Weapons inspection may seem like an unreliable way to earn a living. After all, if the Bush administration’s patience wears thin and a war with Iraq begins in early 2003, won’t the inspectors be out of business? Not by a long shot. In fact, even if bombs fall on Iraq, the International Atomic Energy Agency already has scheduled inspections of suspect facilities in Iran for February. Back-channel talks with North Korea also are under way in an effort to open that country’s facilities to new scrutiny. Whatever their value, weapons inspection, it seems, is a booming business.
AFTER A YEAR of focusing intently on Iraq and al-Qaida, the Bush administration began over the past two months to put some meat on the skeletal enemy outlined by George W. Bush in January: the “Axis of Evil.” The debate raging ever since within the administration (and among America’s allies) has focused on the wisdom of picking new fights — some say unnecessary fights — with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, while the United States already was engaged in a global war on terrorism.
IRAQ AND AL-QAIDA
The primary debate has involved Iraq. Proponents of taking on Saddam Hussein’s regime argue that he is an established sociopath and sponsor of terrorism who must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons; opponents say that, while ridding the world of Saddam’s regime is a noble cause, the quest to do so right now is alienating allies, radicalizing the Muslim world and diverting political, intelligence and military resources from a higher priority — the destruction of al-Qaida.
Honest people on both sides of this debate concede that they cannot simply dismiss opposing views. This is not, most agree, a black-and-white issue. Thus, an opponent of a new war with Iraq must, if he or she is honest, admit that a nuclear-armed Saddam might not turn out to be susceptible to deterrence. Similarly, the Iraq hawks cannot pretend that a new war and its rhetoric will not have the unintended effect of bolstering al-Qaida’s recruitment drive.
But this debate now is considerably more complex. Iran and North Korea stand accused of just about everything leveled at Iraq. For reasons not being disclosed, Washington decided over the past two months to increase pressure on these two states, threatening new confrontations with them even as al-Qaida’s leadership continues to plot and the standoff with Iraq builds toward a climax.
Policy disputes between Colin Powell’s State Department and Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon get a lot of press, especially those pertaining to Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But nowhere is the split inside the administration as pronounced as it is over Iran policy.
Many career diplomats deplored the inclusion of Iran in this “Axis.”
“It is what the Brits call an ‘own goal’,” a senior official told me a month after Bush’s speech. “We undermined the reformists completely by proving the ayatollah’s point: America wants relations only on its terms.”
Such “Iranophiles” at State note that Iran gladly watched the Taliban fall and helped keep rebellious Afghan factions in line as a post-war government was put together. They say Iran’s hatred for Saddam would make Bush blush, and that Iran’s recent strides toward democracy, plus its youthful population (average age 25) straining against the authoritarian mullahs, are arguments for diagloue instead of confrontation. A recent poll conducted by the Iranian daily Entekhab found that only 8 percent of Iranians consider America an enemy. Seventy percent want open relations with Washington.
But there are two sides to every coin. No sooner did that poll appear than the pollster was arrested (he faces up to 10 years in prison for passing sensitive information to foreign governments). Repression, however, is not the argument that “Axis” advocates cite against Iran. Until recently, the argument had little to do with weapons of mass destruction, either. The real issue, according to James Woolsey, the former head of the CIA, is Iran’s support for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based extremists rated by some as more of a danger to the United States than al-Qaida.
“Iran is probably the leading terrorist-sponsoring state in the world right now, and their intelligence services are very active doing this both financially and with all kinds of assistance,” Woolsey told the PBS program “Frontline” earlier this year. “And one would hope they would have more sense than to share any type of weapons of mass destruction with terrorists. But I don’t think one can count on the common sense of the mullahs. ... So I think we need to do everything we can to help the reformers in Iran.”
TURNING UP THE HEAT
Last week, the United States leaked intelligence to several news organizations, including MSNBC.com, suggesting that Iran was building two facilities south of Tehran - in Arak and Natanz - that were part of a previously undiscovered nuclear weapons program.
Iran does have a nuclear power plant under construction at Bushehr, a project dating from the Soviet era being finished with Moscow’s help. It has been suspected of working on nuclear weapons in the past. But no solid evidence, and certainly no public accusation, ever had been made by Washington.
The United States would not describe any evidence beyond satellite photographs of the plants in question — one of which is said to be a heavy-water production facility. Heavy water is a key part of the uranium enrichment process.
Both Moscow and Iran deny any diversion of nuclear material into bomb-making, and Iran appeared to open the door to inspections by inviting the International Atomic Energy Agency to the two sites in February.
“We have no secrets in this field,” says the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi. “These centers are doing their best to produce necessary fuel for nuclear power plants that will meet the country’s electric needs,” Kharrazi added.
As in Iraq, it appears that inspectors — this time the IAEA’s — will be called on to verify or disprove that statement.
FATHOMING THE UNFATHOMABLE
The problem with the IAEA, in the view of many experts, is that such inspections failed to detect North Korea’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb in the early 1990s. Only when the North threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993 did Washington pressure Pyongyang into a dialogue on its nuclear program. In the resulting agreement, the North pledged not to build a bomb in exchange for U.S., Japanese and South Korean aid and the promise of “normalized relations.”
This ”Agreed Framework” treaty had little in the way of a verification process, and the final shoe dropped in early October of this year.
An assistant U.S. secretary of state, John Kelley, presented the North’s delegates with strong evidence that the country was violating its 1994 pledge. To Washington’s surprise, the North ultimately admitted the violation, nullifying the Clinton-era treaty. InsertArt(1782191)Since this revelation, U.S. and South Korean officials have said they believe that the uranium-based program in the North may already have produced two weapons, the result of cooperation between North Korea and erstwhile American ally, Pakistan.
Demands to “disarm or else” quickly ensued. But the White House since has adopted a quiet approach to the Korean crisis, brushing aside questions about consistency (i.e., why is Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb a cause for war, while North Korea’s is a cause for negotiations?). Russian, Japanese and Pakistani intermediaries are working on Washington’s behalf to open a dialogue.
The question, says a diplomat with knowledge of this effort, comes down to: What will it take from the United States to persuade North Korea to rid itself of nukes? “The U.S. isn’t pulling troops out of South Korea, but short of that, what do these guys want?” the diplomat asked.
The question could as easily be turned around on the Bush administration. With its hands full in Iraq and a global war on terrorism, can it afford to pick at these scabs right now?
An administration official threw it right back: “How can we afford not to?”
Mail your thoughts to Michael Moran, MSNBC.com's senior producer for special reports.