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November 19, 2004

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PAUL GIGOT: An Iranian opposition group charged this week that Iran had purchased blueprints for a nuclear bomb, and bought weapons-grade uranium on the black market. These charges could not be confirmed. But the dissident group has been right in the past. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he'd seen corroborating evidence, and the charges should be taken seriously. The opposition group also said Iran had been enriching uranium at the site shown in this satellite photo, but moved the equipment this year, before demolishing these buildings and carting off the rubble, leaving only a park, just as international inspectors were getting ready to visit.

These charges followed the announcement earlier this week that Iran would stop producing enriched uranium, which can be used for both civilian and military purposes, while it negotiates with France, Germany and Britain for foreign trade and investment. This is the latest attempt to persuade Iran not to develop a nuclear bomb. Correspondent John McWethy has a report.

JOHN MCWETHY: Iran has 10 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. Yet it is building a series of nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment facilities. That makes some people suspicious, although Iran's leaders say they just want another source of energy when their oil runs out and they need to learn now about the technology.

But the same technology used to enrich uranium to low levels for nuclear power plants can also be used with modifications to produce highly enriched uranium for atomic weapons.

President Bush began raising concerns more than a year ago.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The international community, must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon. Iran could be dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon.

JOHN MCWETHY: So what are the facts? There is no hard evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. But there is powerful circumstantial evidence.

ROBERT EINHORN, SENIOR ADVISER CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The evidence is so incriminating over the last few years that I think a fair observer would have to conclude that this elaborate program they've had for so long is not designed simply to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors, that there are other motives here.

JOHN MCWETHY: A year ago, Iran gave the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, what was supposed to be a complete summary of its nuclear development program. But it soon became clear Iran had not been telling the whole truth. Iranian officials were forced to admit that more than a decade ago they had obtained from Pakistan the blueprints for sophisticated centrifuges that could rapidly enrich uranium to make bombs. Inspectors also found traces of weapons grade uranium at a facility the Iranians said had never produced such material.

GEORGE PERKOVICH, VICE PRESIDENT FOR STUDIES CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: There is now a well documented record of basically 19 years of lies and deception on the part of the government of Iran. And anybody who can read can see that.

JOHN MCWETHY: Still, Iran's foreign minister has repeatedly claimed that the nuclear effort was not and is not aimed at making a bomb.

KAMAL KHARRAZI, IRAN'S FOREIGN MINISTER: We are against production of nuclear weapons, legally and religiously, even.

JOHN MCWETHY: But Iran would have many reasons to risk taking this step.

MOHAMED HADI SEMATI, UNIVERSITY OF TEHRAN : You have to have power to be reckoned with and having nuclear technology in this rough neighborhood is one way to be reckoned with.

JOHN MCWETHY: Mohamed Hadi Semati, a professor of political science at Tehran University, says even a hint that Iran might be developing nuclear weapons can be very useful.

MOHAMED HADI SEMATI: It is more the power of the technology and the recognition that it brings about that is more important than the weapons themselves, really.

JOHN MCWETHY: Iranians claim they have good reasons today to feel threatened. The U.S. has invaded two of its neighbors -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- and is openly hostile, claiming Iran is the world's leading supporter of terrorism and that it is lying about its nuclear intentions.

But with Washington so focused on Iraq, it has done little about Iran.

JOHN MCWETHY: The Bush administration has been unable to agree on a policy for dealing with Iran. Some want a vote in the U.N. Security Council to impose economic sanctions. Others want an even tougher policy goal of "regime change," with the threat of air strikes to take out those nuclear facilities as a possibility.

JOHN MCWETHY: But there are huge problems with any military option: lack of precise intelligence on where any secret nuclear facilities might be and the potential of serious political backlash.

EINHORN: I think U.S. military action against Iran would be seen as much less legitimate than even U.S. military action against Iraq and the international political reaction would be very, very strong.

JOHN MCWETHY: Even an attempt to get the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran could have embarrassed the U.S., with likely vetoes by China and Russia and possible votes against the U.S. by France and Britain. For now, it is the Europeans -- France, Germany and Britain -- who have taken the lead.

PERKOVICH: Their view is, negotiating with Iran is the least bad option that's available. The U.S. can't tell them that there's a military option that is plausible so the Europeans say, well in that case, we'd better figure out how to negotiate with these guys.

