Powell's Unfortunate Outburst

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

November 21, 2004

Here we go again. Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who apparently is not going to leave office quietly, unexpectedly blurted out that Iran was seeking to outfit a missile with a nuclear bomb. The comment was based, you guessed it, on credible intelligence and reports of exile groups. But, of course, there was no elaborating. Never mind Powell's now-discredited show-and-tell before the U.N. Security Council on Iraq's mythical weapons programs early in 2003, this is the "trust us on national security matters" administration.

What makes the administration's lack of credibility so alarming is that we are under no illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime — or of Europe's ability to police any deal with Tehran, for that matter. Iran is certainly capable of trying to hoodwink the international community by advancing its nuclear weapons program covertly. Last Sunday, Tehran agreed with France, Germany and Britain to freeze its uranium enrichment program temporarily in exchange for trade concessions.

The United States, along with the rest of the U.N. Security Council, may yet have to back up the European diplomatic efforts. But Powell's outburst last week seemed suspiciously close to an effort to preemptively sabotage them. That would be a mistake that would leave Washington further isolated and ineffective in its ability to fight nuclear proliferation. For now, China already has indicated that it would veto any effort to bring the issue before the Security Council.

Intelligence officials have been carefully vetting the fresh allegations about Iran's nuclear program to ensure that they do not repeat the mistakes that plagued Iraq intelligence. Another reason to proceed cautiously is that, as in the run-up to the Iraq war, exile groups are incessantly promoting the line that no matter what it says, Tehran is utterly intent on building nuclear weapons.

Indeed, on Wednesday, as Powell ventilated his suspicions, an Iranian exile group based in Paris called the National Council of Resistance stated that Iran continues to enrich uranium and received a blueprint for a bomb from Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan in the mid-1990s. Many of the group's previous statements have been inaccurate, though it did reveal the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear facility in 2002.

Until it starts restoring some of its credibility, the Bush administration is unlikely to make any headway in convincing the international community to take stronger action against Iran. One constructive step would be to get Pakistan to give up Khan and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to interview him.

After the poisoned debates over the Iraq war, the Bush administration should allow the Europeans to take the initiative for now in dealing with Iran, all the while trying to rebuild some trust in our relations with them. Powell's public outburst was not a step in that direction, and that's unfortunate. To meet the Iranian challenge, we are going to have to act as a united front with Europe, even Old Europe.