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British and American intelligence and special forces have been put on alert for a conflict with Iran within the next 12 months, as fears grow that Tehran is building a nuclear weapons programme.
Iran has been constructing a nuclear civil power programme for some years. It is due to start generating significant amounts of electricity for the national power grid in two years.
However, United Nations, American and EU experts have become alarmed at the extent of the nuclear plants in Iran, and many are of a sophistication that suggests that they are for a weapons programme rather than for civil use.
A full report by the International Atomic Energy Authority is due to be published within days. It points at "discrepancies" in what Iran has officially disclosed about its nuclear facilities.
The chief IAEA inspector Mohammed El Baradei said: "Tehran has failed to report certain nuclear material and activities."
The EU has declared this week that it backs the demands of the United States and Britain that IAEA inspectors should be allowed full access to all nuclear sites in Iran. Russia, which has helped Iran develop nuclear plants, has also backed the international effort to get more inspectors on the ground there.
Tehran has rejected these demands. A government spokesman accused Washington of "blatant interference" in stirring up the student protests against the clerical regime, which have been running for six nights in the capital.
However, the EU's foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg yesterday backed the Americans and demanded that inspectors be admitted or any trade deals with the EU should be called off.
In the past week the EU and Nato, as well as Russia and Japan, have expressed genuine alarm that Iran could be developing a nuclear weapons programme more powerful than anything Saddam Hussein actually achieved in Iraq, whatever he intended.
"This is not a question of crying Wolfowitz," a Washington defence insider said, referring to the calls to deal with the "axis of evil" of rogue states - which include Iran - by the hawkish deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "The threat is real."
Already CIA agents are known to have been working inside Iran to establish the full range of the Iranian nuclear programme. Production and research is being carried out at no less than 16 different sites, including Tehran university-Recently Iran began developing a new series of medium-range missiles, which could reach Israel, Cyprus and even Greece.
Growing protests against the clerical regime of the ayatollahs has suddenly made Iran more unstable in the past few weeks. President Bush has welcomed the protests, though some fear they will make the country even more unmanageable. But one of the Pentagon's most hardline advisers, Richard Perle, has said that the demonstrations could undermine the rule of the clerics, which would be the best way of disarming Iran. Michael Ledeen, his colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank close to the White House, has gone further.
He wrote last week: "Iraq's support of terrorism was minuscule compared to Tehran's activities. If we are serious about winning the war against the terror masters, the Tehran regime must fall."
Washington also blames the ayatollahs in Tehran for giving financial backing and training to a hardline organisation, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), founded by Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al Hakim. He has just returned to Iraq. The ayatollah is blamed for the Shi'ite violence against British and American forces in Basra and in the Shi'ite heartlands of central and southern Iraq.
A British intelligence official said that any campaign against Iran would not be a ground war like the one in Iraq. The Americans will use different tactics, said the intelligence officer. "It is getting quite scary."
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