- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Faced with mounting evidence that Iran has lied about its nuclear program and is developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering mass destruction weapons, Washington is stepping up the political pressure to force Tehran to come clean about its nuclear programs. Both the United States and Israel have hinted that, if the international community remains unable or unwilling to persuade Iran to jettison these programs, military action to take out the radical Islamic regime’s nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out.

In June, the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy (IAEA) issued a report which confirmed longstanding U.S. complaints that Iran was secretly attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Since that time, the IAEA has sought unsuccessfully to persuade Iran to permit its inspectors to make surprise visits to suspected nuclear facilities in the country. (Agency inspectors have already found traces of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.) These issues are expected to come up again on Monday, when the IAEA Board of Governors meets in Vienna, Austria.

A major problem is that the IAEA has been putting out mixed signals as to whether it seriously intendstochallengeIran’scontinued stonewalling. The trade publication Nucleonics Week reported July 3 that, at the IAEA’s board meeting in June, the agency’s director-general, Mohammed ElBaradei, resisted pressure from Washington to declare that Iran had failed to comply with IAEA regulations which covered the handling of nuclear materials. Last Friday, however, Mr. ElBaradei sounded somewhat tougher, declaring that Iran had shopped for nuclear components on the black market and appeared to acknowledge that Iran might be running a secret weapons program. Noting Tehran’s refusal to sign a protocol allowing surprise inspections of suspected nuclear facilities throughout the country, Mr. ElBaradei said that, along with Iraq and North Korea, Iran has “been giving the international community the runaround.”

While Iran continues to stonewall, the combination of a) an unchecked nuclear weapons program; and b) an ongoing program to develop ballistic missiles with a range of many hundreds of miles creates a potentially dangerous combination. In July, U.S. officials confirmed that Iran had deployed the new Shihab-3 missile, which is capable of hitting Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and Pakistan. At a White House meeting last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned of an Israeli pre-emptive strike against one or more Iranian nuclear facilities. And The Washington Times’ Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough reported Friday that Israel has actually mapped out a route its jet fighters would take to destroy Iran’s two-reactor nuclear plant at Bushehr. The Times report also said that Pentagon officials talk “unofficially” about what action would need to be taken in order to knock out that facility.

The bottom line is that, in both Washington and Jerusalem, there is a growing sense that it would be intolerable if a regime like the one currently in Tehran were to possess nuclear weapons. (Pentagon officials, in particular, have declined to rule out using force.) It would certainly be preferable to have the problem resolved peacefully through cooperation with the IAEA. But so far, there seems little to justify that hope. At some point in the next few years, the United States and/or Israel may decide that pre-emptive action to remove the Iranian nuclear threat is the least unpleasant alternative.

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