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U.S.: 'Axis of evil' may be nuclear threats

©Associated Press
December 14, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The countries dubbed an axis of evil by President Bush may be going nuclear, U.S. officials fear.

North Korea said it would resume its nuclear program the same week U.S. officials lent credence to recent reports that Iraq and Iran are actively seeking the fissile material -- enriched uranium or plutonium -- that has until now kept them out of the nuclear club.

Bush placed containment of all three nations at the top of his "to do" list in his January State of the Union address, when he described an axis of evil that posed a "growing danger" by developing weapons of mass destruction.

That might have been a self-fulfilling prophesy, said John Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"While they were proliferating before they were called the axis of evil, calling them by that name may have accelerated their programs," he said Friday.

Still, the United States is using different approaches to containing each of the three.

Regarding Iran, U.S. officials Thursday endorsed claims by an Iranian opposition group that the government may be using two construction sites in central Iran to develop nuclear weapons -- a nuclear fuel production plant and research lab at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak that could be part of a plutonium program. Iran denied the allegations Friday. The United States does not believe Iran has yet made nuclear weapons.

Iran's lack of fissile material is its main obstacle to building nuclear weapons.

Reports of the facilities Iran is constructing "reinforce our already grave concern that Iran is seeking technology to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.

Boucher said satellite imagery showed that some structures at the Natanz plant already are being covered with earth.

"Iran clearly intended to harden and bury that facility," Boucher said. "That facility was probably never intended by Iran to be a declared component of the peaceful (nuclear) program."

Instead, he said, "Iran has been caught constructing a secret underground site where it could produce fissile material."

An Iranian government spokesman, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, said Friday in Tehran that Natanz "is not under the ground." He insisted that Iran's nuclear facilities are for peaceful purposes, even as Iran canceled a U.N. visit to Natanz and another construction site.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear cop, said Friday he would reserve judgment until he visits the sites in February.

Nevertheless, he said, "It would have been better if we had been informed earlier about the decision to build these facilities."

As for Iraq, the concern is also about its search for fissile material. The 12,000 pages of documents filed with ElBaradei's agency last weekend fail to address U.S. intelligence reports of a recent purchase of uranium in Africa, and purchases in Western countries of high-tech equipment that could be used in a uranium enrichment program.

"Iraq claims they have not been involved in any proscribed activities in the last four years," since the last inspections, ElBaradei said. "We cannot take that statement at face value."

Some experts believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may be scrambling to achieve nuclear weapons capability to cow his neighbors into backing out of support for any U.S.-led action to remove him.

Officials in North Korea, meanwhile, have said they will reactivate nuclear facilities frozen under a 1994 deal with Washington. They blamed the Bush administration's hard line for the policy change. Western officials believe North Korea built one or two plutonium-based nuclear bombs before it froze its nuclear facilities -- and could quickly create enough plutonium for several more bombs if the program resumes.

"Whether (North Korea) will refreeze its nuclear facilities or not entirely depends on the attitude of the United States," North Korea's state-run news agency, KCNA, said in a commentary Friday.

The United States might be ready to listen. Bush spoke by telephone Friday with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and agreed to seek a "peaceful resolution" to the crisis, although both said they could not accept North Korea's resumption of its nuclear weapons program.

Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, sounded optimistic about persuading the North to back down. "We believe that the situation on the Korean Peninsula lends itself to the possibility of a diplomatic solution," he told reporters in Australia.

Wolfsthal shares such optimism, saying North Korea, unlike Iran or Iraq, ultimately seeks the good graces of the United States.

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