USA TODAY: The core of President Bush's foreign and national security policy is that he will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to acquire the world's most dangerous weapons.
But Iran, a charter member of Bush's "axis of evil," is believed to  be only one to three years away from being able to make nuclear weapons, and a growing number of nuclear experts worry that there may be no way to stop it from becoming ... USA TODAY

By Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON — The core of President Bush's foreign and national security policy is that he will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to acquire the world's most dangerous weapons.

But Iran, a charter member of Bush's "axis of evil," is believed to be only one to three years away from being able to make nuclear weapons, and a growing number of nuclear experts worry that there may be no way to stop it from becoming the world's 10th nuclear weapons state.

"We can't stop Iran from developing the technology and reaching the breakout point," says Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Anxiety about Iran's bomb plans have new prominence because of accusations that a Pentagon official passed an internal memo on U.S. policy toward Iran to a pro-Israel lobbying group and ultimately to Israel. Though the group and the Israeli government both deny any spying, Israel is deeply worried about an Iranian bomb.

United Nations inspectors have caught Iran hiding nuclear infrastructure, including equipment at military bases. In July, Iran announced that it had resumed manufacturing centrifuges to make nuclear fuel. Iranian leaders say the fuel is for reactors that generate electricity. But the technology can also be used for bombs. At a news conference in Tehran on Saturday, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami denied that Iran wanted weapons but said it was Iran's "legitimate right" to be able to enrich uranium, and "no country can prevent us from achieving it."

Wary of engaging Iran, the Bush administration has left it to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and three European countries to try to persuade the Iranians to scale back their nuclear program. Neither approach appears to be working. An agreement reached last October between Iran and Britain, France and Germany is unraveling. Under it, the Iranians accepted short-notice inspections of nuclear infrastructure and suspended uranium enrichment in return for promises of assistance for civilian nuclear energy. Iran has threatened to resume enrichment in October.

John Bolton, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security affairs, said the Iranians had told the French, British and Germans in July that they could enrich enough uranium for a bomb in a year and make a weapon in three years. Europeans deny that such threats were made but have not challenged Bolton on the record.

Meanwhile, the IAEA meets Sept. 13 to discuss Iran. A Vienna-based diplomat with knowledge of an upcoming IAEA report says that Iran has answered a number of questions about suspect facilities and that there is no proof strong enough to warrant U.N. sanctions. The diplomat asked that he not be named because the report has not yet been published.

The Bush administration has been urging the IAEA to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. But that might not prevent a bomb. "The only sanction that would count is an embargo (on Iranian oil exports) and there is no chance of that" when the world is short of oil, Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told a conference on Iran's nuclear program this month at the Washington, D.C., office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative research organization.

Some Bush administration hard-liners favor efforts to overturn the Iranian regime, and the Pentagon is widely assumed to have contingency plans to attack nuclear installations. But it would be difficult to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure because it is dispersed around the country and some is underground. Any military effort to topple the Iranian regime also seems unlikely with U.S. forces tied down in Iraq.

Some experts on nuclear proliferation say it is still possible to slow or reverse Iran's nuclear march if Americans and Europeans reverse roles. "The Europeans have been the good cops and the Americans the bad cops," says Robert Einhorn, assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration. "The Europeans have to be tougher, and the Americans have to be prepared to engage with Iran."

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, says that neither "bombing or bribing Iran is likely to succeed and could easily make matters worse." He says the goal should be to dissuade other countries from following Iran's example by blocking aid for major economic projects if they violate their non-proliferation pledges.

Ultimately, Sokolski says, nothing is likely to stop Iran from being "nuclear ready. They have the people and the hardware," he says. "Whether it's 12 months or 36 months, the idea that you can stop them is hoping for too much."

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