Is Iran Next Power on Nuclear Stage? Tehran's Official Line: Keep Region Nuclear-Weapons-Free. Pressure to Join Race Is High

Article excerpt

The cartoon, in a Tehran paper, captures what to many Iranians seems an irony: Uncle Sam peers at Iran through a magnifying glass, looking for evidence of nuclear activity. Unnoticed, mushroom clouds billow from recent tests in India and Pakistan.

For years, the United States and Israel have warned that Iran was secretly seeking an "Islamic bomb" with which to impose an ideology in the region, boost its power, and threaten Israel.

For just as long, Iran has publicly played by the rules: It signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and it allows wide inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran first trumpeted its intent to develop the bomb under a pro- West shah, then abandoned it after a 1979 Islamic revolution that vilified America. Now, under a government struggling to shed its "rogue" status - and tough US sanctions also aimed at Iraq - Iran has been called by some a regional stabilizer.

South Asia's atomic tests - five by India in May, and up to six by Pakistan days later, were officially condemned by Iran. In the West, they prompted fears of a "chain reaction." In Iran they sparked debate over whether the Islamic Republic was too far behind in the regional nuclear arms race.

Israel, though it has never officially admitted it, is widely believed to have a sophisticated arsenal; it refuses to sign the NPT and has never allowed IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Motivated in part by demands that Iran should resume its historic leading role in the region, many Iranians find it difficult to categorize Iran below its newly nuclear neighbors. But calmer voices - in this case the popular government of President Mohamad Khatami - say that the entire Middle East should be nuclear-weapons-free.

"The nuclear sword of Damocles is now hanging over the region by a slender thread," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi warned the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva last month.

Some argue that the nuclear tests have only made India and Pakistan more vulnerable to the suspicious eyes of world powers - and therefore will not enjoy the influence granted the five fixed members of the nuclear club.

Others say India and Pakistan provide Iran an excuse to step up pursuit of the bomb, and that Iran can't afford not to have it.

"We never sought that excuse," says Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister. "Some say Iran should go nuclear, but the government stresses that this would not enhance our security, and so is not an option."

Still, one Western diplomat notes that the tests "are a godsend to Iran. They have all the excuses now to do it. At the moment we can only say that Iran has not changed its nonproliferation policy, but they are not fools."

But another Western diplomat counters: "They do have every excuse, but they haven't voiced those excuses. …