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Building nuclear power and clout

By Wolf Blitzer

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Remember President Bush's so-called "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- which he unveiled more than a year ago during his State of the Union address before Congress?

Well, now all three of those countries are very much on the minds of President Bush and his top national security advisers. The president appears to be on the verge of ordering war against Iraq. The United States right now faces a potentially dangerous nuclear standoff with North Korea. And also now, there's word Iran is apparently closer to building a nuclear bomb than U.S. officials previously suspected.

Here's how U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell put it when I interviewed him the other day. "Here we suddenly discover that Iran is much further along with a far more robust nuclear weapons development program than anyone said it had. And now the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has found that out. We gave them information. They discovered it. And it shows you how a determined nation that has the intent to develop a nuclear weapon can keep that development process secret from inspectors and outsiders."

Time magazine, which broke this news in recent days, says the secret Iranian nuclear plant is "extremely advanced" and involves "hundreds" of gas centrifuges ready to produce enriched uranium and "the parts for a thousand others ready to be assembled."

Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, in an interview with me, insists these reports are simply not true. He says Iran's nuclear programs are advanced but designed only for "peaceful purposes." He says this: "It is clearly our right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and we intend to pursue that right and to implement that right to our fullest capability, and the IAEA has found that we are very much advanced in that process. This is not a new revelation."

The ambassador says Iran will abide by its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations, including the acceptance of all IAEA safeguards.

As far as the suggestion that Iran's centrifuge program is designed to build a bomb, he says his government informed the IAEA last year that Iran had such a program, "and we would allow the IAEA to come and visit it." He said they did indeed visit the program. "The facility will be under IAEA safeguard so there is no way that it would be used for anything other than the peaceful purposes that it has been designed to use."

U.S. officials, clearly, don't believe these Iranian explanations. They tell me they are deeply worried about the true nature of the Iranian program. They have been pressing Russia to end its export of nuclear-related equipment to Iran. The Russians have rejected U.S. demands. The Russians clearly could use the cash. This issue, in short, is not going away.

By the way, U.S. and other officials privately acknowledge that they can't really blame Iran for moving ahead with a nuclear weapons program. The Iranians see the political clout North Korea's nuclear program has brought. They also see the heightened respect India and Pakistan command from their neighbors and others around the world now that they have both tested nuclear weapons.

If you are an Iranian, in other words, you can't help but conclude that North Korea (which is believed to already have one or two nuclear bombs) is treated one way by the United States while Iraq, which doesn't have a bomb, is treated very differently.

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