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U.S. Plans To Pressure Iranians Over Nukes

In a bid to get Iran to halt its nuclear programs, the Bush administration is planning to expose the regime’s hidden nuclear activities in the run-up to a key meeting in June of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to people close to the issue.

Two sources said that the United States and Israel have intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program that is likely to become public in the coming months, adding pressure on the United Nations to sanction the Islamic republic for its pursuit of its nuclear activities. In a resolution slated to be adopted this week, the board of governors of the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, was to condemn Iran for failing to disclose the extent of its nuclear activities. The agency, however, was to put off seeking any sanctions until its next meeting in June.

Despite their ability to hammer out this week’s IAEA resolution, American and Western European leaders are likely to butt heads over the U.S. plan to step up pressure on Tehran. Washington’s aggressive approach has created tensions with its close ally, Great Britain.

John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, sent a harsh letter to France, Germany and Great Britain earlier this month, warning them not to allow Iran to escape its responsibility under the nonproliferation treaty. The foreign ministers of the three countries reached an agreement with Iran six months ago, under which Tehran would suspend reprocessing and uranium enrichment activities and grant IAEA inspectors full access in exchange for technological assistance.

“Some daylight has opened between the Europeans and Washington, unfortunately,” said Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for disarmament under Presidents Bush and Clinton who now serves as a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “The administration has to confront Iran with a united front and force it to make a choice between being a pariah state with nuclear weapons or being a member of the international community without nuclear weapons.”

So far, Washington has refrained from urging the atomic energy agency to refer Iran’s alleged proliferation violations to the U.N. Security Council, partly because the Bush administration believes that it does not have sufficient backing within the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors, diplomats said. The administration, sources added, believes that the best way to sway board members to take action — and convince Tehran to change course — is to steadily build up diplomatic pressure with new disclosures about its nuclear program.

Iran has consistently said that its nuclear program is purely a civilian one, aimed at boosting the country’s energy production. But most Western experts reject this view. “I have no doubt about what Iran is up to,” said Einhorn, who worked for the U.S. government until August 2001. “They have a program to produce highly enriched uranium, and they have not made the decision to turn away from it.”

On Monday, the atomic energy agency’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed satisfaction with the level of access to nuclear facilities provided by the Iranian government. But he also told the agency’s board that he had serious concerns about gaps in Tehran’s description of its nuclear activities and called on Iran to expeditiously provide all relevant information. In keeping with its the deal with the Europeans, Iran in October provided what it claimed to be a full disclosure about its unauthorized nuclear activities during the last two decades.

However, IAEA inspectors found new evidence of prohibited activities on the ground over the past few months.

The findings were included in a report the agency issued last month in preparation for this week’s board meeting, claiming that Iran had failed to declare possible weapons-related atomic activities.

On Monday, ElBaradei repeated the main charges contained in the report, stressing that he was “seriously concerned” that Iran’s October declaration did not include any reference to its possession of sophisticated designs for P2 centrifuges for enriching uranium or its production of Polonium-210, a radioactive material that could be used in designing nuclear weapons.

The agency’s probe of the Iranian nuclear program began after an exiled Iranian opposition group announced in August 2002 that Tehran was hiding a massive enrichment plant from the agency. The group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is the political branch of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK. Although the group has claimed its intelligence apparatus in Iran made the discoveries, most observers believe the information probably came from American or Israeli intelligence agencies. Last week, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that Israel had been able to infiltrate Iran and relay the nuclear information to the National Council.

American sources told the Forward that the United States also probably had its own intelligence on the issue. The reason for channeling the information through the MEK remains uncertain. Some believe that it was driven by a hope among hawks in Israel and the United States that they could bolster the group’s credibility. The MEK, which was mainly based in Iraq, has been on the State Department terrorist list since 1997. After months of infighting in the administration over the possible use of the group as a spearhead against the Iranian regime, U.S. troops dismantled its main bases in Iraq and the administration shut down the opposition group’s Washington offices. Information now seems to be flowing directly from intelligence agencies to the atomic energy agency. Additional information has also been provided by Libya’s revealing its nuclear ambitions and the investigation into Pakistan’s nuclear supply network.

While Washington criticized the IAEA in the run-up to the war in Iraq, it has since backtracked — primarily because the agency was probably right in claiming Iraq had no active nuclear program. But U.S. officials also have expressed confidence in the general work of the atomic energy agency in Iran and the team of inspectors on the ground there.

In November, a month after Iran cut its deal with France, Germany and England, agreeing to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and allowing intrusive IAEA inspections, the board of governors of the nuclear watchdog strongly deplored Tehran’s past breaches of the nonproliferation treaty, but refrained from bringing the issue before the Security Council. The agency, however, warned that if further Iranian actions came to light, it would consider all options, including what is known in diplomatic parlance as a “trigger mechanism” for sanctions.

At the time, ElBaradei said the agency had no proof that Iran’s activities were linked to a nuclear weapons program. But revelations about the country’s secret nuclear activities continued over the next few months. More important, IAEA inspectors were able to come up with new evidence and confront the Iranians.

In Tehran, Hassan Rohani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said Sunday that his country would seek to have the IAEA close its file and threatened to renege on the agreement with the Europeans if the agency did not end its investigation.

While the Bush administration cautiously welcomed the agreement in October, it has since criticized the Europeans for allowing Tehran too much wiggle room in interpreting it. A European diplomat recently admitted that concerns existed in Europe over Iran’s nuclear intentions but added that the three countries still prefer a conciliatory approach.

Last week in Portugal, however, Undersecretary Bolton declared that the White House was “absolutely determined not to reduce the pressure on Iran.”

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