WASHINGTON – The United States has its hands full dealing with Iraq and North Korea's pursuits of weapons of mass destruction, but the third member of President Bush's "axis of evil" — Iran — has been able to avoid the spotlight — until now.
The State Department says Iran has long held the title of "world's largest proliferator," outranking its axis of evil colleagues in developing and spreading dangerous nuclear technology.
But while the Bush administration threatens an attack against Baghdad and international isolation against Pyongyang, it has taken a muted tone with Tehran.
"We are concerned about Iranian proliferation efforts and efforts to acquire nuclear technology that might lead to a nuclear weapon," said Secretary of State Colin Powell.
But one scientist tracking Iran's nuclear developments says that should change in 2003.
"Over the next year or so, Iran is going to get on the front burner because they're working on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to deliver them," said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a non-profit, non-partisan group that focuses on new approaches to emerging security challenges.
Satellite images released last week show movement at two of Iran's nuclear facilities, Arak and Natanz.
Natanz is suspected of being used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, and the United States now believes Iran is trying to literally cover up some of the structures.
Iran has been caught constructing a secret underground site where it could produce fissile material.
The better-known Bushehr nuclear facility has long been a tense topic between the United States and Russia, which has been providing technology to the Iranians as well as supporting their claims that the reactor is just for electricity.
Powell is likely to bring that up Friday — as he has countless times before — in discussions with his Russian counterpart who will be in Washington for a meeting on the Middle East.
Powell has also been asking European allies to curtail their dealings with Iran. The European Union opened trade talks this week with Tehran, but leaders assure Washington their endgame is the same.
"We are not just trading with Iran. It's on a condition that there's progress on political and human rights," said EU President Per Stig Moeller.
And though months of student demonstrations against the hardline Islamic government haven't made much progress on that front, Pike said that's still the way to go for Iranian citizens.
"If there is going to be a regime change in Iran, the best prospect is going to be from the Iranian people themselves rather than the American military simply overthrowing the government the way we're talking about with Iraq," he said.
In an effort to capitalize on the pro-democracy spirit in the streets, the United States planned to start beaming in radio programs to Iran on Thursday.
Fox News' Teri Schultz contributed to this report.