The Globe and Mail: Top U.S. officials have accused Iran of secretly modifying its new longer-range missiles so they can be fitted with nuclear warheads, a sharp escalation in the war of words that threatens to scuttle a fragile diplomatic deal worked out between Tehran and three leading members of the European Union.
The Globe and Mail

Tehran trying to mate missiles, warheads, Washington says ahead of key IAEA talks

By PAUL KORING

WASHINGTON - Top U.S. officials have accused Iran of secretly modifying its new longer-range missiles so they can be fitted with nuclear warheads, a sharp escalation in the war of words that threatens to scuttle a fragile diplomatic deal worked out between Tehran and three leading members of the European Union.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell fired the latest broadside yesterday, saying secret intelligence strongly suggests that Iran is attempting to mate missiles with nuclear warheads. President George W. Bush's administration has long accused Tehran of a clandestine nuclear weapons program but has not suggested Iran has actually built them.

"I'm talking about information that says that they not only had these missiles, but I'm aware of information that suggests they were working hard as to how to put the two together," Mr. Powell told reporters on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Chile.

Angry Iranian officials denied Mr. Powell's accusations, which gave credence to allegations by an exile opposition group this week that Tehran is hiding more secret nuclear facilities from United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

"I totally deny these allegations," said Hossein Mousavian, Iran's senior envoy to the IAEA. "Iran has no undeclared nuclear activities."

The brouhaha erupted just days before a delicate diplomatic arrangement that was worked out by Britain, France and Germany and is to be presented to the IAEA. Tehran has agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, which it says is intended solely for making nuclear-reactor fuel rods. In exchange, the IAEA board won't refer Tehran to the UN Security Council.

Washington, clearly irked by the European deal, wants tough trigger language worked into any IAEA resolution that would immediately send the matter to the Security Council if further Iranian transgressions or deceptions are uncovered.

"They have spent quite a bit of time over the years hiding their program and their intentions," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.

As U.S. officials ramped up the rhetoric, some analysts said they believe Washington is deliberately seeking to undermine any face-saving compromise worked out by the Europeans.

"The administration wants to go down a path to confrontation," said Shireen Hunter, head of the Islamic program at the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies and an expert on Iran. "The basic difference between the U.S. and the Europeans is that the Europeans are willing to work with the Iranian regime if they believe change is forthcoming."

Relations between Mr. Bush's administration and Tehran's Islamic regime have become increasingly hostile in recent years.

In early 2002, Mr. Bush lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea as part of his "axis of evil," rogue countries he accused of seeking weapons of mass destruction and abetting terrorists. The United States has since invaded and toppled regimes in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq, and maintains 200,000 troops in the two countries.

Washington has also accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq, although it has stopped short of saying that it is actively supporting the insurgency there.

The top Iranian mullah, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has accused Mr. Bush's government of running roughshod over Islam and seeking to dominate the Middle East. Yesterday, he exhorted Muslims to voice their anger and protest over the U.S. assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

"Killing thousands of civilians, executing the injured, arresting the innocent and destroying houses and mosques in Fallujah makes the eyes and hearts restless," he was quoted as saying by Iran's state news agency. "Doesn't this voice deserve a protest by governments and the people against the arrogant Western powers?"

Relations may get even worse as Mr. Bush moves into his second term. His nominee to replace Mr. Powell, outgoing National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, is even more hawkish toward the ruling theocracy in Tehran.

The United States "cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon," Ms. Rice said in August, warning that the President has a range of options to make sure that doesn't happen.

Taking a very tough line with Tehran may pay dividends as Washington seeks new leverage with Israel in its pursuit of rejuvenated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israel now considers Iran its primary strategic enemy and a nuclear-armed Tehran could destabilize the entire Middle East.