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The Growing Risk to Iran's Nuclear Technology Program

Nader Habibi

For the past three decades Iran has shown a persistent interest in development of nuclear technology. This interest has been one of the most stable aspects of Iran's technological development policy. However, despite Iran's repeated declarations that it is only interested in peaceful application of nuclear technology, the United States has accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. It has also tried very hard in recent years to prevent other nations from assisting Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. opposition to Iran's nuclear program is to a large extent due to Iran's hostile relations with the U.S. and Israel. Israel, itself, has expressed a deep suspicion about Iran's nuclear motives and seems committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.

In light of the military capabilities and the expressed opposition of United States and Israel, Iran's nuclear facilities are at risk. If Iran's nuclear program reaches a stage that can produce weapons grade material, either Israel or the United States might carry out a preemptive strike against its key facilities. Iran should not underestimate the likelihood of such an operation.

Since Iran's air defense at the present is not capable of intercepting and neutralizing such a strike, billion's of dollars worth of investment that have gone into its nuclear program could be destroyed overnight. Iranian policymakers might think of several options that Iran can adopt to reduce the risk of such an attack but as will be described below, none of them appear to be feasible under current international climate.

One option is to forge a strong political and military alliance with a powerful nation that can shield Iran's nuclear facilities against an air strike. Possible candidates are Russia, China, and to a lesser extent India and Pakistan. However, both, Russia and China have close commercial ties with the United States and cannot afford to anger the United States by supporting Iran. Russia is offering nuclear technology to Iran despite U.S. protest but it will not go as far as risking a military confrontation with the U.S. over Iran's nuclear program. The possibility of receiving protection from China is even less likely. The third and fourth candidates Pakistan and India are locked in a bloody conflict with each other and neither one can afford to annoy the United States.

A second option is to demonstrate a credible retaliatory power. This could include an array of unconventional weapons and an effective missile system that can deliver such weapons in large quantities to Israel and possibly the United States. However, both of these countries are closely monitoring Iran's missile technology and they are fast at work developing anti-missile weapons. Furthermore, if Iran resorts to such weapons in retaliation for an attack on its nuclear facilities, it could face a full-scale war with the U.S. and Israel in which it will be at a disadvantage. Hence the threat of retaliation is not a viable deterrence either.

The third option is to work towards improving Iran's relations with the United States. Improved U.S.-Iran relations will reduce the risk of a U.S. initiated strike but it will not necessarily deter Israel. Keep in mind that Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor despite the latter's close relation with the United States in 1980s. Currently, Israel has a close military cooperation with Turkey. With access to Turkish airbases near Iran, Israel can attack Iran's nuclear facilities independently (or at least without any official coordination with the United States.)

If Iran goes a step further and adopts a more moderate policy towards Israel (similar to the current position of the Arab League, which calls for recognition of Israel in exchange for withdrawal from occupied territories), then the threat will be further reduced. However, A powerful faction of Iran's current Islamic regime is strongly opposed to rapprochement with the United States or adoption of a softer policy towards Israel. Hence this option does not seem to be feasible.

Since none of these options is feasible in the short-run, Iran must look to alternative strategies to safeguard its nuclear policy. One strategy is to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Agency. This requires full submission to surprise inspections of all nuclear facilities and acceptance of a highly intrusive inspection program by international monitoring teams. Under this option Iran might be allowed to continue its nuclear program because the inspections will ensure the international community that Iran is not using its nuclear technology for military purposes.

A second strategy, available to Iranian policy makers, is to significantly slow down the nuclear program such that Israel and the United States are convinced that there is no need for an immediate military strike. This strategy will give Iran breathing time until the current international climate changes or Iran's ability to defend its nuclear facilities improves. It appears that Iran has chosen the opposite option in recent months. Instead of slowing down it has accelerated its nuclear development program and has revealed to the world that it will soon achieve self-sufficiency in development of enriched nuclear materials. This announcement has lead to a sharp increase in U.S. expression of concern about Iran's nuclear intensions. Some U.S. experts have warned that it is only a matter of months before Iran can produce weapon's grade nuclear materials.

It must also be kept in mind that even if United States and Israel decide that for, strategic or diplomatic reasons, a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is not appropriate, they might resort to other means to slow down the pace of Iran's nuclear program. One option that they might consider is to deprive Iran of access to any type of technology that might have an application in its nuclear program. This means the continuation and even intensification of the current economic sanctions. Since the lack of cooperation from Europe and Russia might reduce the effectiveness of this option, the U.S. might try to weaken Iran's economy by contributing to political instability. Iran is currently in the middle of a power struggle between the conservatives and reformists, which has created a dangerous climate. There is a growing concern that the current conditions could deteriorate into political violence and social unrest. Clandestine foreign intervention could increase the probability of such an undesirable outcome. Those who are opposed to Iran's nuclear program might facilitate such an outcome because it will be very difficult for a country that is involved in a violent political crisis to pursue a nuclear technology program in an efficient and speedy manner. The opponents might also try to weaken Iran by assisting the violent opposition groups and promoting movements for ethnic independence.

In conclusion, unless Iran is able to convince the world community and the United States in particular, that its nuclear program does not lead to the production of nuclear weapons, it should significantly slow down its nuclear program during the next few months. Otherwise, Iran must be prepared for a possible military strike against its nuclear facilities and many other measures that certain countries might take to stop its nuclear program.

About the author:

Nader Habibi works for an economic consulting firm in Philadelphia as a regional specialist for Persian Gulf. He has taught economics in Iran, Turkey and most recently in the United States. His latest publication is a novel called "Atul's Quest." Atul's Quest offers a satirical look at racial attitudes in developing countries and third world immigrant communities in the United States.

... Payvand News - 3/24/03 ... --

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