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Iran's Nuclear Shell Game

By Kam Zarrabi,

The war in Afghanistan has already gained the title of the Forgotten War, even though the bloodshed, instability and political chaos continue. Iraq will be next to enter the annals of current pseudo-history as something like The Iraq Experiment! Whether the US manages to extricate itself out of that quagmire gracefully, or hang tough for the duration, concerns over Iraq will take second seat to the new regional flashpoint: Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran's plans to develop its nuclear technology, actually encouraged by American technical advisors, began under the Pahlavi regime nearly forty years ago. After the Islamic revolution in 1978-79, the construction of the first reactor for electrical generation in southern Iran was resumed with Russian technical support. Since then, several other sites have been designated for nuclear power generation; currently in progress are the facilities at Natanz and Araak.

It should help to understand that Iran is now a country of some seventy million, with an area larger than the United States east of the Mississippi, immense natural resources that include fairly high-grade uranium ore, as well as some of the world's largest oil and natural gas reserves. Iran's technical universities are among the best, and Iranian scientists, mostly educated and trained in the West, are some of the most highly qualified in their respective fields anywhere. In other words, there is no in-house shortage of raw materials or expertise today for Iran to develop its nuclear industries with little if any outside help.

Iran was a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty early on, thus declaring that its nuclear technology was intended solely for peaceful purposes. In exchange, this supposedly guaranteed Iran's access to technological support and assistance from the members of the nuclear club.

Things are different these days. Now there is a seemingly global concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions. I say 'seemingly' because this concern is neither truly global, nor based on any solid evidence that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT treaty. Nevertheless, suspicions and allegations abound.

The very clever interjection of the phrase 'axis of evil' into George W. Bush's mindlessly presented speech tainted Iran as a 'rogue' nation and a regional troublemaker. Soon to follow were the satellite photographs, along with intelligence reports by the Iraqi based Iranian dissident group, supposedly exposing Iran's secret new nuclear sites at Natanz and Araak. This new revelation was not news to the United Nations' IAEA watchdog committee, and certainly not hidden from thousands of spy satellite passes over that area.

The allegations that Iran was engaged in an ambitious project to develop nuclear weapons met immediately with Iran's strong denials. As a signatory to the NPT agreements, what else was to be expected of the Iranian administration to do but to deny all such allegations? To this day Iran continues to insist that its nuclear research and development are aimed at accepted peaceful purposes guaranteed to all signatories to the Non Proliferation Treaty. Iran further maintains that all such allegations of its violation of the NPT regulations are false and politically motivated by the United States at the behest of Israel, Iran's number one antagonist.

The pressure from the American administration on the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency resulted in several visits by the IAEA officials to inspect Iran's nuclear research and development activities. Each visit resulted in reports that vindicated Iran's claims, yet left enough ambiguities to warrant suspicions as to whether or not Iran could be conclusively cleared of violating the NPT mandates.

Such ambiguities in the IAEA reports, fueled further by the continuous pressure from the United States, resulted in IAEA's harshest criticism of Iran's lack of full cooperation with the UN Agency in its most recent report in late June. This criticism stopped short, however, of recommending a Security Council review for possible sanctions against Iran, in spite of the US State Department pressure to do so.

Charges against Iran can be summarized into two categories: First are allegations that Iran does, in fact, have an ongoing project to develop its nuclear weapons capability and is playing this hide-and seek game with the IAEA inspectors to keep the process secret. Second are allegations that Iran's access to nuclear weapons would threaten the security of the region, meaning Israel no doubt, with a high probability of such weapons falling into terrorists' hands, leading to undesirable global consequences.

Sitting in Tel Aviv or Washington, D.C., this all makes a great deal of sense and is cause for alarm. Why, the question is often raised, does a country that claims some of the world's richest oil and gas reserves need nuclear power generation facilities in the first place? A more important question is why doesn't Iran show full cooperation to accommodate the IAEA inspectors if Iran has nothing to hide? However, the most serious concern over Iran's nuclear activities stems from the phobia created by the anti-Iran propaganda, initiated by the Israeli regime and perpetuated and intensified by the United States, that portrays Iran as a dangerous 'rogue' nation.

The most recent State Department list of states supporters of international terrorism has Iran, again, on top of that list. With Iraq eliminated as a source of concern for Israel, and Syria and Lebanon no match for Israel's military might, Israel regards Iran as its most formidable foe still remaining in the region. Israel has never hidden its anxiety over Iran's potential as a military power that might neutralize Israel's heretofore unchallenged supremacy. Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon have repeatedly voiced their concerns about Iran, and on numerous occasions have even threatened to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities preemptively.

Iran, on the other hand, has its own security woes. Iran's chief concern is, in fact, Israel; not just for what the Israeli military might dare do as Israel has repeatedly threatened to do, but for Israeli interests' well established influence over American policy in the Middle East. American forces now form a complete circle of fire around Iran, from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, to Iraq and even more recently Azerbaijan. At the same time, Israel's German-made diesel submarines, armed with guided missiles and, more than likely, tipped with nuclear warheads, patrol the waters of the southern Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean. As has been recently brought to the open, Israeli agents have long been active in the Iraqi Kurdistan, training insurgents that could have no other logical function but to infiltrate Iran for sabotage and information gathering (Seymour Hersh article in June, 04, New Yorker magazine).

