As war with Iraq draws closer and military tensions on the Korean peninsula escalate, senior U.S. officials are sounding warnings that Iran, the third point on the so-called axis of evil, is racing ahead with a nuclear-weapons program.
The United Nations' nuclear watchdogs, however, said they are on the case. While it is true, they said, that Iran's nuclear-power program is making fast progress, it would take a couple of years to produce a bomb, if that is Iran's intention.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based watchdog, said it is keeping a close eye on Iran's efforts to enrich uranium, a material that can be used to generate fuel in power reactors or to build warheads.
The IAEA said Iran is complying with safeguard agreements intended to prevent enriched uranium's use in weapons.
It is also negotiating additional protocols with Iran to allow intrusive inspections that would make it harder for Iran to build bombs in secret, IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said.
The progress Iran has made in its nuclear program in recent months appears to have caught the United States by surprise.
"We suddenly discover that Iran is much further along, with a far more robust nuclear-weapons-development program than anyone said it had," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told CNN on Sunday.
This, he said, "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."
Mr. Powell did not mention that in 1992, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency predicted Iran would have the bomb by 2000.
The IAEA does not seem as alarmed. Mr. ElBaradei said that Iran appears to be in compliance with its obligations under various agreements to use nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes.
He conducted an inspection trip to a major Iranian nuclear facility near the town of Natanz two weeks ago. The Iranians showed him a pilot project involving scores of high-speed centrifuges used to enrich uranium. They had on hand the parts to build hundreds of centrifuges, enough for a full-scale industrial-production facility.
Mr. Powell's comments brought a swift and angry response from Tehran. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said yesterday that the United States is aggressively trying to interfere in his country's internal affairs, which include plans to develop major electrical-power-generating plants using nuclear fuel.
Referring to U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, he said, "Unfortunately, since the extremists took office in the U.S., the world has always been threatened with danger of a war. And the unwise U.S. policies have increased insecurity, instability, pessimism and hatred around the globe."
Iran's efforts to develop nuclear power and to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes go back to the early 1970s and the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah. Experts said that by 1975, the old regime was trying to secretly build a nuclear bomb, using U.S., German and French technology.
The Muslim fundamentalist regime that came to power in 1979 revived the Shah's secret weapons program five years later, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
In his state-of-the-union speech 13 months ago, Mr. Bush said Iraq, North Korea and Iran are part of an "axis of evil" and are trying to develop nuclear weapons.