Iran Opens Nuclear Locks – and a Hornet’s Nest

Now that Iran has broken the seals it put two and a half years ago on an atomic research facility at Natanz, 250 km (155 mi.) south of Tehran, the threat of escalating conflict centered on the Western powers’ effort to halt its nuclear activities looms large.

The major nuclear-weapon states, led by the United States, have warned Iran against pursuing even research that might lead to uranium enrichment. Iran insists that it will go ahead with the research, but that “production of nuclear fuel remains suspended.” (Currently, Iran is only converting uranium into hexafluoride gas at Isfahan, not enriching it.)

As both sides ratchet up the confrontation, the whiff of conflict hangs in the air, with distressing implications for the whole world.

This time around, the contestation is likely to be more serious than in September, when the U.S. dragged Iran before the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency which held it “noncompliant” with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran could soon face tough sanctions from the United Nations Security Council in a telescoped replay of a part of the drama over Iraq between 2000 and 2003, which eventually led to its invasion and occupation.

There are three differences, though. Iraq’s alleged nuclear activities were clandestine – although they did not result in a capability to make nuclear weapons of mass destruction, as Western governments falsely claimed. By contrast, Iran’s current activities are transparent and taking place right in the presence of IAEA inspectors.

Second, Iraq in 2002-2003 had no civilian nuclear program worth the name. Most of its clandestine military nuclear infrastructure was dismantled after the 1991 Gulf War under a tough United Nations Security Council mandate.

Iran has a civilian nuclear program, stretching from the mining of uranium to its enrichment to constructing a power reactor. Also, unlike Iraq, it can legitimately invoke its “right” to peaceful nuclear activities under the NPT, subject to IAEA inspections. This right is affirmed under Articles 1 and 4 of the treaty.

Third, Iraq in 2003 was a weak, militarily near-disabled country with an economy crippled by decade-long sanctions. Its totally undemocratic state had very little legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Iran is a culturally vibrant, self-confident society with a strong economy, which now stands further boosted by high oil prices. It is a middle-level military power with a popularly elected government. It will not be easy to isolate Iran, unlike Iraq.

“In fact,” says Hari Vasudevan, professor of international relations at Calcutta University, “Iran enjoys unique strategic advantage because of the highly troubled situation in Iraq, which the U.S. has failed to quell.” He adds: “Sixty percent of Iraq’s population is Shia, and Iran wields enormous influence in Iraq. It has so far desisted from fomenting further trouble in Iraq, but could do so if cornered and provoked by the U.S. and its allies.”

Iran has two more advantages in its favor. It has been working closely with Russia in its civilian nuclear program Russia is helping it build a power reactor at Bushehr, due to be commissioned this year.

It also enjoys a degree of support and sympathy from the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) and China. The bulk of the NAM group at the IAEA, barring India and a handful of small countries, abstained from or voted against the U.S.-sponsored Sept. 24 resolution against Iran. As did China and Russia.

This week, too, China refused to sign a joint statement with the other permanent members in the Security Council and tried to water down the final resolution.

“All this might only frustrate U.S. efforts to diplomatically isolate Iran,” says Qamar Agha, a Middle East expert at the Center for West and Central Asian Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. “Western Europe is far too dependent upon Iran’s oil and gas to go to extreme lengths in sustaining sanctions that cripple Iran’s energy generation. Therefore, the U.S. might be tempted to use military force, jointly with Israel, to bomb select facilities in Iran.”

In recent weeks, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Porter Goss visited Turkey and briefed a number of other states in Iran’s neighborhood on U.S. plans for attacking Iran. Israel has already declared that Iran’s nuclear program “can be destroyed.” And Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu has nostalgically invoked Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s experimental nuclear reactor under construction.

A number of U.S. doctrinal pronouncements, and reports about a recently approved U.S. “global strike plan,” with a nuclear option, suggest that a preemptive American strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, either unilateral or jointly with Israel, cannot be ruled out.

A former Indian intelligence officer, Vikram Sood, believes that such an attack might use nuclear weapons. “A conventional attack on Iran would be expensive and not quite cost-effective. It would allow Iranian retaliation.” To preempt retaliation, the U.S. might use tactical nuclear weapons against Iran’s underground facilities.

“The tragedy unfolding,” says Sood, “is that if the U.S. believes that its adversary possesses or has the intention to possess WMD, then it is justified to consider this a threat to itself and to U.S. forces in the region. It must, therefore, act preemptively. The fear also is that, unlike in the case of Iraq, when considerable time was spent in building the case, this time the attack will be sudden and actual justifications will be given later.”

Any such attack would break the 60-year-old, very welcome taboo against the use of nuclear weapons – with extraordinarily negative consequences for global peace and security. It could also unleash violence on an unprecedented scale in the Middle East and chaos in other disturbed parts of the world.

Such a dreadful outcome can only be prevented if the West moves away from coercive diplomacy to isolate Iran and opens serious talks with it, and if the nuclear-weapon states rethink their own policies. These are based on total hypocrisy.

Today, as the West accuses Iran of nursing nuclear ambitions, it has itself no intention of reducing nuclear arms. The U.S. has embarked on a plan to expand its nuclear capability both upwards, through “Star Wars,” and downwards, through bunker-buster bombs. Similarly, Britain has announced a $40 billion replacement project for the Trident missile.

Smaller nuclear states such Israel, India, and Pakistan have also set negative examples.

If Iran is to be dissuaded from its nuclear pursuits, all these countries must lead by example– by taking concrete, measurable steps toward nuclear-arms reduction and disarmament. If they do not, the situation could rapidly spin out of control.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.