JOHN MCWETHY: In exchange for halting its uranium enrichment efforts, Iran will get the nuclear fuel it needs from elsewhere and a lucrative trade package. For now, the U.S. is left watching from the sideline. Though Iran and the Europeans have struck a potentially historic deal --

MAN: It's a win/win situation for both of us.

JOHN MCWETHY: -- administration officials remain skeptical that the Iranians will, in the end, give up what they have spent billions over decades to develop in secret. This is John McWethy in Washington.

PAUL GIGOT: Joining me to discuss all this are Dan Henninger, Deputy Editor of the Editorial Page, Bret Stevens, a member of the Editorial board whose most recent foreign assignments were in the Middle East, and again, Rob Pollock, who has reported extensively on Iran and about the nuclear weapons issue.

Bret, before we get to the European diplomacy, let's think about the threat itself. How close do we really think Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon, and is this something that the United States can afford to accept?

BRET STEPHENS: Well, the conservative estimate is that Iran is about three years away. But we have a history with these estimates in that we tend to err on the side of comfort and think, well, it's that much farther away. So Iran, for all we know, can actually be on the cusp of developing a nuclear weapon, if not tomorrow sometimes within the next year. Certainly within the space of diplomacy that this deal between the Iranians and the co-called E3 -- France, Germany and Britain -- have just defined. So what Iran has just managed to bargain for in the next three years time to develop -- and we don't know if we have that, if we can afford that year before Iran goes nuclear.

PAUL GIGOT: How much stock do you put in this new evidence this week, both Colin Powell's observations and the evidence from the satellite photos and this opposition group.

BRET STEPHENS: Well the opposition group that released this information has a very good track record. They were the ones who, in 2002, revealed the existence of weapons, uranium enrichment sites, in Nantaz and Iraq. And the information seems quite solid, and from what you can see from the satellite evidence it's very telling, and it's very damning. So I think the evidence is pretty strong that they're moving strongly in that direction.

We just had a report today that the Iranians are moving to process hexachloride, which is one of the gases that you need to enrich uranium through centrifuges. So it's --

ROB POLLOCK: And they're rushing to do it before they make the deal with the Europeans. It's pretty incriminating.

PAUL GIGOT: All right, Rob, interesting. But a lot of countries have nuclear weapons in the world, some of them not even our friends -- China, a rival. Why should we be so concerned about Iran getting a nuclear weapon?

ROB POLLOCK: Well in fact, not everybody is concerned. And unfortunately you hear a lot of quiet talk among diplomats around the world that, well, we're just going to have to get used to the Iranians having the bomb. Well I don't want to get used to it. And why don't I want to get used to it? Well, every year Iran tops the State Department's list of terrorist sponsors. The 9/11 Commission cited all kinds of interesting links between Iran and Al Qaeda, including the probability that Al Qaeda learned how to build truck bombs from Hezbollah, which is an Iranian-sponsored terrorist organization. Do we want Iran to have the bomb? I don't think so.

BRET STEPHENS: Well I think there's more to it simply than the terrorist angle. I think there's also a strategic and regional angle. Do we want Iran to be the dominant regional player in the Middle East? We have a national security strategy that explicitly counsels against the emergence of any kind of major regional player like that. And of all nations, for Iran to perform that role in the Middle East would be disastrous for the United States on a number of fronts. What happens to our policy in Iraq? What can the Iranians do in terms of mischief in the Shiite regions in Iraq? How much more mischief will Iran do with Hezbollah in terms of their conflict with Israel, and what they are bringing to bear on the northern frontier of Israel's border? Do we really want Saudi Arabia to feel threatened by Iran, and say, well, we've got to get our own bomb? I mean, the Saudis certainly are in a position to purchase a nuclear weapon. The Egyptians might be in the market for a nuclear weapon as well. So once Iran goes nuclear, a whole series of dominoes go, which are extremely destabilizing for the region as a whole.

PAUL GIGOT: And certainly a range of action in the Middle East would be circumscribed. We'd have to think twice, for example, wouldn't we, Dan, of deploying half a million troops, or even 125,000 troops, in range of those missiles?

