WASHINGTON (GNS) The brewing problem of Iran's apparent plan to make nuclear weapons is approaching a flash point, threatening to create another explosive situation for Americans in the Middle East and spark a regional arms race.
International nuclear inspectors and European diplomats report that Iran is moving aggressively to build equipment and acquire materials necessary for atomic bomb making.
Iran insists it only wants atomic energy. And so far, its nuclear program is in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
But unfolding events suggest Iran is now moving into dangerous stages where its nuclear energy program can be converted quickly to make weapons potentially by 2005.
"It is our judgment that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and a nuclear weapons program, and we'll all have to take note of this," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters Thursday while traveling in Kuwait. "It is a very troubling development."
The fear is that Iran will try to go nuclear while U.S. forces are stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They (Iranians) know we are involved in a more complex operation in Iraq than was anticipated by policy-makers," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser during the Carter administration.
If Iran succeeds in making weapons, an anti-American theocracy that supports terrorists and the eradication of Israel would be capable of nuclear strikes anywhere in the Middle East using its well-known arsenal of Shahab medium-range missiles.
Officials at the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently confirmed that Iran has resumed construction of high-speed aluminum centrifuges that could be used to "enrich" uranium to weapons-grade levels.
That comes as European diplomats are reporting that Iranian agents are trying to buy deuterium gas. This can be used to make nuclear fuel for energy, but it also is commonly used for boosting nuclear explosions.
This caps a mountain of evidence over several years that indicates Iran is assembling a nuclear energy program in such a way as to make it readily convertible to weapons production and difficult to destroy.
Iran's nuclear facilities are spread out near population centers making pre-emptive bombing strikes like the ones Israelis executed in 1981 against Iraq's nuclear weapons program very difficult.
Israeli officials have said they will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, raising concerns of pre-emptive airstrikes.
That could spark a disastrous Israel-Iran war, imperiling U.S. efforts to stabilize and repair Iraq and potentially forcing U.S. forces to enter the conflict.
If Iran succeeds in converting its energy program to make weapons, it could prompt Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia to do the same, turning the greater Middle East into nuclear tinderbox.
So far, the Bush administration has been trying to pressure Iran diplomatically with negligible results.
Iran has refused direct talks with the United States.
"There is no justification for accepting suggestions to hold negotiations with a country which adopts a bullying attitude toward others," Hassan Rohani, secretary general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, recently told Iranian state television.
Iran will only negotiate with Germany, France, Britain and the IAEA, and even then it appears highly disingenuous.
In June, the IAEA rebuked Tehran for not fully cooperating with nuclear inspectors.
In retaliation, Iran said it was resuming production and testing of its enrichment centrifuges, which it had agreed in October to keep idle.
Bush diplomats are now working with European allies to bring the Iranian problem to the United Nations Security Council in hopes of imposing economic sanctions.
A special panel convened by the Council on Foreign Relations has suggested U.S. rapprochement with Iran in a final attempt at a diplomatic solution.
This approach helped improve relations with China in the 1970s. But even the panelists have their doubts that it will do much to fix the U.S.-Iran relationship that soured 25 years ago when Islamic revolutionaries took Americans hostage.
"In all candor, the history of the last 25 years does not offer much encouragement that any part of this will work," said panel co-chairman Robert Gates, former director of the CIA.