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Iran Threat Grows Amid U.S. Divisions

The lack of consensus on how to deal with Tehran's nuclear program is complicated by allies' opposing views and the stakes involved.

September 12, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Deep divisions within the Bush administration are hampering U.S. efforts to defuse the growing nuclear weapons threat posed by Iran, a cross-section of Middle East specialists say.

The differences -- between those advocating a tough, confrontational approach and those convinced that engagement on a variety of issues is the best way to stop Tehran's quest for a nuclear weapon -- are so strong that nearly three years after President Bush declared Iran part of an "axis of evil" threatening the free world, his administration still has no widely accepted approach to the problem.

The search for common ground has been complicated by a variety of factors, including the sharply opposing views among America's closest allies and the stakes involved. Arms control specialists and regional analysts argue that a nuclear-armed Iran could endanger Israel's existence, touch off a regional arms race in an already unstable Middle East and -- because of Iran's medium- and long-range missile technology acquired from North Korea -- very quickly pose direct threats to Europe and the United States.

"It's a potential nightmare," said Joseph Cirincione, who specializes in nonproliferation issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He argued that the problem could be resolved only by engaging Iran across a broad front of issues. "Narrow contact on the nuclear issue on its own won't work," he said.

In general, the Pentagon, along with Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John R. Bolton, are said to favor a tough approach. Many officials at the State Department have argued for engagement.

Against this backdrop, the United States heads into a crucial meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors in Vienna this week hoping to persuade key European allies to refer Iran's quest for nuclear weapons to the U.N. Security Council for possible action, such as economic sanctions or other punitive measures.

"The challenge now is to get friends and allies to take the steps they need to take," said an administration official working on the issue.

That won't be easy.

After meetings with the U.S. in Geneva, the governments of Britain, France and Germany reportedly agreed to a November deadline for Iran to convince the international community that it is not seeking nuclear weapons. But the Europeans stopped short of demanding that the case be referred automatically to the Security Council if Iran fails to meet the deadline.

European nations, many of which enjoy strong business ties with Iran, argue that such a step could backfire, causing Tehran to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would in effect end international inspection of Iran's nuclear program.

After the rupture of confidence in transatlantic ties that has surrounded the war in Iraq, Europeans are deeply suspicious of the Bush administration's intentions toward Iran. The divisions within the administration have added to this wariness, "if only because these countries believe the U.S. may not actually want what it says it wants," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

"This is an administration that's bent on polishing its macho image seven weeks before an election, " Heisbourg said.

European officials have said they want to allow more time for diplomatic efforts to produce a compromise that enables Iran to operate a peaceful nuclear energy program, yet relinquish control over fuel that could be used to make weapons.

The arms control community was stunned this month when the IAEA revealed in a report that Iran planned to convert 37 tons of milled uranium, known as yellowcake, into a compound that can be used in a peaceful nuclear power program but also can be used to make weapons-grade enriched uranium.

The amount would be enough for three to five nuclear weapons, said a U.S. official dealing with the issue.

"I recognize engagement isn't getting us very far, but I also recognize that the alternative of going to the Security Council means working on a military strategy," Heisbourg said.

Although debate goes on about how best to deal with Tehran, there is no disagreement, either within the administration or among America's allies, that Iran's effort to build a nuclear weapon must be stopped.

White House officials insist that the administration is united on the immediate need to work with European allies to head off Iran's nuclear weapons production through diplomacy. The absence of an agreed overall strategy on Iran means little when dealing with the day-to-day realities of the issue, they say.

"It's typical of those in Washington who think a piece of paper or another meeting is the answer to the problem," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We certainly have a policy. We're willing to engage Iran on issues of mutual concern in the appropriate manner, if the president decides."

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