When the International Atomic Energy Agency recently said it lacked evidence that Iran had an ongoing nuclear weapons program, American officials were dumbstruck. Undersecretary of State John Bolton declared the IAEA conclusion "impossible to believe." Iran has fooled the IAEA for many years, Bolton said, implying that it has done so again.
Bolton may have a point, but unfortunately it's not the IAEA or Iran that's beyond belief in this matter. It's the United States, because of Iraq. If you put the U.S. prewar account of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program up against that of the IAEA, the agency record comes out rating far superior.
After the Gulf War, the agency had spent years in Iraq gathering intelligence, inspecting facilities and, ultimately, destroying the equipment and securing the radioactive material involved in Saddam Hussein's nuclear-weapons project. From 1998 to 2002, it was not in Iraq, but it went back last fall when the United States began pressing for united action against Saddam and contending he had "reconstituted" his nuclear program.
After Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation of the U.S. case against Iraq last November, IAEA inspectors checked out each of his assertions. They found "no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq." The aluminum tubes Powell said were for centrifuges were found to be for rockets. The nuclear-project buildings Powell said were being reconstructed were found not in use for any nuclear-related work. The effort Iraq supposedly made to secure uranium in Niger (and which Powell left out of his U.N. litany) was found to be mistaken, and based on forged documents. The magnets Powell said were for nuclear use were found most likely to be for other uses, though the IAEA wanted further examination of the magnet question.
Before the United States went to war, the IAEA had effectively demolished the most serious case for doing so -- Iraq's ongoing effort to build nuclear arms. Postwar American efforts to find nuclear materials have proven the IAEA right and the United States wrong.
So now comes the IAEA saying it has no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, while the United States asserts that one exists. Who's the world, and the American people for that matter, more likely to believe?
The problem is, as we said, that Bolton may have a point. Iran, under intense pressure from the IAEA, backed by pressure from the United States and a number of other countries, recently admitted it had for 18 years hidden a quite sophisticated effort to enrich uranium. In an astonishing turnabout, it pledged to stop the enrichment program and to be totally transparent on nuclear issues. Moreover, it agreed to accept additional requirements imposed by the IAEA and to allow ongoing, intrusive inspections.
Powell noted Tuesday in Brussels that Iran "seems to be moving in the right direction now," but added that "we can't be satisfied until Iran has demonstrated that all of the programs it had been pursuing have now been made known . . . and they are now being brought to a halt."
The IAEA hasn't said Iran has no weapons program; it has said there is no evidence of such a program. On the weapons question, IAEA head Mohammed El Baradei says the agency's effort in Iran "is a work in progress" and that the jury is still out. The IAEA is meticulous in its work and careful with its words. As El Baradei told Time Magazine in response to Bolton's comment, "We are not in the business of judging intentions. What we look for are facts and proof, and so far we have no proof of a nuclear-weapons program."
But the IAEA got fooled by Iran for 18 years, so perhaps it is being fooled again. Perhaps the United States, meanwhile, has solid proof that Tehran really is trying to develop nukes. Unfortunately, even if it does, the proof won't do any good -- because the United States presented the world with a case against Iraq that turned out to be so much flim-flam.
The Bush administration cried "wolf," the IAEA proved there wasn't one, but still the United States went to war -- without a U.N. endorsement. Now few will listen when Washington insists Iran, too, is a wolf. And Iran might actually turn out to have long teeth.
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