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Is Iran Next Power On Nuclear Stage?

Tehran's official line: Keep region nuclear-weapons-free. Pressure to join race is high.

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The cartoon, in a Tehran paper, captures what to many Iranians seems an irony: Uncle Sam peers at Iran through a magnifying glass, looking for evidence of nuclear activity. Unnoticed, mushroom clouds billow from recent tests in India and Pakistan.

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For years, the United States and Israel have warned that Iran was secretly seeking an "Islamic bomb" with which to impose an ideology in the region, boost its power, and threaten Israel.

For just as long, Iran has publicly played by the rules: It signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and it allows wide inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran first trumpeted its intent to develop the bomb under a pro-West shah, then abandoned it after a 1979 Islamic revolution that vilified America. Now, under a government struggling to shed its "rogue" status - and tough US sanctions also aimed at Iraq - Iran has been called by some a regional stabilizer.

South Asia's atomic tests - five by India in May, and up to six by Pakistan days later, were officially condemned by Iran. In the West, they prompted fears of a "chain reaction." In Iran they sparked debate over whether the Islamic Republic was too far behind in the regional nuclear arms race.

Israel, though it has never officially admitted it, is widely believed to have a sophisticated arsenal; it refuses to sign the NPT and has never allowed IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Motivated in part by demands that Iran should resume its historic leading role in the region, many Iranians find it difficult to categorize Iran below its newly nuclear neighbors. But calmer voices - in this case the popular government of President Mohamad Khatami - say that the entire Middle East should be nuclear-weapons-free.

"The nuclear sword of Damocles is now hanging over the region by a slender thread," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi warned the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva last month.

Some argue that the nuclear tests have only made India and Pakistan more vulnerable to the suspicious eyes of world powers - and therefore will not enjoy the influence granted the five fixed members of the nuclear club.

Others say India and Pakistan provide Iran an excuse to step up pursuit of the bomb, and that Iran can't afford not to have it.

"We never sought that excuse," says Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister. "Some say Iran should go nuclear, but the government stresses that this would not enhance our security, and so is not an option."

Still, one Western diplomat notes that the tests "are a godsend to Iran. They have all the excuses now to do it. At the moment we can only say that Iran has not changed its nonproliferation policy, but they are not fools."

But another Western diplomat counters: "They do have every excuse, but they haven't voiced those excuses. It could be because they are so far behind."

Iran's nuclear mission was begun by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s. He declared that Iran would have nuclear weapons "without a doubt and sooner than one would think."

The 1979 Islamic revolution ousted the shah, and the hard-line clerics that took control shut the program down as a waste of money. Years later, the estimated $6 billion investment was resuscitated, and Russian engineers are now working to finish two nuclear stations, which both Iran and Russia say are for civilian energy purposes only.

The chief of the Iran Atomic Energy Organization, former Oil Minister Gholamreza Agazadeh, visited Russia in May, asking that the projects be speeded up.

Along with the purchasing patterns of sensitive equipment abroad, this visit to Russia is sufficient proof for some US policymakers that there is a clandestine Iranian weapons effort.

East European diplomatic sources say they have seen no evidence that a secret program exists. But other analysts say that any such program could be so secretive that top levels in the government might not know about it.

Still, US moves to thwart critical purchases by Iran, and purchases by Russia needed to finish the Iran work, have reportedly slowed Iran's progress. And the IAEA says it has "no proof" Iran wants to build nuclear arms.

But how far along could any nuclear program in Iran be? A detailed assessment of open-source evidence by Andrew Koch and Jeanette Wolf in The Nonproliferation Review, published by the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International Studies last fall, found that Iran's nuclear program is "still relatively primitive."

It says that unless Iran secures enough black-market weapons-grade material, "Tehran is unlikely to have the ability to field even simple nuclear weapons for at least 10 to 15 years."

Diplomats agree that the threat is often overstated and that the political drawbacks of going nuclear are many, as Iran eyes possible dtente with the US.

Mr. Kharrazi said days after the atomic tests that "Muslims now feel more confident that Pakistan's nuclear capability would play a role of deterrence to Israel's nuclear capability."

Israeli leaders say such statements are reason enough to fear Iran's intentions. Israel accuses Russia of helping Iran with its ballistic missile programs, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Iran will soon be capable of hitting Israel.

"We have signed the NPT agreement on nuclear weapons, and we are faithful to it," says Ahmad Tavakkoli, an editor of the center-right Farda newspaper.

"Israel has missiles that can hit Iran, and they have nuclear warheads," he adds. "Should Iran not have missiles to defend itself, even without the nuclear warhead?"