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Talking Tehran Down

August 05, 2003

From the shah through the ayatollahs and into the elected regime now battling theocrats to rule Iran, Iranians' quest for nuclear power has been a constant for 30 years. In a country with so much oil, their explanation that they need commercial reactors to generate electricity for homes and factories warrants skepticism, if not disbelief.

Times staff writer Douglas Frantz reported Monday that a three-month Times investigation showed that Iran was moving steadily to acquire the capability to build a nuclear bomb. Experts are uncertain whether the government has approved production of an atomic weapon or how long it might take -- perhaps two or three years. But the all-out effort demands a unified international response to dissuade Tehran. The Middle East is dangerous enough with conventional weapons; escalating to the nuclear realm raises the stakes unacceptably.

The United Nations rightly is pushing for access to all of Iran's suspected atomic sites; in June, Iran barred U.N. inspectors from a plant in a Tehran suburb where the government admitted it had assembled centrifuges -- machines that can convert uranium into fuel for commercial reactors and for use in weapons. Mohamed ElBaradei, the top U.N. inspector, criticized Iran for its obstruction and hiding its nuclear activities.

Russia, a main source of the technology for the nearly completed civilian nuclear reactor at the Iranian port of Bushehr, recently has pressed Tehran to allow more inspections; this helps. The European Union has added its voice, making a trade agreement with Iran conditional on more stringent nuclear safeguards.

Pakistan has been less helpful. President Pervez Musharraf denies that his country has provided nuclear assistance to Iran, despite ample contrary evidence. Washington should make clear to him that Pakistan must help stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Iran's atomic aspirations, abetted by the North Koreans, also underscore why the United States and the world need to engage Pyongyang to curb its rogue nuclear programs.

The U.S. has had limited dealings with Iran in recent years. The Bush administration should seek high-level contacts with Tehran and keep encouraging the development of democracy in Iran. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage says Iran is a democracy and is developing a new kind of "liberal thought" unusual for the Middle East. James Dobbins, a veteran diplomat now at the Rand Corp., says that "after Israel and Turkey, Iran is the most democratic nation in the Middle East" and has been helpful to the U.S. in Afghanistan.

If Tehran truly has not decided whether to develop the most dangerous weapons of all, the U.S. and other countries should continue talking to see what will work to keep Iran nuclear-free.

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