type operations and aerial attacks aimed at crippling the country's nuclear program.

The problem with this strategy, analysts say, is that Iran learned important lessons from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which saw its French-built Osirak nuclear reactor destroyed by the Israeli air force in 1981, setting back the Iraqi weapons program for years. The Iranians are said to have spread their nuclear facilities around the country, making a decisive blow difficult.

Economic sanctions could be imposed by the U.N. Security Council or by major industrialized countries led by the United States, to force concessions.

The IAEA, however, has so far declined to ask for the Security Council to intervene. Even if the agency did so, council members - who include Russia and China - have shown little willingness to impose sanctions.

The United States has for more than 20 years prohibited American companies from trading with Iran, but the Iranian economy has continued to grow, thanks to the country's oil wealth. And Hussein's Iraq survived more than a decade of far tougher sanctions.

The United States could join the diplomatic effort being spearheaded by Britain, France and Germany. Bush said he intends to discuss the Iranian situation with European leaders this week.

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