U.S. Asserts Iran Seeks Nuclear Missiles

Powell cites information he says suggests Tehran wants weapons it 'could deliver.' Current rockets are believed capable of reaching Europe.

By Paul Richter

Los Angeles Times

November 18, 2004

SANTIAGO, Chile — As he prepares to meet with Iranian officials at an international conference next week in Egypt, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Wednesday that he had seen information suggesting Iran had been studying ways to adapt nuclear weapons for use on missiles.

Speaking to reporters en route to a meeting in Chile, Powell said the information suggested Iran was "interested in nuclear weapons they could deliver … not just something that sits there."

Powell said that although he could not verify the accuracy of the reports, they were consistent with claims of Iranian dissidents and "should be of concern" to other nations.

Powell, who will leave his government post soon, said the information suggested that the Iranians "were working actively on missile systems. You don't have a weapon until you can put it in something that can deliver a weapon…. We are talking about information that says they not only have missiles but information that suggests they are working hard about how to put the two together."

The Iranian government already has missiles, and U.S. officials believe that it has been trying to enrich uranium for use in nuclear bombs. Once a country acquires nuclear technology, it must find a way to deliver the weapon, whether by missile, aircraft or some other means.

Powell's comments appear to mark the first time U.S. officials have suggested Iran might be developing a way to place nuclear weapons on missiles. According to some estimates, Tehran might be able to complete a nuclear weapon within two years. Its missiles are believed capable of reaching Europe.

The secretary's words were another sign that the Bush administration remained deeply concerned about Iran's intentions even as major European nations believe that they are closing in on a commitment from Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Officials of Britain, France and Germany said this week that they had secured a commitment from Tehran to freeze its uranium enrichment program.

In addition, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said this week that inspectors had found no new evidence of concealed nuclear activities or an atomic weapons program in Iran, while cautioning that it could not rule out covert activities.

The United States is skeptical that Tehran will live up to its pledge of halting enrichment.

Powell's remarks Wednesday were more guarded than statements he made about Iraq's weapons capabilities at the U.N. before the U.S.-led invasion of that country last year. But the comments on Iran are likely to face skepticism from some in the international community because the Iraq intelligence proved faulty.

Powell did not specify where the information he had seen came from, whether from government intelligence reports or some other source.

This week, Iranian dissidents came forward with new information claiming that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, had provided the Iranians with nuclear material, warhead designs and a secret nuclear facility.

Powell will travel to Egypt on Tuesday for an international meeting that is intended to win public commitments of support for the Iraqi interim government. Iraqi and U.S. officials want neighboring states to join in a public statement that they will not interfere in upcoming Iraqi elections and will prevent any cross-border flow of arms or militants that could undermine the Iraqi government.

Powell said the Syrians recently had been "a little more cooperative" on requests to seal the border. Regarding the Iranians, "it's a little more unclear to me," he said.

Powell said that "it would not surprise" him if the Iranian government was also seeking to promote pro-Tehran candidates for the upcoming Iraqi elections.

In advance of a filing deadline next month, Iraqi political parties are negotiating frantically behind the scenes to decide which candidates will run, and whether diverse parties will unite in slates.

U.S. officials have been concerned that pro-Tehran, anti-American Shiite Muslim candidates could win a large slice of the delegates.

Powell said the outcome of that maneuvering seemed to continue to change day by day.

Despite U.S. anxieties about these Iranian actions, Powell said U.S. and Iranian officials might also have an informal conversation on the sidelines of the conference, which will be held in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.

Powell meets today, Friday and Saturday with officials of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Santiago. On Monday he will meet with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, then travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian leaders.