- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The White House ratcheted up its rhetoric against Iran yesterday, confronting Tehran’s assertions that its nuclear program is strictly civilian and that it is not sheltering members of the al Qaeda terror network.

“We continue to have concerns that a nation that is awash in gas and oil would seek to produce peaceful nuclear energy,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, amid reports of nuclear sites just west of Tehran.

The United States continues to “have concerns about al Qaeda being in Iran” despite Tehran’s announcement that it had arrested several suspected of being al Qaeda members, Mr. Fleischer added.

One State Department official was even more blunt.

“The axis of evil now has a vacancy,” he said, referring to President Bush’s State of the Union speech in which he named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as threats to U.S. security.

“I think this is an opportunity to put Iran on notice” as well as put pressure on the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is due to come out with a report on Iran later this month, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which revealed the existence of two nuclear sites, in Natanz and Arak, in central Iran, said yesterday that Tehran is also developing smaller nuclear facilities around the country designed to counter any surgical military strikes.

These smaller sites, Soona Samsami of the NCRI said, “not only act as complementary to such principal sites as Natanz, but they also ensure that in the case of air attacks … these sites would still allow the mullahs to continue enriched-uranium production.”

The State Department did not confirm the reports.

National Security Council officials are expected to meet on Iran later this week, although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that Washington is not about to change its policy toward Tehran.

“Our policies are well known, and I’m not aware of any changes in policy,” Mr. Powell said, insisting that contacts between the two countries, such as those that recently took place in Geneva, would continue.

Administration officials are divided as to how to deal with Tehran, with hard-liners pushing for increased support for pro-democracy activists and student dissidents who have spoken out against the intractable clerics who control the country.

But the presence of al Qaeda in Iran, the Riyadh bomb attack that left 34 dead, including eight Americans, and Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s recent pro-Hezbollah comments are likely forcing a reconsideration of policy, said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The Saudi Arabia bombing caused a recalibration of the relationship,” he explained.

The White House is “probably in a period of deciding how aggressive we get with Iran and when we push it,” Mr. Brownback said but added that he did not base that comment on any “inside information.”

One congressional source, however, said, “The perfect storm of pressure is brewing” in the region with the beefed-up U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan — encircling Iran — and diplomatic pressure in the region after the victory in Iraq.

“The question is how best we use it,” the source said.

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