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Newsday (New York) February 11, 2005

Disarming option in Iran

Despite that nation's denial that it has nuclear weaponry, experts say U.S. and other powers face proliferations-policy decisions, and actions

By Timothy M. Phelps

WASHINGTON - Iraq said it did not have nuclear weapons, which turned out to be true. Iran says it does not have nuclear weapons, but evidently does. North Korea says it does have nuclear weapons, but the United States hopes it does not.

Nuclear proliferation policy is only getting more complicated in the post-Iraq invasion period.

Iran's denials of a nuclear weapons program are not considered credible in the United States or Europe. It has three major nuclear facilities above ground and is thought to have many smaller ones well concealed below ground. Experts estimate Iran is perhaps two years away from achieving a nuclear bomb.

But Iran is in some ways a more complicated target than Iraq. It is four times as big and has three times as many people. Most experts consider a full-scale ground invasion impossible. More likely, most regional and proliferation experts believe, would be a bombing campaign to destroy the nuclear materials.

According to Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who supported the attack on Iraq, an air campaign against Iran would have to last 30 days and would be in serious danger of not eliminating Iran's nuclear capability because of its many sites. Such a campaign, he and other experts say, would be likely to unite the Iranian populace, now largely alienated from its government, behind its radical religious leaders and might prove counterproductive.

Other experts, such as John Pike, director of the Web site GlobalSecurity.org, say the administration has no choice but to bomb Iran before the end of next year. If they don't, he says, Israel will, and that would further inflame the Middle East conflict.

"Israel finds the idea of atomic ayatollahs unacceptable," said Pike, an expert on defense and intelligence policy. The Israelis "know terrible things can happen. It [an Iranian attack] may be unthinkable to a bunch of tree huggers here in Washington, but Israel views it very differently."

U.S. and Israeli experts are highly skeptical that Europe will be able to resolve the Iranian problem diplomatically. The United States would seek United Nations sanctions if diplomacy failed. The Chinese, who have recently developed close economic ties with Iran, are likely to veto the sanctions.

But an attack on Iran is in some ways more complicated geopolitically now than before the overthrow of Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein. He fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, but the incoming government in Iraq apparently will be dominated by Shia Muslims, like the Shia who predominate in Iran. Many of the key figures in the party that is winning the most votes in Iraq have very close ties to Iran.

A U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran could greatly inflame public opinion in Iraq against the United States and weaken or destroy the power of moderates there, many experts believe.

"They don't know what to do," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Jamaica Estates), a senior member of the House International Relations Committee. "I don't know that you can go in like gangbusters leading the Keystone Kops into Iran when you don't know where all these [nuclear sites] are."

Ackerman said that, by invading Iraq, "we really have taken our eyes off the ball, so where does that leave us with the two countries that actually do have nuclear weapons?"

Ackerman, who was one of the first Americans to meet with Korean leader Kim Il Sung to discuss his nuclear program, in 1994, said North Korea's neighbors - particularly South Korea - would not stand for a military option there, so the United States' hands are tied.

Pike said he does not doubt the North Korean claims yesterday that it has nuclear weapons, but there has been no independent verification and North Korea has never tested any.

Copyright 2005, Newsday, Inc.