Some international observers are of the opinion that under the current circumstances of unrest in Iraq, America can ill afford another excursion that promises to have far graver repercussions than the occupation of Iraq has demonstrated. For the Iranians, these are not necessarily encouraging predictions. Simply delaying what they are led to believe is the inevitable would clearly embolden Iran to take whatever action at its disposal to discourage such adventurism, and to do it as quickly as it can.

How might Iran discourage efforts by Israel or the United States to infiltrate and destabilize the Islamic Republic? More urgently, what must Iran do to prevent a military attack by Israel or an invasion by the United States?

The answer to the first question is to engage in diplomacy. Diplomatic solutions to international problems infer seeking mutually acceptable negotiated settlements between the parties to the conflict. However, when we hear the more 'moderate' Administration voices, whether here or in Israel, recommend diplomacy as a means of dealing with the so-called Iranian threat, it simply means opting for covert tactics to accomplish the desired task without resorting to military operations. Quite obviously, this form of diplomatic approach will not be acceptable by the Iranians.

To find an answer to the second question, the situations in North Korea and Iraq come to mind. While North Korea was making belligerent claims about its nuclear weapons development, and had already displayed its ballistic missile capabilities, much to Japan and South Korea's dismay, the United States invaded Iraq. To this day it is not known for certain whether North Korea does in fact have an atomic bomb. The mere suspicion of North Korea's nuclear readiness was sufficient to ward off an American military incursion from South Korea or the Sea of Japan. The risk was simply too grave to ignore.

In the case of Iraq, few serious observers, least of all the Israeli intelligence, doubted the UN team's findings, voiced by Dr. Hanz Blix, that there was no evidence of any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. It was with the knowledge that the Iraqis lacked the means of countering with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, that the invasion was initiated.

Today, Iraq is an occupied country and its former leadership killed or imprisoned awaiting prosecution. This is while the United States is offering North Korea economic incentives, technical support and non-aggression agreements in order to bring its leadership to the negotiating table and reduce the risk of a dangerous nuclear arms proliferation.

Two factors help make North Korea a special case deserving of treatment with kid-gloves: One is the probability, however faint, that North Korea does have at least one and perhaps more nuclear bombs. The other factor is that North Korea is not a direct threat to the Middle East oil fields, and more importantly, to Israel.

With that background, Iran's case takes on a special dimension.

No doubt, Iran's internal situation, from economic to social and political, has been and remains in need of major reforms. General public dissatisfaction with repression and economic pressures is endemic in all Middle Eastern states, as well as in other areas of the developing world. However, as we have observed in Iraq under occupation, not even a population that has suffered under the brutal rule of a dictator like Saddam Hussein would welcome an invading army with open arms.

Nearly a quarter century ago, soon after the success of the Islamic Revolution, while Iran's defenses were at total disarray with no formal military and scattered militia, the nation held together against the surprise attack by Saddam Hussein's well organized and fully equipped armed forces. It mattered little what tribe or population was for or against the regime, or whether they were Shi'a or Sunni Moslems, Jews, Zoroastrians or Christians, they fought the invading armies with whatever they had for eight full years, and the nation lost about one million citizens.

An invasion of Iran with expectations of encountering welcoming committees in cities and villages is absolutely out of the question. The only plausible military incursion into Iran would be in the form long-range aerial attacks against military targets or sensitive industrial or nuclear facilities that might paralyze the regime and create internal chaos. The ensuing instability could potentially lead to internal pressures that might lead to major political changes in the nation's power base. But, then again, it might not. To create chaos by disrupting Iran's economic base and political structure, hoping to bring about any desired outcome, could easily prove counterproductive. The Iraqi model may serve as a test case, although Iran is a much more complicated and unpredictable country by comparison.


It would truly be too na´ve to think that the United States and Israel really anticipate that the Iranian government would bow under their diplomatic pressures on the IAEA, and allow all its nuclear research and development activities to become exposed to open inspections. That's not going to happen.

Iran maintains, and rightly so, that it has the right to engage in all types of research and development, including the production of nuclear fuel for its projected power generation facilities, under the NPT agreements, as long as there are no activities related to weapons production. Iran has also agreed to allow much more intrusive inspections by accepting additional IAEA protocols, thus far not yielding any clear evidence of a breach of the NPT regulations.

Does this mean that Iran is definitely not engaging in activities leading to nuclear weapons development? No, it certainly does not; and Iran doesn't intend it to be perceived that way. Does Iran have the material and technical capability to develop its nuclear arsenal? Absolutely yes. And finally, does or should Iran have the development of nuclear weapons and means of their delivery as vital priorities for its national defense? The answer is quite simple: If Iran hasn't prioritized the acquisition of nuclear weapons, it should, or at the very least make it appear as though it does. The nuclear shell game that Iran has been engaged in for the past two years has accomplished that task rather effectively. The most recent announcement by Iran that it will resume its uranium enrichment process was in response to the rather harsh criticism in the last IAEA report for its lack of full cooperation with the UN agency. This process is perfectly legal under the NPT agreements, and Iran still insists that this is intended solely for peaceful purposes, and has every right to do so.

