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Iran Making Nuclear Advances, U.S. Says

March 10, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Iran's uranium enrichment program has advanced faster and further than international inspectors had suspected, proving that countries can hide nuclear activity from the world if they are determined to do so, Bush administration officials said Sunday.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said "clear evidence" of Iran's progress toward making material that could be used in a nuclear bomb had been uncovered by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency following U.S. prompting.

"Here we suddenly discover that Iran is much further along, with a far more robust nuclear weapons development program than anyone said it had," Powell said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition." "It shows you how a determined nation that has the intent to develop a nuclear weapon can keep that development process secret from inspectors and outsiders if they really are determined to do it."

Iran has denied that its nuclear efforts are geared toward producing weapons, but news of the advanced status of the program comes at a difficult time for Washington. As the U.S. gears up for a possible war with Iraq, the disclosures about Iran -- plus continued tension with North Korea over its nuclear plans -- add to the challenges the Bush administration is facing from the three nations the president has labeled an "axis of evil."

U.S. officials said the disclosures about Iran only bolster their concerns about Iraq and raise questions about the IAEA's credibility in assessing Baghdad's nuclear status. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said that recent inspections have turned up no evidence that Iraq has reconstituted its nuclear program, despite U.S. assertions to the contrary.

"Here's another case where we kept saying: 'You know, there's a problem in Iran. They are doing things that you are not aware of,' " Powell said on "Fox News Sunday." "American intelligence can see things happening."

Echoing the theme that American intelligence had been vindicated, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice told ABC's "This Week": "It's been couched as a peaceful program, but we've been, for a long time, one of the lone voices that has said that the Iranians are a problem."

The comments from Powell and Rice came in response to questions about a Time magazine report quoting IAEA sources as saying that Iran's uranium enrichment plant is "extremely advanced" and involves hundreds of gas centrifuges ready to produce enriched uranium and "the parts for a thousand others ready to be assembled."

Iran announced last week that it intends to activate a uranium conversion facility near Isfahan, but the magazine reported that Iran had gone further and begun testing the enriched uranium production process using centrifuges at an undisclosed location.

If true, that would clearly be a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

A senior Bush administration official confirmed the substance of Time's report but said it was for the IAEA to report details of the testing. The official described Iran's activity as "attempts to complete the nuclear cycle."

Iran insists that it wants the nuclear material for a peaceful civilian plant, but the U.S., Israel and other countries are highly suspicious that an oil-rich developing country would spend so much on a nuclear energy program.

In 1991, the U.S. and Israel estimated that Iran was 10 years away from building a nuclear weapon. More recently, the consensus was that it was three to five years away. Now diplomats in Tehran believe that Iran is even closer.

Mindful of the Bush administration's focus on weapons of mass destruction, Iran surprised the world this year by disclosing details of its nuclear fuel activities and inviting the IAEA to inspect its facilities. Inspectors found centrifuges and other evidence that Iran had made more progress than anyone had thought, Cirincione said. Upon completing the inspection, ElBaradei said in Tehran that Iran had developed a fuel cycle program sophisticated enough that additional inspections and greater safeguards would be required.

But the openness has not allayed fears. Some U.S. officials view Iran's overtures to inspectors as a cover for a secret nuclear program by the state President Bush has branded, with Iraq and North Korea, as part of an "axis of evil."

"Or it could indicate a willingness to use their nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip that they might be willing to abandon under the right circumstances, with the right incentives," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace who returned from Tehran last week. "It's the same argument we're having on North Korea," whose nuclear program is further along than Iran's. North Korea has a plutonium program and a uranium program and is believed to have up to two bombs.

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