Over the last six months, Iran has escalated its campaign to sabotage the Middle East peace process by training the Palestinian suicide bombers who have been increasingly successful in killing Israeli troops, according to senior U.S. officials.
The two suicide bombers who carried out the Jan. 22 attack that killed 21 Israelis had returned recently from training in Iran, the officials said. After their deaths Iran made payments to the families of both men, the officials added.
Other Islamic militants reportedly have been trained in Lebanon and Sudan with the help of Iranian funds and personnel. Their instruction covers bomb-making--and religion.
If true, the charges would represent the first time that Iran has been directly linked to specific attacks by extremists trying to thwart the 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on Palestinian self-government.
And even if not, the Administration's conviction that the charges are valid helps explain why President Clinton, who has been branding Iran a "paymaster to terrorists," signed an executive order over the weekend banning all U.S. trade with and investment in Iran.
In a statement Monday announcing that the order had been signed, the White House said the action was taken to "underscore our opposition to the actions and policies of the government of Iran, particularly its support of international terrorism and its efforts to obtain materials and assistance critical to the development of nuclear weapons."
In addition, U.S. officials said, the Administration is protesting Iran's progress in developing chemical weapons and its acquisition of technology that will allow it to manufacture its own medium-range surface-to-surface Scud missiles within two years.
"There was no precipitating event that led to the sanctions decision. It was the product of a pattern of worrying behavior," a key U.S. official said. Like other officials who spoke about Iran, he asked that his name not be used.
Iran has denied charges that it has trained Palestinian suicide bombers.
"We have no training camps for foreigners at all, whether it be from Palestine, Lebanon or elsewhere," said Rajaie Khorasani, former Iranian envoy to the United Nations and now a member of Parliament. "These are groundless conjectures. U.S. political motives are clear."
The Clinton Administration has made support for the peace process between Israel and its immediate Arab neighbors a major element of U.S. foreign policy, and it has been increasingly angered by what it sees as a clear effort by Iran to undermine that process.
"These are not the products of rogue elements," a U.S. official said. "They are done at the highest level and staffed through a bureaucratic structure. I can't tell you what is in (President Hashemi) Rafsanjani's heart, but he is as responsible for those decisions as Clinton is for the covert-action agenda of the U.S. government."
Since last year, Iran has also delivered "several dozen tons" of small arms to Islamic militants in Algeria via Sudan to fuel anti-government unrest in that North African nation, U.S. officials said. The weapons shipments were broken up into small batches and driven through other African countries into Algeria, the officials said.
Lebanon's Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian extremist group that boasts the largest bloc in the Lebanese Parliament, now receives more than $100 million a year from Iran, U.S. officials asserted. Hezbollah's militia confronts Israel along its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon--the hottest front remaining in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
U.S. officials are trying to rebut claims by European and Asian allies that Iran, 16 years after its Islamic revolution, has tried to moderate its agenda and should be encouraged by rewards as well as threatened with constraints.
Also precipitating the new U.S. embargo, according to U.S. officials, was Iran's "much more systematic and energetic" development of weapons of mass destruction.
Iran is on the verge of producing phosphorus trichloride, an ingredient for several of the chemicals needed to make nerve gas, the sources said. The ability to manufacture phosphorus trichloride itself would free Iran from having to buy it on the expensive international black market.
Iran, vehemently denying this charge, pointed to its record of not using chemical weapons during its war with Iraq in the 1980s despite the latter's heavy use of mustard and nerve agents against Iranian civilians and troops.
Administration officials said that Iran has been secretly buying equipment that is not necessary for peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The nature of the goods, including large magnets and pumps that can be used in enriching uranium, indicates that Iran is in the early stages of a nuclear weapons program, the officials asserted.
Moreover, Iran is "aggressively pursuing an indigenous basis" to produce both enriched uranium and plutonium, the two fuels of nuclear weapons, a U.S. specialist said.
As with past charges, U.S. allies contended that Washington is overrating Iran as an imminent nuclear power. Even private American experts on nuclear proliferation said that so far there is only circumstantial evidence of Iran's intent.
"Iran's pattern of procurement of nuclear technology doesn't make sense for a civilian program. But on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be hard evidence of unambiguous bomb-making activity," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington.
Iran took some of the punch out of U.S. accusations about its nuclear intent by pledging last week to send spent fuel, which can be used in the production of nuclear weapons, from its Russian-built reactor to Russia.
"It's the usual procedure," said Mohammed Sadegh Ayatollahi, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. "In all our contacts--first with the Germans (who started one reactor during the monarchy) and then with Russia--we assumed that we would give (the fuel) back once it was depleted."
Milhollin said the pledge makes Russia's sale of nuclear reactors "much more palatable strategically."
What still makes Iran's nuclear intentions suspect, according to both U.S. officials and Milhollin, is its huge oil reserves. "Why turn to very expensive alternatives when you have a cheap source of energy in your back yard?" one official asked.
Iran responded that the International Atomic Energy Agency urges nations to diversify their energy sources, with about 20% or 25% generated by nuclear power plants. Iran would need four reactors such as those Russia would build to bring it up to 20%.