Daily Telegraph: A briefing war erupted in Washington yesterday over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and how to counter them – a debate reminiscent of the countdown to the invasion of Iraq. Washington has been thrown into a frenzy following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s remarks that Iran is studying how to equip a missile with a nuclear bomb.
The Daily Telegraph
By Alec Russell in Washington
A briefing war erupted in Washington yesterday over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and how to counter them – a debate reminiscent of the countdown to the invasion of Iraq.
Washington has been thrown into a frenzy following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s remarks that Iran is studying how to equip a missile with a nuclear bomb.
Even as officials pondered whether his remarks were a slip or a deliberate attempt to scupper a new initiative by Germany, France and Britain, the debate intensified yesterday over reports that the intelligence had been based on a single, unvetted source.
According to the Washington Post a “walk-in” source approached US intelligence earlier this month with more than 1,000 pages of documents containing the information that Mr Powell cited.
The suggestion that the information was based on a single source aroused alarm. Many politicians and journalists in Washington are still reeling from their over-reliance on single sources for the misleading pre-war intelligence about the state of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Powell’s comments initially fuelled speculation that Washington was seeking to undercut a tentative deal by three European Union states with Teheran for it to freeze its nuclear enrichment programme. Yesterday he played down the impact of his remarks, saying: “This shouldn’t be brand new news. . .this shouldn’t surprise anybody.”
The growing diplomatic consensus, however, was that Mr Powell had made a rare stumble and had been lulled into saying more than he intended.
But the administration has stood by his remarks, which chime conveniently with the dominant view in Washington that the EU’s diplomatic overtures are naïve and doomed. But for the moment, the administration seems willing to give the Europeans a chance, not least because it is still mired in Iraq.
“We’ve seen previous agreements signed,” one senior administration official told The Telegraph yesterday. “What we would like to see is a real commitment. Our concern is that we see action. We’ll wait and watch.”
Jo Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation programme at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said it appeared that Mr Powell had stumbled and had not intended to “sink the (EU’s) deal”. But, he added, the “result is the same” and his comments played into the hands of administration hawks.
“The administration did not back down,” he said. “It had numerous opportunities to do so but did not.”
President George W Bush flew to Chile yesterday for the summit of Asian and Pacific leaders for his first appearance on the world stage since his re-election, with the nuclear proliferation threat posed by North Korea at the top of his agenda.
Back home in Washington, the main focus will be on Iran, likely to be the defining issue of Mr Bush’s second term.
Despite yesterday’s attempts to undermine Mr Powell’s intelligence, the administration appears far more unified in its intention to confront Iran, than it was to face down Saddam Hussein.
Patience in Washington is fast running out. John Bolton, under-secretary of state for arms control, has been pushing for a tougher line and is said to believe that Iran should have been referred to the UN Security Council a year ago.
American officials will be looking for clear means of verifying the Iranian claims that they are freezing their programmes from Monday.
The claims were being greeted with increasing scepticism in Washington yesterday in the light of reports from Iran that it using its last few days before the deadline to produce a gas that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Diplomats told the Associated Press that Iran was using its last few days to produce significant quantities of uranium hexafluoride which can be enriched into weapons-grade uranium.