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Sun 27 Aug 2006 04:00 AM

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The nuke look

It’s not the moment of truth that most in the West thought it would be for Tehran. A firebrand Ayatollah and an unfazed Iranian president that irk Washington and taunt the West is hardly a sign of a country on the verge of being isolated internationally.

|~|71454518-200.jpg|~|Face off: Iran has argued his country has an inalienable right to nuclear technology under the NPT agreement for economic gain, but the U.S., Britain, German and France believe Tehran is after the bomb.|~|As the UN Security Council deadline nears will Iran abandon its nuclear ambitions? Massoud A. Derhally reportsIt’s not the moment of truth that most in the West thought it would be for Tehran. A firebrand Ayatollah and an unfazed Iranian president that irk Washington and taunt the West is hardly a sign of a country on the verge of being isolated internationally.

If anything has epitomized Iran’s defiance of the West as its nuclear program deadline of August 31 neared (as per UN Security Council Resolution 1696), it is the successive intransigent speeches of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has been steadfast in asserting his country has an inalienable right to nuclear technology in line with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) that it ratified in 1970.

His sentiments were echoed last Monday on the even of a self-imposed Iranian deadline meant to be a formal answer by Tehran to Western demands that either it abandons its uranium enrichment programme or else face sanctions. On the eve of the reply, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei lashed out at the West and said Tehran would “continue on its path,” unimpeded and not suspend its programme.

A day later, Iran summoned the ambassadors of European nations and Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council who are reluctant to implement any kind of sanctions against Tehran. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani presented his audience with a 23-page response. Though it’s contents have not been disclosed, the document essentially rejects demands that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment programme but calls for future talks, something that the US, Britain, France, Germany, are unlikely to agree to.

This may now result in some form of action by the UN Security Council in early September, but that isn’t entirely definitive, as council members are not all in agreement on the course of action.

This showdown that has been brewing for nearly three years, comes on the heels of the victory of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which Iran backs, against Israel after a month of fighting. That war has failed to neutralize the Shiite group, strains the psyche of Israel and threatens the lifeline of the Israeli government. More significantly, the outcome of that war, which many see as a test field for a conflict between the US and Iran, has no doubt emboldened Iran.

Iran as a result is confident; secure in the knowledge that it has room to manoeuvre and above all that it has an indisputable right to pursue uranium enrichment, as it has argued, purely to generate electricity, in line with the NPT. Under that treaty, Iran is permitted to have a civilian nuclear energy programme and is building a massive nuclear power plant in Bushehr, which it claims will help its energy production become more efficient.

But the Americans and the Europeans have and continue to argue that a country that is rich with oil reserves and is the fourth largest producer of oil in the world, is in no in need of a nuclear energy programme. More importantly, they contend that such a programme can serve two purposes, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons. That reality represents an ominous and unacceptable status quo for the US and the Europeans.

But Iran and its supporters chide the international community, most notably the US for turning a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear Dimona reactor in the Negev Desert and the Jewish state’s arsenal of over 200 nuclear warheads. Incendiary remarks and views of the Iranian president that “Israel should be wiped off the map,” understandably heighten the anxiety levels in Washington, London and Tel Aviv. On Arab streets and in corners of the Muslim world, his comments are undoubtedly welcome. Israel to that part of the world acts with impunity, and is in defiance of dozens of UN resolutions, so why should Tehran be entitled to do as it pleases is the argument.

Tehran’s oil rich neighbours are jittery about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Prince Saud Al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, revealed the growing fears of Gulf States in an interview earlier in the year in which he said the GCC states were urging Iran to accept their point of view that the entire region is nuclear free and free of weapons of mass destruction. There is fear that if one states acquires nuclear capabilities that will propel others to resulting in a nuclear arms race fairly soon. Despite the mounting pressure, the onset of sanctions has done little to nudge Tehran into the fold of the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) who have offered it a package of incentives including economic assistance if it complies with the demands of the UN’s nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“Zero enrichment is not on the agenda and they [the Iranians] are going to insist on that. They are going to test the response from the international community. They had a warning and they decided not to take it seriously initially so I think the Security Council will be put to a major test as to what sort of resolution we will have,” says Mustafa Alani, director of national security at the Gulf Research Centre. “It will definitely not be another warning because the first warning came in the form of a statement of the Council and there were a number of warnings from the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then there was resolution as a warning. I think we have reached a point of the end of the warnings.”

Those warnings are irrelevant to Tehran. If anything, the resolve of the Iranians has grown stronger. Ten days before the UN Security Council deadline of August 31, Iran denied a team of IAEA Inspectors access to the Natanz installation; an underground nuclear enrichment facility located about 130 miles south of Tehran between Isfahan and Kashan in central Iran.

“As long as Iraq remains in chaos and oil prices soaring, Iran doesn’t feel the need to compromise,” says Karim Sadjadpour, a Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group. “What’s more, given the great haemorrhaging in Lebanon, few European countries want an escalatory situation with Iran. So in the short term I think Iran’s hand has been strengthened.”

The only way out of this nuclear impasse is negotiations says Trita Parsi a Middle East specialist and author of Treacherous Triangle - The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. “Negotiations should take place without any preconditions from either side. Insisting that Iran capitulate before the negotiations begin will not advance the cause of diplomacy and only lead the US to a slippery slope towards war,” he says.

