18 November 2003

Experts Raise Concerns Over Iran's Nuclear Program

AEI briefing produces little consensus on appropriate response

By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- If there was disagreement among panelists at the American Enterprise Institute's November 17 briefing regarding Iran's nuclear capabilities, it was not over whether Iran has a nuclear weapons program, but how best to address it.

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based think tank that monitors U.S. foreign policy developments, convened the briefing in anticipation of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) November 20 meeting in Vienna. At that meeting the IAEA will issue a report on its findings following recent inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities.

While the IAEA's report is not expected to reveal any evidence of existing nuclear weapons in Iran, it is expected to raise questions about Iran's compliance with IAEA regulations and its commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.

Patrick Clawson, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summed up the Bush administration's primary concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program.

First, he said, it would allow Iran to bully its neighbors.

In addition, he cited "the concern that Iran might make use of nuclear weapons through the intermediary of terrorist groups for mass casualty terrorism." Clawson recalled the bombing of the U.S Marine barracks in Beirut and the bombing of Saudi Arabia's Khobar Towers as instances in which Iran has used third party terrorist strikes to achieve foreign policy objectives.

Finally, he said that if Iran had nuclear weapons, it could spark an arms race in the region.

Geoffrey Kemp, Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center, maintained that Europe has also arrived at a greater appreciation of the potential threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions, particularly with the possibility of Turkey's accession to the European Union, which would give the EU a common border with Iran.

"I think one of the reasons that the Europeans have stepped up to the plate is not only that they concur in our intelligence analysis of what the Iranians are up to, but they now genuinely feel more threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons," Kemp said.

Clawson posited that "the Bush administration is delighted at the prospect that Europe would play the lead role in dealing with Iran's nuclear program to the extent possible." That would allow the Bush administration, he said, to present its own concerns as part of a multilateral consensus.

Kemp expressed cautious optimism that Europe's engagement in the issue has also succeeded in raising the level of internal discussion within Iran. "I think what has happened in the last few months has been that the debate in Iran about nuclear issues ... has become more open and intense," he said.

Kemp expressed the belief that both hard-line and reformist elements in the Iranian government were shocked by the consensus that the United States has been able to muster with its European allies regarding Iran's nuclear program.

Henry Sokolski, of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, concurred that the Iranians are genuinely concerned about Europe's recent interest in the matter.

Citing views expressed by the Iranian representative to the IAEA, Sokolski said, "As long as it looks like the United States is pushing Iran around, they'll have no problem having Europe side up with them. But if it looks as though they've technically violated an international agreement, then they're in trouble. And the reason they're in trouble is that they actually want to have ... better trade relations with Europe."

AEI's Reuel Marc Gerecht, however, offered a more sobering assessment of both the EU's motives and the degree of debate within Iran.

While he agreed that the Europeans have become more intent on addressing Iran's nuclear program, he maintained that "one of the preeminent reasons they are serious is that they want to preempt the United States. They don't want the United States to engage in a preemptive military strike against the Iranian nuclear program."

He was skeptical, however, that the Europeans are prepared to follow through with serious economic sanctions in response to Iranian violations of IAEA requirements.

Gerecht also downplayed the significance of the debate within Iran. "I don't think there is a serious debate inside Iran, inside the clerical regime," he said. He observed that the factions within the regime "have many disagreements about many things ... but one of the things they actually don't have a debate about is that nukes are good."

Instead Gerecht characterized the debate in Iran as being about, "Can they get to have nukes and get away with it without getting in trouble?" In his view it is a discussion about whether they can develop nuclear weapons without risking a preemptive military strike by the United States or serious economic sanctions from the European Union.

Patrick Clawson expressed his expectation that the Bush administration will continue to threaten Iran with serious consequences for its failure to cooperate with the IAEA while constantly reminding its allies and the world about what Iran has failed to do in terms of its obligations to the agency.

Gerecht, however, was more forceful in his prescription for action, saying, "These are very serious men. They have looked at the map, and they have determined that for both internal and external reasons the nuke is a good idea. ... The only way that you are going to dissuade the clerics ... is to in fact point out to them that either militarily or economically there is going to be real hell to pay. But I don't see that developing."

He further maintained that "If we are really serious about this, we have to establish very soon a verification regime which is really going to hurt ... so that you can be absolutely certain that you have enough people on the ground running around everywhere to ensure that the Iranians can't cheat."

Henry Sokolski cautioned that all proposed solutions -- from preemptive military strikes to diplomatic engagement -- are risky. He warned that bombings could result in negative consequences, including attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq or retaliations through terrorist activities.

He argued as well that "If the European view that you can just talk about putting off some of the technical problems, but not all of them, comes into play, given all the violations you can point out in the report that the IAEA made, it will vitiate the power of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The precedent that would then be set is that you can cheat, you can lie, you can get caught, and you might get rewarded."

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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