New York Times: President Bush heightened the administration’s pressure on Iran on Saturday by using his first summit meeting since he won re-election to accuse Iran of speeding the production of the raw material used to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon, calling it “a very serious matter.” New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER
SANTIAGO, Chile – President Bush heightened the administration’s pressure on Iran on Saturday by using his first summit meeting since he won re-election to accuse Iran of speeding the production of the raw material used to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon, calling it “a very serious matter.”
Then, in back to back meetings with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea, he attempted to establish a unified front against North Korea, which intelligence officials believe may have produced up to six nuclear weapons in the past year.
Talking to reporters here after a meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, Mr. Bush cited reports that Iran was racing to produce uranium hexaflouride, a gas that can be enriched into bomb fuel. “They’re willing to speed up processing of materials that could lead to a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Bush said.
Iran reached an agreement last weekend with European nations to suspend all of its nuclear fuel production temporarily, but it has insisted that it has the legal right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to make such fuel for energy production and will not give up that ability.
Mr. Bush’s harshest words were focused on the Iranian program, in large part, administration officials say, because his national security aides believe there is still time to stop Iran from actually producing a weapon. “We’re past that point with North Korea,” one of his senior advisers said recently. “With the North, it’s a question of unwinding what’s already happened.”
In 2003, Mr. Bush said he “will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea,” and in April 2004, he told a convention of newspaper editors in Washington that a nuclear program in Iran was “intolerable” and would be dealt with, starting at the United Nations if necessary. He did not repeat either phrase on Saturday, and the agreement with Europe appears to have halted, at least temporarily, the administration’s hopes of taking the Iranian program to the United Nations Security Council this month.
The president’s comments also marked the second time this week that the administration has made accusations that Iran, despite its protestations that it has no intention of producing a nuclear weapon, is headed in that direction. On Wednesday Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Iran was trying to modify its missiles to carry a nuclear warhead, and was working on weapon designs that would fit those missiles.
But while he was talking about Iran in public, Mr. Bush focused much of his private discussion here with leaders of the Pacific rim – the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum – on a North Korean program that appears to have made significant progress while the United States was tied down in Iraq.
In preparation for the meeting on Saturday morning with China’s president, Hu Jintao, American officials took the unusual step several weeks ago of passing to Beijing a series of what one senior Asian official called “classified packets” of data intended to convince the Chinese that the North has two weapons programs under way.
Chinese leaders had few doubts that the North has been trying to produce plutonium weapons, and they have not questioned unofficial American intelligence estimates that the North has reprocessed enough plutonium for four to six weapons since international inspectors were expelled from the country nearly two years ago.
But until recently China expressed considerable doubts about a second program that the United States believes the North started with help from the head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project, A. Q. Khan. Like the Iranian program, which also received extensive aid from Mr. Khan’s network in the 1990’s, the North’s program involves enriching uranium to make bomb fuel.
“The Chinese made their own inquiries from Pakistan, and we believe they got confirmation there,” said one senior Asian official involved in Saturday’s talks with President Bush. “They don’t seem to be questioning the validity of that intelligence anymore, at least in private.”
But Mr. Bush was clearly concerned that South Korea’s president, Roh Moo Hyun, might diverge from the American strategy, and offer the North more aid and investment even before it agrees to surrender its weapons, halt its production of new weapons and allow open inspections.
Speaking on Nov. 12 in Los Angeles, Mr. Roh said: “The North Koreans maintain that their nuclear weapons and missiles constitute a means of safeguarding their security by deterring threats from the outside. By and large it is hard to believe what the North Koreans say, but their claim on this matter is” – and here he paused for several seconds – “understandable considering the environment they live in.”
Korean officials say his word “understandable” may also be translated as “rational,” and Mr. Roh told his audience that he used the worse because his staff wanted a term that would sound more “acceptable.”
Mr. Bush made no direct reference to the speech at his meeting Saturday, according to officials who were familiar with the discussion. But he stressed the need “for the countries to stay on the same page,” one official said.
Mr. Bush’s comments on Iran came a day after American officials said Iran had told the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that it was speeding ahead with the production of uranium hexaflouride before its suspension of nuclear processing activity begins.
Iran’s intentions are unclear. If it is truly suspending the production of all nuclear fuel, it is unclear why it would work so quickly to finish production of the raw material that is fed into centrifuges and enriched it. At low enrichment levels, the fuel could be used to produce nuclear power; at high enrichment levels, it could make the core of a bomb.
American officials said the president spoke out about the Iranian move because he wanted to highlight the possibility that Iran is preparing to cheat on its deal with the Europeans, and to raise the possibility that it has a secret, undeclared complex of centrifuges that could keep spinning, producing bomb fuel even after the suspension is in effect. A dissident group operating outside of Iran charged this week that Tehran is doing exactly that, but American officials say they cannot verify those accusations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been visiting Iran regularly, and issued a report recently saying it had yet to find evidence of a weapons program. But it did not exclude the possibility. Mr. Bush’s comments appeared to be part of what the deputy secretary of state, Richard L. Armitage, told Al Jazeera television on Friday was “kind of a good cop-bad cop arrangement” with the Europeans: to keep the pressure on Iran while Europe offers it incentives to give up the production of nuclear fuels.
“If it works, we’ll all have been successful,” Mr. Armitage said.