U.S. Considered Iraq More Urgent Than Iran, Says Armitage

WASHINGTON — Differences in U.S. policy toward Iran and Iraq stem from the Bush administration’s assessment that Iran’s suspected nuclear weapon development is a less urgent matter than alleged Iraqi WMD efforts were, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told senators here yesterday.

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) asked Armitage about the possibility that Iran could transfer weapons of mass destruction to terrorists and about “why … we heard so much about this issue with regard to Iraq and relatively little with regard to Iran.” Despite the current prevailing view that Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than Iraq’s was before the war, Armitage said the Iranian situation allows for “more time” to work diplomatically than the Iraq crisis did.

Among the key reasons the United States has given for attacking Iraq was the belief ― now widely disputed amid a months-old, largely unsuccessful U.S. WMD hunt in Iraq ― that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was acquiring materials needed to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Iran has been viewed differently, Armitage said, because of “some real questions” about how far the Iranian nuclear program had progressed.

The International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors passed a resolution last month setting a deadline of this Friday for increased Iranian cooperation with investigators examining the country’s nuclear activities (see GSN, Sept. 12). Next month, the board is expected to review Iran’s compliance with the September resolution and consider Tehran’s announcement last week, after talks with European foreign ministers, that it will sign the Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement and suspend uranium enrichment (see GSN, Oct. 21).

Armitage suggested the September resolution demonstrates a greater degree of multinational agreement on how to address the Iranian question than was possible with the Iraqi threat, discussion of which sharply divided the U.N. Security Council before the war.

“We were able in the case of Iran to develop an international consensus. In the case of Iraq, we had a limited international consensus, but we’ve had much better luck thus far [with Iran]. And that’s why the president is moved to say that it’s not a one-size-fits-all [policy]. We’re making some progress, he feels, in multilateral diplomacy, and we’ll continue to do so,” Armitage said.

One nonproliferation expert concurred that Iraq appeared to be a more immediate threat at one time, but questioned whether the Bush administration continued to hold that view when U.S. forces invaded Iraq.

Brookings Institution Science and Technology Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies Michael Levi said the decision to make Iraq a higher priority than Iran was valid only if it was made long before the war began.

“By the time we went to war ― six months before we went to war ― there was plenty of evidence to make clear that the timeline, that the priority ordering had switched,” Levi said in an interview.

“If the administration decided in, let’s say, early 2002 that Iraq was the next target, it was quite reasonable then to think that Iraq was further along than Iran” in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Levi said. He added that it is “hard to believe” that Armitage still believed in the days just before the war that Iraq presented a greater threat than Iran.

Levi said the Iraqi nuclear development timeline was only part of the decision to go to war. Iran may have been closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon, he said, but Iraq may have been more likely to use or transfer a WMD capability, he said.

In addition, he said, Iraq was clearly in violation of numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“Iran may have been a greater threat,” he said, “but in a strict international legal sense, there was far more justification for attacking Iraq.”

Armitage Endorses “Super-Inspections” but Evokes Possible DialogueCommittee members and Armitage agreed on the need for tough nuclear inspections in Iran, which they said presents a special proliferation threat because of its support for terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and because of the presence in Iran of al-Qaeda operatives. Armitage also indicated, however, that the diplomatic estrangement of the United States and Iran could end soon with narrowly targeted talks.

Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the senior Democrat on the committee, likened the threats posed by Iraq and Iran and called for new approaches to Iran beyond “the hammer” of military force and the current U.S. policy of “containment.”

“We always have the option of the hammer, which is, you know, what we did in Iraq,” he said, adding that the move “probably would not generate a lot of public support right now.” As for “containment,” he said, the approach requires “wide international support” and is not likely to get such support from European countries.

Faced with that dilemma, both Armitage and Biden expressed support for a new regime of U.N. Security Council-initiated “super-inspections” in Iran, as called for in Friday’s Los Angeles Times by the committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). The IAEA Board of Governors could refer the Iran question to the Security Council if it found Tehran in noncompliance with its obligations to the IAEA under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Lugar wrote in the Times that because Iran has been “caught red-handed trying to build nuclear weapons through several methods over a sustained period in violation of its treaty obligations” and since “the games played by Iraq and North Korea demonstrate the limitations of the NPT’s verification measures,” “the international community should be prepared to take more effective action.”

