War of words

The U.S. sends mixed signals to Tehran on its suspected nuclear activities as a new IAEA report finds evidence that Iran is secretly maintaining a uranium-enrichment plant.

By Julian Borger
Published February 7, 2005 2:04PM (EST)

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned up Washington's rhetoric on Iran another notch Sunday, telling Iranians they would have to "live up to their international obligations" to avoid a conflict with Israel. But back in Washington, the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, struck a more dovish note, saying the estimates he had seen said Iran was "years away" from building a nuclear bomb, and that the White House had meanwhile opted for diplomacy. "The president handles Iran policy; he's decided on a diplomatic route ... They're on a diplomatic path," he said.

The Bush administration has sent mixed signals to Tehran in the past week, mixing bellicose and reconciliatory remarks, amid reports that the Pentagon is already sending Special Operations teams into Iran to spot potential targets.

In an interview on the BBC's "Breakfast With Frost," recorded on Friday but broadcast Sunday, Rice was asked about remarks last month by Vice President Dick Cheney, who warned of a possible preemptive strike against Iran by Israel -- which already has a nuclear arsenal -- if the latter felt threatened. In response, Rice put the onus on Iran, saying: "Obviously, anything that would lead to conflict in this region would be a terrible, terrible thing. And the Iranians need to live up to their international obligations so we don't face any such point."

Rice (who met with Israeli officials Sunday and meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas Monday) has said that the United States will not take part in European negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, reflecting the Bush administration's distaste for dealing with Tehran and its belief that Iran would use such discussions as a cover to buy time to work secretly on a bomb.

But Rice said in Sunday's interview: "We believe that this is a time for diplomacy. This is a time to muster our considerable influence ... our considerable power, if you will, to bring great changes in the world." She added: "Iran is a destabilizing force in the international system and we need unity of purpose, unity of message to Iran, to stop those activities."

Reacting to earlier remarks by Rice criticizing "the loathed" Tehran regime of "unelected mullahs," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, said Sunday that the war of words would not affect its nuclear talks with Europe. "Negotiations have not reached a deadlock and still continue," he said. But he added: "We think the Europeans must be more serious and show more dynamism."

Meanwhile, Time magazine reported Sunday that the International Atomic Energy Agency had discovered that Iran was still doing maintenance on a uranium-enrichment plant in southern Iran, in apparent violation of an agreement with Britain, France and Germany to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment.

Time also reported that Iran may have acquired centrifuges for enriching uranium and weapons designs from the smuggling network operated by Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist under house arrest in Islamabad. The report quoted unnamed IAEA investigators as saying that Tehran had privately confirmed at least 13 meetings with representatives of Khan's network from 1994 to 1999. U.S. and IAEA officials cannot question Khan directly, but have to submit questions to Pakistani interrogators.

More information about the extent of the network is beginning to emerge, according to Washington and the IAEA. One U.S. official examining the extent of the network's ties to Tehran, told Time: "You're dealing with a supplier who didn't appear to have any qualms." The network's other customers may have included Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, the Time report said, although there is no evidence that any has begun work on a nuclear weapons program.

Middle East analysts have warned that Iran's suspected efforts to produce a nuclear weapon could provoke Saudi Arabia into acquiring one itself, although most predict that in such a situation the Saudi monarchy would try to buy a ready-made bomb, rather than attempt to build one.

George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address last week, offered encouragement to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, another regional ally, to develop democracy in their countries, but he directed pointed warnings at Syria and Iran, offering Iranians American support for an effort to achieve democracy.

Rice, asked in the BBC interview whether the administration would support regime change in Iran, said: "All of us would have to agree that the behavior of this Iranian regime in supporting terrorism, in sowing instability in the Middle East, in the way it treats its own people, is not a regime to be admired. And certainly the Iranian people deserve the same opportunities for freedom and liberty that are beginning to take hold in other parts of the Middle East."

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

MORE FROM Julian Borger

Related Topics ------------------------------------------