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Bush Seeks Global Pressure Against Iran's Nuclear Arms Plans

June 19, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush stepped up pressure on Iran on Wednesday, declaring that the international community must make clear that "we will not tolerate" construction of a nuclear weapon by Tehran.

In some of his toughest language on Iran since his 2002 State of the Union address, when he labeled the country part of an "axis of evil," Bush said the regime "would be dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon." He asserted that this month's meeting of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations showed "universal agreement that we must all work together to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon."

Bush's comments at an impromptu meeting with reporters were aimed most immediately at persuading the governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, now meeting in Vienna, to find Iran in violation of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The Bush administration contends that Iran is using a civilian nuclear program as cover for development of nuclear arms and has violated the treaty by failing to disclose its activities to the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency.

But the comments may also reflect the administration's desire to take a forceful stand on Iran at a time of fast-paced events that, from the U.S. perspective, are both encouraging and alarming.

Last week, Iranian students led protests demanding an easing of the restrictions of clerical rule and were met by a government crackdown. At the same time, the U.S. government is concerned about allegations that Iran has been involved in terrorist strikes in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is also worried over signs that Tehran is undermining American reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The administration remains divided on whether the United States should mount a more aggressive effort to oust Iran's fundamentalist Islamic government, which took power in 1979, or broaden contacts with some parts of it in hopes of encouraging democratic reforms, U.S. officials have said.

Jon B. Alterman, a former State Department official who directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the ferment in Iran is making it increasingly urgent for the administration to settle on a clear policy.

The developments "suggest you need some sort of policy that ... deals with all the different challenges. And the U.S. government has, up until now, not had a great deal of agreement on which way to go," Alterman said.

The administration has decided that it wants to discourage the nuclear program and encourage the protests. Bush emphasized both points Wednesday, praising "those courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran."

"They need to know America stands squarely by their side," he said. "And I would encourage the Iran government to treat them with the utmost of respect."

Bush did not elaborate on what the U.S. would do if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon -- which, according to some government estimates, could be accomplished within three years.

The administration is counting on IAEA governors deciding in the next few days that Iran has violated its nonproliferation commitments. That would open the way for the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions.

This week, the governors have been debating an IAEA report suggesting that Iran has repeatedly breached its obligations over the last 12 years by failing to declare the import, storage and processing of nuclear material.

Kenneth Brill, the U.S. representative to the IAEA and other U.N. programs in Vienna, argued Wednesday before the agency's 35-member governing board that if Iran's goals were only a civilian nuclear program, the country would be willing to sign an additional treaty protocol allowing increased surveillance of its nuclear facilities.

Iran countered by accusing the IAEA of tailoring its report to support the U.S. view that Tehran's secret agenda is a nuclear bomb.

Ali Salehi, Iran's representative, told the agency that the report "could have been crafted in a more ... fair and balanced manner." He said the document reflected "the awkward directives issued at certain influential capitals on the form, the content and the final conclusion and judgment of the report."

Iran, he said, "considers the acquiring, development and use of nuclear weapons inhuman, immoral, illegal and against its very principles. They have no place in Iran's defensive doctrine."

European governments have shared U.S. alarm at the apparent progress of Iran's nuclear program, and the European Union has warned Tehran forcefully in recent days to abandon any bomb-building effort. The EU has linked pending trade talks to Iranian compliance.

Still, one European diplomat in Washington noted that Europe has been uneasy about the Bush administration's aggressive attitude toward Tehran, and said that the U.S. president risks opening a split on the issue with his threatening talk.

European allies "are still important to the American effort to work on this problem in a multilateral way," the diplomat said. "The White House can't afford to talk too loudly."

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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