DAN HENNINGER: Absolutely. And in light of what has been said here -- and you know, by and large none of this is in serious dispute. In light of all this, what is the point of this other-worldly bargaining that the E3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- are undertaking with Iran? They're acting as though they are bargaining a pre-trade agreement with Morocco or Costa Rica. We're talking about a country that is clearly intent on achieving nuclear capability. No one disagrees about that. The real question on the table is, what are we going to do to stop them from acquiring it?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, on that European proposal -- or course they did this a year ago and Iranian broke that deal, they found out later. Now they're trying again. Is this offer any more believable than the last one, Rob?

ROB POLLOCK: This is in a way less believable, because it looks so much like the agreed framework that we inked with North Korea a decade ago, which the North Koreans violated and of course went nuclear under.

And if I could add just one point here, I think the White House has been a bit asleep at the switch on this issue. Bush entirely failed to mention in his address to the U.N. this year the Iranian nuclear issue, and I'm sure that the mullahs took that as a signal of where the White House priorities were.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, it seems certainly that the administration, if nothing else, has been split on this. I mean, they haven't really -- they've been on both sides of the issue, if you will.

DAN HENNINGER: Well, just this past seven days -- last Sunday Colin Powell was on CNBC and he said this government is not interested in regime change in Iran. Four days later, he unloads this bombshell that the Iranians are trying to fix warheads on their missiles. But the previous statement erases any ambiguity there might be in our policy towards Iraq, so that we have some leverage with them.

BRET STEPHENS: I think we're at the moment of truth in this European-Iranian deal, is that do we want to quietly acquiesce to the reality of an Iran with a bomb, or don't we? And if we say unequivocally that we don't, then we have to start exploring a much wider range of options than what the Europeans presented us with. I mean, at a minimum, a much more muscular diplomacy. And we should start considering military options. It doesn't hurt to have them on the table.

PAUL GIGOT: Now there's been a lot of discussion about the potential military option, Rob. And some people claim that there really isn't one, and that we can't do, the United States can't do what the Israelis did at Osirak against Iraq in 1981, because that was one reactor. They knew where it was, it was closer to Israel, we don't know where this is, this is dispersed in Iran. And we could attack a couple of sites but not enough. What do you think of that critique of the potential of military action?

ROB POLLOCK: Well, of course we can't do another Osirak. But the idea that there's no military option here is just hogwash. I mean, there's a lot we can hit. We know where a lot of the sites are. We have satellite photos of some of them. We know where the reactors are. We can hit a lot. Are we going to get everything? No. Can we significantly degrade their capabilities? Yes. We could also target scientists. There's all kinds of things we could do about this program.

PAUL GIGOT: But Dan, the president, if he sanctioned that, would be doing it alone including without Tony Blair, his ally on Iraq who is now with the E3.

DAN HENNINGER: Well, as Bret suggests, it's the moment of truth for the Europeans. Again, the question is, are we going to allow them to acquire this capability, or aren't we? And as far as the bombing goes, we know that they probably have dispersed it to five or six different areas? Each of those areas, those plants, is unlikely to all be capable of manufacturing nuclear bombs. Most likely the Iranians have pieces of the puzzle. If we knock out two or three of them, we're going to set back their ability to pull it all together into one bomb.

PAUL GIGOT: I want to go around the table here and ask each of you what you think the president's going to decide on this one. Bret, do you think he's going to go along with the Europeans or not?

BRET STEPHENS: This president was re-elected by promising to the American people that the world's most dangerous regimes are not going to get a hold of the world's most dangerous weapons. We've already missed the window of opportunity with North Korea. I don't think this president is going to allow that to happen with Iran, especially given where Iran is and what it means for his plans for a Middle East for Iraq.

PAUL GIGOT: Dan?

DAN HENNINGER: I would say what the president should do is support the Iranians who oppose this regime. Let's make clear here that Iran is not a homogeneous country. There are large opposition groups, and they should be supported.

ROB POLLOCK: The president is tired out by Iraq. The Iranians know that. And I wish I could be more optimistic about this, but so far the White House has been asleep at the switch.

PAUL GIGOT: Okay, interesting. I think I tend to side with Rob on this one in foreseeing future non-action by the administration. Okay, thank you very much.

That's it for this edition of The Journal Editorial Report. We hope you'll join us again next time, when our regular group will be back to discuss the coarsening of America -- movies, television, music, and the way we talk to each other. In the meantime, thank you from all of us.