“By adopting an unrealistic position – that Iran completely give up enrichment activities without any offer of American security assurances in return – the West is painting itself in a corner. Adamant about not losing face and not coming across as weak, they may further complicate their problematic position by taking military action. We have seen how the military option in Lebanon and Iraq has backfired, and much indicates that it will be even more disastrous if it is used against Iran,” adds Parsi.

The US has not held any form of direct talks with Iran thus far. Its interests in Tehran are represented by Switzerland. No doubt Iran barring IAEA inspectors last week will be cited by the US and its allies at the UN, as they endeavour to draft a tough resolution that will likely put sanctions in place against Tehran and possibly even provide a window for military action in a future resolution.

A military showdown is something Israel is keen to see and is likely to urge the US to execute. “Israel will encourage the US to take military action if the diplomatic track fails. The US will try to act militarily through the UN, but failing that might act alone,” says Yossi Alpher, a former senior official with the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence arm and a past senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“A military option is feasible. But it will only delay the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, not end it. Nor will it destabilize the regime in Tehran, quite the contrary. I think four factors will define the time horizon [of a military attack]; progress diplomatically on the UN front, intelligence assessments of Iran’s progress in its military nuclear program (when does it cross a ‘red line’?), the overall security situation in the Middle East; the American situation in Iraq; Lebanon; and American politics: mid-term elections, prospects for the 2008 elections.”

Dr. Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University also believes it is unlikely that Israel will try and emulate the pre-emptive strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. “I doubt very much that Israel will take a military action in the near future, precisely because the war in Lebanon did not go so well. The Israeli army would prefer to focus on fixing the problems discovered in Lebanon rather than go at a much more complicated problem such as Iran.”

The prospect of seeing a resolution that authorizes military action though is somewhat slim, largely because of Iran’s strategic friendship with Russia and China. China buoyant industrial growth requires energy and Iran’s proximity means it can obtain oil faster and cheaper. Russia on the other hand has vested economic interests in the country including the energy sector.

“Russia is the key factor in the equation, for China has made it clear they are going to follow Russia’s lead,” says Sadjadpour of the Crisis Group. “If the US and EU are able to get Russia to agree to sanctions I think Iran’s decision making calculus will change. But without Russian support I think European resolve will waver.”

But Russia and China are not the only factor that makes military action against Iran unlikely. Tehran is the fourth largest producer of oil in the world, pumping over 2 million barrels a day. Even if an attack was carried out, which logistically speaking is very difficult because of the distance involved and the size of the payload of bombs used, in addition to obtaining flyover rights from neighbouring countries, an attack on Iran will cause the price of oil, already above $70 a barrel to surge.

“The oil market remains tight in part because of refining problems in part because of actual rebel-induced production cuts in Nigeria and, because of the overall tense geopolitical situation,” says Herman Franssen, president of the US-based International Energy Associates.

If Iran is attacked, Franssen believes Tehran could respond by attacking oil tankers in or close to the Straits of Hormuz, in addition to attacking oil or natural gas facilities in countries allied to the US. This in addition to Iran bringing its own production to halt, “would be sufficient to push oil prices up significantly in the direction of $ 100 a barrel,” says Franssen.

Such an eventuality may also unravel a much wider conflict according to Wayne White, the former deputy director of the US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of Analysis for the Near East. “Hezbollah would certainly attack Israel with long-range rockets, but more disturbingly, Iran has easy access to Iraq and would do everything in its power to further destabilize that already shaky situation,” says White.

Should the cracks in the Security Council not come to the fore, a more probable resolution is one that will put in place economic and diplomatic sanctions against Tehran, according to Alani of the Gulf Research Centre. That would prevent VIPs from travelling, and result in the reduction of diplomatic representation. This will be coupled with various forms of economic sanctions. But the effectiveness of these sanctions is questionable. “Iran is already under US sanctions but this was not effective. Any sanctions against Iran have to be selective now,” says Alani.

The Gulf States will have no option but to enforce any resolution that is adopted. They have no option if it is a Security Council resolution. They basically full implemented sanctions against Iraq and they implemented sanctions fully against Libya or Sudan. This is a Security Council resolution and it is not question of yes or no. They have to accept it. They don’t really have any option than to prevent any sanctions fully.

If a resolution is adopted, it is unlikely to comprise of an embargo on Iran producing or exporting oil. Nonetheless, a resolution of any kind, may well elicit an Iranian reaction. If anything, it would be because the mullahs of Tehran wanting to teach the Americans and the Europeans a lesson. “I would not rule out that the Iranians would do that because they can live ten days or two weeks without exporting oil. They have a good financial position and they will do that just to show that they are able to react,” says Alani. “There is no spare capacity with the Saudis. The only thing the Americans have as an option is to release their reserves, which are about 375 million barrels.”

Alani believes the Iranian aim first and foremost is to acquire nuclear capability, but that essentially the dooms day scenario being tabled by Israel that Iran is months away from becoming a nuclear power is highly exaggerated and that ultimately the Iranians may be delayed in their efforts but they won’t be permanently impeded.

“They will have the bomb like the Pakistanis at the end of the road. But the problem is that if you leave them alone they will produce sooner rather than later,” he says, adding, “The question of enrichment and the question of a secret militarised programme, I think the Iranians will take the challenge to the last minute. This is a chicken game and about who will jump first.”||**||

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