Bush Confronts New Challenge on Issue of Iran

By STEVEN R. WEISMAN

New York Times

November 19, 2004

SANTIAGO, Chile, Nov. 18 - While assembling a new national security team, President Bush is confronting what could become the biggest challenge of his second term: how to contain Iran's nuclear program and what some in the administration believe to be Tehran's support of violence in Israel and insurgents in Iraq.

In an eerie repetition of the prelude to the Iraq war, hawks in the administration and Congress are trumpeting ominous disclosures about Iran's nuclear capacities to make the case that Iran is a threat that must be confronted, either by economic sanctions, military action, or "regime change."

But Britain, France and Germany are urging diplomacy, placing their hopes in a deal they brokered last week in which Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program in return for discussions about future economic benefits.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell thrust himself into the debate on Wednesday by commenting to reporters that fresh intelligence showed that Iran was "actively working" on a program to enable its missiles to carry nuclear bombs, a development he said "should be of concern to all parties."

The disclosures alluded to by Mr. Powell were seen by hard-liners in the administration as another sign of Iranian perfidy, and by Europeans as little new.

Although Mr. Powell has praised the negotiations between the Europeans and Iran, one administration official said that his comment suggested that there was "a steady tightening of outlook between hawks and doves" that Iran will use the negotiations as a pretext to continue its nuclear program in private.

Leading the charge for a tough line on Iran has been John R. Bolton, under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At the moment, administration officials say there are no prominent members of Mr. Bush's inner circle enthusiastic about the European approach of negotiating with Iran; most of the moderates are lower-level areas specialists in the State Department. But only last week Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded Mr. Bush to endorse the European approach.

Though Mr. Powell will soon leave Mr. Bush's administration, he is about to face a tough choice on Iran - whether to have an extensive conversation with the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, or to avoid any contact when the two men attend a conference in Egypt next week.

"The simple fact is the secretary doesn't want to meet with Kharrazi," said an administration official, adding that that he saw little opportunity for dialogue and that Mr. Powell may have been signaling his pessimism when he made the disclosure about Iran's missile capability.

The possible Powell-Kharrazi meeting could occur Tuesday at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, where European, Middle Eastern and other envoys are attending a conference on the future of Iraq. A top aide to Mr. Powell said the secretary would go with talking points to discuss ways to improve Iranian-American relations, but that it was up to the Iranians whether the conversation would take place.

A European diplomat familiar with the British-French-German initiative said they were also pessimistic that Iran would back off its nuclear ambitions, but that they had no choice but to engage Iran because military options were distasteful or impractical after the troubled invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"America clearly understands that Iran will be one of its greatest threats in the second administration," this diplomat said. "But the Europeans understand that even the greatest threats also present a great opportunity to resolve problems."

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former policy and planning director under Secretary Powell, said he favored a major effort to offer incentives to moderate Iran's behavior, combined with threats of tough action if it does not.

European leaders say they want the United States to join with them in offering economic incentives to Iran, such as working to get Tehran to join the World Trade Organization - a step that could not occur without active American support.

Mr. Haass said it made no sense for the Europeans to offer incentives and for the United States to make threats. Both must be done together, he said.

The Iranian issue has vexed the Bush administration for so long that plans to produce a major policy paper within the administration simply ground to a halt last year and have not been revived. American contacts with Iran were cut off last May, when Iran was linked to groups that carried out bombings in Saudi Arabia.

Administration officials said there was fresh evidence that Iran supported insurgents in Iraq and had stepped up its support of the militant organization Hezbollah, which Israel now says is helping to subsidize organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad who have carried out suicide bombings there.

Indeed, an administration official said that Americans believed that Iran was supporting suicide bombers and insurgents in response to the pressure over its nuclear program - and specifically to warn Israel not to consider the kind of airstrike on a nuclear reactor that it carried out in Iraq more than two decades ago.

Officially, administration officials say that a military option like the one employed by Israel in 1981 against Iraq, when it bombed a reactor near Baghdad, is unrealistic because the Iranians have buried their most important nuclear facilities and can rebuild anything that is destroyed.

But an administration official said that a military strike or sabotage was not out of the question - "you never take the military option off the table," he said - and that in any case it was "money in the bank" for Iran to be concerned about such an option, because it might be goaded into a more conciliatory approach to the United States.

On the other hand, many in the administration say that Iran is not likely to enter into talks with the United States, as the Europeans want, because the revolutionary clerics who control the government are unalterably opposed to engaging with a country it considers the enemy.

"You can't call yourself a revolutionary regime and also negotiate with the Great Satan," said an administration official.

For months the United States's position has been not to threaten war but to force the issue to the United Nations Security Council, where sanctions - including a ban on oil imports and technology transfers - could be considered. But the European initiative has brought such talk to a halt.

But the thinking among many administration officials is that if the European deal to get Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities falls apart in coming months - if, for example, inspectors are unable to verify compliance - administration hawks will surely enlist others in a campaign to confront Iran with threats.

The decision, said European and American diplomats, will be made by Mr. Bush with his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who is said by aides to be of two minds about the problem just as Mr. Powell is - willing to try diplomacy, not sure that it will work and ready to look at other possibilities if it does not.