For Mr. John Bolton, the Undersecretary of State in charge of arms control, Iran's action, legal or not, is proof that Iran is actively engaged in nuclear weapons production. The United States intends to take this matter to the United Nations Security Council, and has already banned the shipment to Iran of any material that might even have the potential for applications in weapons technology. To take this matter to its logical limits, one could regard the very existence of nuclear physics departments and graduate students who study nuclear technology as potential contributors to Iran's nuclear weapons development.

As to why should Iran be interested in nuclear power when it has all that oil and natural gas reserves, the question is too stupid to deserve any answer. Russia, the United States and Great Britain all possess adequate fossil fuel reserves and have numerous nuclear power plants as well. Nuclear power is simply more efficient, cheaper, cleaner, and is the energy source of the future. Any nation capable of developing such technologies should not and cannot be denied the right to adopt the most modern means of energy production available.


If we assume that this whole chess game is not simply political maneuvering to put undue pressure on Iran, a genuine concern may exist to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons, and not just in the volatile Middle East, but elsewhere as well.

Who can deny that every sovereign nation is entitled, indeed obligated, to secure its borders against aggression? Iran, a country that has never transgressed against its neighbors, has been attacked by Saddam's Iraq, been threatened by Israel, and remains in the crosshairs of both Israel and the United States. Israel, a trigger-happy belligerent state armed with a massive nuclear arsenal and other forms of internationally banned weapons of mass destruction, is the greatest source of fear and concern in the Middle East. Is Israel the only country entitled to this measure of self-defense?

Clearly, Israel's formidable military power and ability to strike any point on the map with its nuclear weapons, serve as effective deterrents to any hostile intents in the region. However, Israel, perceived as a paranoid pit-bull by practically every state in the region, is also an ever-present source of trouble against which there has never existed any effective deterrent.

How could Iran be denied the right to have access to nuclear parity with its arch antagonist, Israel? Mr. Bolton and other Israel-firsters in the American Administration don't seem to acknowledge this as a valid question.

An even better question is, Why should Israel need nuclear weapons and long-range missiles when its defense is more than guaranteed by the United States and its Western allies who have well-established military presence in the region? Why isn't Israel regarded with the suspicion that its ambitious military build-up, including its new nuclear-armed submarine fleet, might be intended for aggressive purposes?

To answer that, we must deal with the ultimate question: What are our desired objectives regarding the Middle East? If the United States is sincerely in pursuit of establishing, or even encouraging, an environment where the potentials for a stable and democratic Middle East might exist, major revisions in the US attitude and approach are required. So far, American policies in the Middle East have proven otherwise.

One way to interpret this is to surmise that the foreign policy advisors to the various American administrations have been bumbling fools who didn't know how to serve their nation's best interests. Another way is to conclude that America's best geo-political or strategic interests have never been perceived to be served in a democratic, progressive and independent Middle East. If this conclusion sounds too Machiavellian to stomach, we are left with no choice but to conclude that, yes, America, as well as the rest of the industrialized or, as they would call themselves, civilized, world, are truly interested in defusing tensions and threats of aggressions and even the potential for a nuclear holocaust in the region.

It is only in this case that Iran's nuclear ambitions might appear as a potential threat. What can be done to convince Iran to transparently abandon any plans it might have of developing atomic bombs? If Iran's objective is to create a meaningfully effective deterrent to foreign adventurisms by Israel or the United States, the best way to alleviate that fear is to offer Iran a guarantee of non-aggression, such as being considered for North Korea.

Convincing Israel to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, particularly its inordinately huge nuclear arsenal, would help reduce tensions in the region as well. A final settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, leading to an equitable two-states solution, will further help lower the anxiety levels all around.

Finally, abandoning the current confrontational stance against Iran, and opening normal trade and diplomatic channels between the United States and the Middle East's largest industrial economy, will prove helpful in America's war on terrorism and efforts to stabilize the fledgling governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, both Iran's smaller neighbors. This might prove difficult, considering the hardliners' attitude among Iran's ultraconservatives, as well as among the neocons and Israeli lobbyists in this country. The benefits of such rapprochement, however, cannot be overstated.

Of one thing we can be quite certain: Iran is not a pushover or a house of cards as many have portrayed it be. Threats, intimidation and sanctions will only force Iran's conservative hardliners to strengthen their positions as the nation's guardians. Under such conditions, even if Iran might be simply bluffing with its nuclear shell game at this time, prudence alone would dictate striving aggressively to develop the ultimate deterrent, sooner rather than later.

Why not treat Iran as the United States is treating North Korea? Isn't this the message Iran is trying to convey?

... Payvand News - 6/28/04 ... --

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