“When confronted with a case as blatant as Iran,” Lugar wrote, “the U.S. and like-minded allies must use the U.N. Security Council to demand that the violator cease all illegal weapons activities, dismantle weapons-related facilities and submit to ‘super-inspections,’ even tougher than those imposed on Iraq. Elements should include unfettered freedom for inspectors, unsupervised interviews of nuclear scientists and engineers (out of the country with their families, if necessary) and unrestrained aerial surveillance.”

In largely similar remarks yesterday, Lugar said Iran’s declaration last week “should not lead us to a false sense of security about the Iranian proliferation threat,” because such measures “rely on Tehran telling the truth” and it is “far from clear” they would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon capability. The NPT regime, he said, “is useful only to the extent that its provisions are enforced to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

A rare note of discord about “super-inspections” was sounded at the hearing by Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior Fellow Anthony Cordesman, who said he is “not sure that it is easy to do more than UNSCOM [the U.N. Special Commission] and UNMOVIC [the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission] did [in Iraq], and they obviously failed.” Cordesman said that “no amount of inspection or intelligence coverage could with confidence detect” nuclear weapon development “if it was dispersed and concealed and did not go into advanced development.”

Armitage expressed support for Lugar’s approach, but he also gave indications the United States could adopt a less confrontational stance of consulting meaningfully with IAEA board members and potentially even engaging in direct talks with Iran on non-WMD matters.

The deputy secretary said he was “quite heartened” by what he called a “unanimous” IAEA Board of Governors “verdict” ― technically, a passage without a vote, not a unanimous endorsement ― and because the European foreign ministers in Iran last week “hung tough” and got a “good declaration.”

“Clearly, Iran has been in noncompliance. They should be found that way,” Armitage said, adding, “The Iranians have a lot of work to do to prove their bona fides in the NPT arena.” As for what should be done next, though, he said questions about whether to refer the matter to the Security Council or take another course of action “are things we have to consider” together with other IAEA board members.

CSIS International Security Program Senior Adviser Robert Einhorn said at the hearing that “if Iran actively cooperates” with the IAEA and the Europeans, “it would be a mistake … to make a finding of noncompliance in November.”

“Sending the matter to New York would undermine support for further cooperation in Tehran, where the decision to suspend enrichment and sign the Additional Protocol has come under very strong criticism from hard-liners,” Einhorn said.

In remarks submitted for the record, Armitage said the Bush administration is “pursuing a policy that weighs the full range of options available” and is “prepared to engage in limited discussions with the government of Iran about areas of mutual interest, as appropriate.” The United States and Iran communicate via the United Nations and Switzerland but have no direct diplomatic contact.

During questioning by senators yesterday, Armitage said the “areas of mutual interest” to which he referred could include Afghanistan, Iraq and drug trafficking, a subject on which he said there is “an almost absolute commonality of views” between the United States and Iran.

“We have not, however, entered into any broad dialogue with the aim of normalizing relations,” he said in the prepared remarks.

Meanwhile, the Europeans have, by virtue of last week’s developments, entered into a new phase of discussions with Iran that could, according to U.N. Association of the United States of America President William Luers, involve the United States and extend to talks on nuclear-armed Israel, a close U.S. ally and Iran’s main strategic foil (see GSN, Oct. 2). Luers said at the hearing that European-Iranian talks would be “an overall look at the region … the overall look at this nuclear question” and that Tehran appears willing to bring the United States into the discussion.

“In that context, there could be a discussion of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, which has been discussed quite a bit,” Luers said.

October 29, 2003

WASHINGTON — Differences in U.S. policy toward Iran and Iraq stem from the Bush administration’s assessment that Iran’s suspected nuclear weapon development is a less urgent matter than alleged Iraqi WMD efforts were, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told senators here yesterday.