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Leaders fear Iran's nuclear ambitions could destabilize Middle East

WASHINGTON—While differing on how to deal with Iran's nuclear program, U.S. and European officials agree that a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic could spark a regional arms race and upset the tenuous balance of power in the volatile Middle East.

President Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder stressed their concerns Wednesday, the fourth day of Bush's European tour, when they warned Iran against developing a nuclear warhead.

Fears about Iran's nuclear ambitions escalated in 2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. watchdog organization, determined that Tehran had for years hidden nuclear activities that could be used to produce weapons.

Iran's ruling Shiite Muslim theocracy says its nuclear program is for electricity production only.

U.S. officials charge that Tehran is secretly developing warheads to mount on short- and medium-range missiles. Germany, France and Britain have been trying to persuade Iran to curtail its program in return for financial benefits and other incentives. The Bush administration has gone along reluctantly, but wants to refer the problem to the U.N. Security Council.

Iranian missiles have the range to strike American forces in the Persian Gulf region, Israel, Sunni Muslim-ruled Arab nations and Turkey, a NATO member. Iran is thought to be developing missiles that could hit parts of Europe and Russia.

With such missiles, U.S. officials and experts said, Iran's ruling clerics would feel they have added insurance against attack from the United States, whose troops are in adjacent Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israel, which is believed to have a secret stockpile of nuclear warheads.

"Any strategist of nuclear weapons will tell you that nuclear weapons are inherently defensive weapons," said James Walsh, the director of Harvard University's Managing the Atom Program. "What they are good at is deterring other countries from attacking you."

Such weapons are also the ultimate tools of political coercion.

Their possession could embolden Iran's ruling clerics to flex their muscles more aggressively against American policies and step up promoting their Islamic revolution of hard-line clerical rule throughout the Muslim world, U.S. officials and experts said.

For example, Iran could use a nuclear arsenal as leverage during a crisis to dictate oil production levels in the Persian Gulf, the repository of 57 percent of the world's proven reserves.

Or, in a confrontation with the United States, Tehran could bully Arab governments into denying bases and ports to American military forces.

"This would make the region even more unstable and volatile," said Emile El- Hokayem, an analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a public policy institute. "If Iran developed a real arsenal it would be in a better position to blackmail some countries. The mullahs are prone to brinkmanship."

Such a development could trigger a dangerous regional nuclear-arms race.

Other nations that could consider going nuclear include Turkey, which has sought to maintain strategic parity with Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Sunni-majority nations that are close to the United States and are unwilling to cede regional dominance to Shiite Iran.

"They will start hedging their bets," said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

A regional arms race would deal a fatal blow to the international system designed to halt the spread of such weapons, U.S. officials and independent experts warned.

The system, anchored in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is already under strain from Pakistan's and India's decisions to develop nuclear arsenals illegally. North Korea claims to have done the same.

"For the Europeans, it's about enforcing norms and convincing countries to observe proper modes of behavior and international law," El-Hokayem said. "For Bush, it's about ... punishing or preventing states from behaving in a way that harms U.S. security."

Another major fear of the Bush administration is that Iran, which it views as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, could secretly transfer a nuclear warhead to a radical Islamic group, such as Hezbollah of Lebanon, for use against Israel or an American target.

"I don't see how you can rule that out of hand," the senior State Department official said. "The Iranians have transferred enormous amounts of funds and sophisticated (conventional) weaponry to Hezbollah. "

Independent experts discounted such a scenario. They said the material in a nuclear weapon detonated by terrorists could be traced to the supplier, and that no government had ever transferred a weapon of mass destruction to a group outside its control.

But these experts and U.S. officials said radical Muslim groups bent on Israel's destruction or opposed to the American presence in the region could be emboldened if they thought they were protected by a nuclear-armed Iran.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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