Iran’s nuclear challenge

On January 11, in the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, Iran removed the seals at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, 250 km south of Tehran. Iran insisted it took this step in order to conduct nuclear fuel research and not to produce large quantities of enriched uranium. IAEA chief Mohamad El Baradei also acknowledged that Iran intended to produce enriched uranium on a "small scale". Yet the same Baradei, in an interview to Newsweek magazine, declared: "If [the Iranians] have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far–a few months–from a weapon".

The removal of the IAEA seals triggered a strong reaction from four of the Security Council members, the United States, Britain, France and Russia, and from other key European countries. It seems that after two years of hard negotiations, the Iranians have concluded that their critical dialogue with the EU representatives did not make headway because, in their view, the Europeans were trying to stop Iran permanently in its effort to use nuclear energy. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, challenged the West by declaring firmly and openly that Tehran would not give up its nuclear program "which has been achieved by the talented youth of the country".

The removal of the seals came after talks between Russia and Iran on a proposed compromise to end the row over uranium enrichment. Moscow proposed that Tehran carry out uranium enrichment on Russian territory to allay western fears that the technology could allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. Washington has long voiced the view that oil-rich Iran does not need to develop atomic power and that Tehran only wants a nuclear reactor (which the Russians are building) in order to develop nuclear weapons.

According to a Washington Post staff writer, Dafna Linzer, "A major US intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon". If this report is correct, the time required for the Iranian government to create a nuclear weapon is practically twice the previous estimate of five years, which was based on the first-hand knowledge of American government sources.

But even if this new estimate expresses doubts and uncertainties as to whether Iran’s ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal, it goes without saying that Washington would prefer that Iran not acquire any nuclear reactors at all. Many argue in Washington that if Iran develops an atomic weapon it will certainly use it as a means to expand and consolidate its sphere of influence in the Middle East. Others believe an Iranian bomb would enable Iran to pursue a much more aggressive foreign policy against its archenemy, Israel. Last but not least, some western countries fear that elements inside the Iranian regime would secretly provide fissile material to Islamist terrorists around the world.

The main counter-argument put forward by Iran is that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) it can indeed develop a nuclear fuel cycle under inspection. As for creating an atomic weapon–should Iran choose to do so–a number of rationales are being discussed among the think tanks in the Iranian capital. The first argument is that Iran’s neighborhood is bristling with nuclear weapons. Three nuclear powers, Pakistan, Israel and Russia, are on its doorstep, and two others, India and China, are not far away. Besides, Iran is surrounded by a US military presence in neighboring Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq and Central Asia, and American warships armed with long-range missiles are navigating in the Persian Gulf.

One should also consider very closely the present leadership in Iran, which is less likely to accept a full compromise with the West. President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, a little-known former IRGC officer appointed mayor of Tehran after conservatives swept the 2003 Tehran municipal council election, has long-standing ties to Iran’s traditional conservative elite. Supported by the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian security forces, Ahmadinezhad is surely motivated to solidify the position of the security faction within Iran’s ruling elite.

Besides all these arguments, the development of nuclear technologies has become a matter of nationalistic pride in Iran. The government of Iran has had a hand in cultivating this trend by mobilizing public sentiment against the West. Some Iranians believe that US pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program is a conspiracy by the western powers to prevent Iran from acquiring advanced research capabilities and keep it backward and dependent on the West. Against this backdrop, no political faction in Iran can afford to argue for giving up on the country’s nuclear program. Yet the nuclear issue is not a problem that concerns Iranians on an everyday basis. A survey carried out by a reform-inclined newspaper in December 2005 showed that more than 65 percent of Iranians had lost their initial interest in the issue.

This said, Iran will certainly continue with its nuclear program. Apart from the importance of the nuclear question as a political factor for regime consolidation and popularity, the Iranian government is very much aware that the West’s options are limited. Sanctions, for example, would not be easy. Given the present high price of oil, any ban on Iran’s 2.5 million barrel-per-day oil exports would only raise prices further.

And what if sanctions do not work? Military action might then be on the agenda. It goes without saying that a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities by the US, Israel, or both acting together, similar to the Israeli attack in the early 1980s against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear project, would be a dangerous decision with unpredictable consequences. Both the US and Israel have the required technical and operational capability for such a strike, but it would be beset with problems the likes of which Israel did not face in attacking Iraq.

By the same token, a US-led military intervention in Iran similar to its intervention in Iraq is unlikely to happen, because it could prove even messier than the intervention in Iraq. It could undermine Shi’ite support for American security forces in Iraq in their efforts to pacify the country. The EU countries would certainly not support it.

An attack on Iran should also be understood in relation to the timely withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, which has opened up new options for the deployment of Israeli forces to other fronts. Participation by Turkey in a US-Israeli military operation is also a factor, following an agreement reached between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

Military action against Iran is likely to trigger a broader war throughout the Middle East, not to mention an implosion in the Palestinian state. If that moment comes, it would be another decision point for the West, Iran and Israel. In other words, there is a lot at stake for everyone in Iran’s nuclear challenge. Hence both Iran and the West must exercise great caution in handling this issue in the next few months.