Though attention last week was focused on North Korea and its nuclear threat, the coming week will bring us front and center with Iran, another of George Bush's "axis of evil" concerns.
On Monday in Vienna, at a UN atomic energy agency meeting, the United States will seek to nudge Iran toward full disclosure of its troubling nuclear development program. Iran doesn't deny it has such a program, but protests that it is for peaceful purposes. The US and a number of other countries are highly skeptical and suspect Iran is developing nuclear weaponry.
Suspicion has been heightened by a report last week that United Nations inspectors have found traces of highly enriched uranium at an Iranian nuclear facility. This could mean that Iran has already produced weapons-grade nuclear materials.
The US is expected to argue before the 35-member board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran should be found in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A consequence of such a finding might be a variety of actions by the UN Security Council, including sanctions. But other members of the board, some with substantial trade and economic interests in Iran, have been reluctant to confront Iran, and the outcome of any US initiative is not certain.
The uranium traces found by the UN inspectors were at a sophisticated uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz. Existence of the plant became known last year. Enriched uranium can be used for peaceful purposes, but highly enriched uranium is needed to produce bombs. The Iranian explanation of the presence of highly enriched uranium is that it may have come from equipment it bought from another country.
The UN inspectors reported that additional work is needed to check out Iran's story. This gives those countries that seek to block the UN's condemnation of Iran some leverage to postpone action next week.
Others are concerned that Iran is simply using delaying tactics while it continues to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. An article in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein says, "Worries about Iranian nuclear activities were heightened in early July after Iran conducted a successful test of the Shahab-3 missile, which can carry a 2,200-pound payload as far as 1,500 kilometers. The timing of Iran's announcement about the Shahab-3 and the size of its payload suggest that the missile is intended to carry a nuclear warhead."
The Israelis have long considered Iran to offer a more potentially dangerous nuclear threat than Iraq. Shimon Peres, a former Israeli prime minister recently described Iran as the "largest terror nucleus in the Middle East," possessing a selection of nuclear resources that put it right behind North Korea in nuclear capability. "There is no greater danger," Mr. Peres wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "than the conjunction of an evil regime with nuclear capabilities."
The European Union has similarly expressed concern about the threat to international security posed by Iran. A coalition of the concerned has sought to enlist the influence of Russia in persuading Iran to permit more than the present limited inspection afforded the IAEA inspectors. But Russia is conflicted. It has major economic interests in Iran, notably the construction of a big electricity-generating reactor at Bushehr.
Meanwhile, Iran plays a cat-and-mouse game with those who suspect it of developing nuclear weaponry. It dissembles and prevaricates about highly questionable activities that seem to indicate such a clandestine program is under way.
Why, for example, is it building a heavy-water research reactor at Arak, when light-water reactors are what it needs for its peaceful energy program? A heavy-water reactor can make plutonium for nuclear bombs. What is going on at the Kalaye Electric Company in Tehran, which the Iranians are reluctant to open up to UN inspectors? It is reported to be the plant where key centrifuge components are made.
All this is going on at a time of considerable political instability in Iran. The influence of its conservative clerics upon a new generation of modern Iranians is diminishing. The Iranian revolution seems to be running out of steam. Thousands of young Iranians have dared in recent months to demonstrate against the regime.
Otherwise absorbed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US seems content to let this play out without attempting any overt intervention. That is a sensible posture.
But proof of a threatening nuclear capacity in Iran could harden US policy toward that country. Thus is underlined the importance of next week's diplomacy in Vienna.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.