A Push for Candor on Iran Nukes ; the International Atomic Energy Agency Has Given Iran an Oct. 31 Deadline for Opening Its Nuclear Sites

Article excerpt

As the deadline looms for Iran to prove that it has no secret plans to build an atomic bomb, Iranians are being forced to make a choice.

Will Iran guarantee to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that its advanced nuclear program is for energy only, and permit snap, go-anywhere inspections? Or will Iran decide - as it eyes nuclear Israel, Pakistan, and India, and with US troops now deployed along its borders in three directions - that it must have a nuclear deterrent that also appeals to national pride?

"We have not reached the fork in the road that tells us if this is for military or civilian use," says a senior Western diplomat here. "But if it is going for a bomb, Iran is entering the 'danger zone.' Once you have it, you are secure. But when you are close, this is a moment of great vulnerability. This is when there could be a preemptive war that would have broad support. It's the Osirak Syndrome," he says, referring to the nearly built Iraqi reactor Israeli jets destroyed in 1981.

Iran must make its choice by Oct. 31, a US-backed deadline adopted last Friday by the IAEA in the wake of heavy US lobbying to censure Iran for noncompliance. It comes as the IAEA delves deeper into a series of nuclear issues with Iran - such as misreporting its activities and the presence of highly enriched uranium - that experts say point toward the existence of a clandestine weapons program.

The IAEA resolution, adopted unanimously by the 35-nation governing board, calls on Iran to "remedy all failures," to open all sites, agree to environmental sampling, and to suspend its enrichment programs to show good will.

Failure to meet the deadline could spark a chain of events leading to the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions and prevent all nations from assisting Iran's nuclear programs.

Iranian officials declare repeatedly that Iran's intentions are peaceful, and that it is Iran's right, as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to pursue nuclear science and power.

"We don't need atomic bombs, and based on our religious teaching, we will not pursue them," the reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, who has long called for a "dialogue of civilizations" and a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, said earlier this week. "But at the same time, we want to be strong, and being strong means having knowledge and technology."

That denial does not always square with the view on the street, where many reformers and conservatives - normally at each other's throats, politically - see nuclear weapons as a matter of patriotism and national pride, befitting a regional superpower. "No matter what they tell you, most Iranians want the bomb," says a middle-aged Iranian professional, who asked not to be named.

The disparate views point to internal disagreements over how Iran should exercise its power in the future, and how the Islamic Republic, which was closed off to much of the West for years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, should relate to the rest of the world.

Though Iran is a member of the NPT, like the United States and most other nations, it has not signed the far stricter Additional Protocol, which allows intrusive inspections. Israel never signed the NPT; Pakistan and India are not members either - facts that cause critics in Iran to speak of a double standard.

The IAEA ultimatum is a "historical opportunity for our nation to clarify its relations with the international bullies and blackmailers," the hardline Jomhuri-ye Eslami newspaper wrote. "This has proven the bitter truth that, in today's world, the only way for countries wishing to maintain their independence and survive is to become powerful."

The conservative Keyhan wrote of a "calculated conspiracy" to topple the Islamic regime, and pointed to NPT membership as a "weak point." Withdrawal from the safeguard mechanism, the paper wrote, is a "necessary move for Iran and any delay could entail irreparable and dangerous consequences. …