Video: Iran's nuclear ambitions

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/20/2004 4:33:15 PM ET 2004-12-20T21:33:15

As the president heads to summit talks with Asian allies in South America, Iran's suspected nuclear program is his most immediate foreign policy problem. Diplomatic sources tell NBC News the International Atomic Energy Agency will report next week new evidence Iran is still producing a key ingredient for nuclear weapons fuel, only days before it is supposed to freeze its program. Secretary of State Powell, in Chile, says the world should not be surprised.

"I think that the Iranians still have much more to do to convince the international community that they are not moving in the direction of a nuclear weapon," says Secretary Powell.

Gathering intelligence on what Iran is up to has been difficult.

"The real question is whether Iran has hidden facilities that we simply don't know about," says John Pike, a nuclear expert with Globalsecurity.org.

Despite questions about the intelligence, Powell is standing by his claim that Iran is trying to take another critical step, arming its missiles with nuclear warheads. Iranian dissident groups who marched in Washington Friday also say Iran is hiding an illegal nuclear program.

If Iran is getting closer to going nuclear, what are the president's options? Experts say they are not good. First, economic sanctions. Europe is suspicious of American claims because of its track record on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"The rest of the world looks at this very cynically," says Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They've heard these kind of claims before. They don't trust the United States."

Is there a military option? Israel has secret contingency plans for a preemptive military strike. But if Iran has secret nuclear weapons facilities, they are dispersed around the country and buried so deep, even bunker buster bombs couldn't destroy them. And, of course, U.S. forces already have their hands full.

"Given our exposure in Iraq, I think it would be exceedingly difficult for the U.S. military to do at this time," says Iran expert Ellen Laipson at the Stimson Center.

Officials say the president's best option is to finally persuade Russia's President Putin — whose country is Iran's chief nuclear supplier — that a nuclear Iran would be a threat to the entire world. The president and Putin meet this weekend.

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