WASHINGTON — For the second time in a year, the United States is trying to persuade a skeptical international community to confront a Middle Eastern nation that the Bush administration believes is bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
This time, the target is Iran instead of Iraq, but much of the script is the same. The administration believes that intelligence shows beyond a doubt that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons, and that the United Nations should respond with punitive action. Key members of the international community disagree on what to do.
And this time, the U.S. must contend with the skepticism raised by its failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The U.N. atomic watchdog agency last week issued a report saying that although Iran has long concealed elements of a nuclear program, inspectors have "found no evidence" that Iran's activities were part of a weapons program -- although it said such a goal could not be ruled out.
The U.S. says the covert activities make sense only as part of a weapons program, and it wants the matter referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. But some key European members of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, including Britain, France and Germany, argue that Iran should be given more time to explain itself. Iran insists that its nuclear program exists solely for generating electricity.
U.S. and European officials agree that at heart, their differences over Iran's nuclear activities are more about how to respond than about suspicions that U.S. intelligence is wrong.
"I think it's a political disagreement on how tough a stance to take and how much they want to accept Iran's promise," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. The U.S. believes, he said, that "there needs to be some sort of effort by the [Security] Council to make sure Iran complies with its promise" as well as "corrective activities" to deal with the Iranian history of noncompliance.
Still, IAEA officials, European diplomats and American analysts say U.S. credibility has been damaged by the way in which Washington built its case against Iraq, and they fear that, as a result, its ability to rally diplomatic support for future confrontations has been diminished.
Governments reluctant to support sanctions or other diplomatic actions against nations deemed threatening can point to Iraq and raise doubts when the U.S. says it has evidence of illicit weapons programs, these observers say.
Administration officials reject that assessment and say that the failure to find chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, or evidence that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, has not hurt their efforts to put together coalitions to confront Iran or North Korea, whose nuclear program has also alarmed the United States. They say American weapons inspectors are continuing their search in Iraq and have uncovered some evidence that Baghdad had not abandoned its banned weapons programs.
But with no banned weapons found in Iraq, the bar for the U.S. has been raised, observers say.
"Because of the lack of credibility [the Americans] have, many countries are not going to take their [assertions about other nations] at face value," said an IAEA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They're going to challenge it. They'll request additional information. They're going to say, 'Thank you very much, but we have to do our own assessment.' "
In a recent speech, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to President Carter, said the situation with Iraq had created a "credibility gap" that would undermine U.S. influence for years to come.
More than 40 years ago, Brzezinski said, French President Charles de Gaulle declined an offer to see U.S. spy photographs of Soviet missile installations under construction in Cuba, saying it was unnecessary.
"I do not wish to see the photographs. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me," De Gaulle said, according to Brzezinski, who added: "Would any foreign leader today react the same way to an American emissary sent abroad to say that Country X is armed with weapons of mass destruction that threaten the United States? It is unlikely."
That new skepticism is already in evidence.
The IAEA official who asked not to be identified said the agency would never have agreed to impose last month's deadline for Iran to answer questions about its nuclear activities based on U.S. intelligence alone. That stands in contrast, he and other agency officials said, to earlier cases in which American intelligence was essentially accepted at face value.
The IAEA official said U.S. claims about Tehran were viewed with skepticism until Iran owned up to some activities and the agency independently confirmed others.