US-Iran nuclear row

Amin Saikel

Iran is now potentially on a serious collusion course with the United States and its staunchest ally in the Middle East, Israel, over Iran's nuclear program. If the current round of negotiations between Iran and America's three European allies Britain, France and Germany fails to allay American and Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear activities, Washington has threatened to take the issue to the UN Security Council in order to impose sanctions on Iran and to take whatever other measures appropriate, including military actions. Similarly, Israel is reported to have plans for targeting Iran's nuclear facilities. The question is: what will Iran's options be in the event of a confrontation?

Washington and Israel have alleged that Iran is intent on producing nuclear bombs, and have wanted Iran to permanently halt its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. President George Bush has condemned the Iranian Islamic regime as a member of the 'axis of evil', and an outpost of tyranny and exporter of international terrorism. He has vowed not to allow it to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, President Bush's position is not widely shared in the international community. Even many of the US's European allies, which have extensive economic and trade engagements with Iran, have not been prepared to back Washington's concerns all the way. They have preferred negotiation as the best means to persuade Iran to turn its temporary halt of uranium enrichment into a permanent one and thus depend on an approved outside supply of fuel to operate its nuclear facilities for non-military purposes.

This, together with a consideration that it should do what is needed first to isolate Iran internationally, has led Washington since early 2004 to back three of its European allies, Britain, France and Germany, to negotiate with Iran for a peaceful resolution. It has also progressively joined them in offering a package of political, economic and technological incentives, lately including support for Iran's admission into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). However, in return it wants Iran at best to forego its nuclear program altogether and at worst to put the program under verifiable international control.

While a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Tehran insists that its acquisition of nuclear technology and uranium enrichment, which are permitted under the NPT, are for peaceful purposes. It has largely co-operated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its nuclear facilities and has signed the 'additional protocol' for vigorous inspection. Further, it has suspended temporarily its uranium enrichment as a conciliatory gesture for a negotiated settlement. Over the last year, the IAEA has by and large cleared Iran of any wrong doing, but with lingering suspicion that Iran might have a secret nuclear military program.

"Washington has never wished Israel to become subject to the same constraints as the Arabs and Iranians."

However, Tehran has remained adamant in its resolve not to back down from its 'sovereign right' to acquire nuclear technology and enrich uranium up to a certain grade for civilian use. It has threatened to resume uranium enrichment if the current negotiation with the three European powers fails or drags on for too long. It has argued that it has done nothing in violation of international treaties. The dominant fear among the Iranian leadership is that the US and some of its allies, especially Israel, are using the nuclear issue as a pretext to achieve wider objectives. One is to secure a regime change in Iran and to regain the country as a vital strategic foothold as it once was under the Shah's pro American regime. Another is to prevent one of the unintended consequences of the US led invasion of Iraq that is, the empowerment of the Iraqi Shia majority, which has close sectarian affiliations with Iran from giving rise to a hostile strategic entity stretching from Iran to Lebanon. The third is to couple a regime change in Iran with a possible similar change in Syria, whose leadership has a strong sectarian and political relationship with Tehran, not only to ensure the success of the occupation of Iraq and US involvement in Afghanistan, but also to push to transform the Middle East in the image of the United States. This would be in pursuit of realising the goal of many neo conservatives within the Bush Administration. The fourth is to secure the future of America's geopolitical dominance and Israel's strategic supremacy in the region on a long term basis.

The Iranian leaders believe that it is largely in pursuit of these considerations that Washington has constantly accompanied its criticism of Iran's nuclear program with a vigorous demonisation of the country's Islamic regime. They have also intimated that it is for similar reasons that Washington has turned a blind eye to Israel's nuclear capability and accepted the Sunni Muslim-dominated Pakistan as a member of the nuclear club in the wake of the latter's decision to become the US's partner in the war on terrorism following the events of 11 September 2001. While lending credence to Iranian fears, some analysts have argued that the threatening environment of insecurity that the US and Israel have created for the Iranian regime may have pushed some of its leaders towards opting for nuclear deterrence. Yet it is also this very fact that has Washington and Israel very worried about Iranian intentions.

The Iranian leadership has said that it will not let the US or Israel determine its nuclear policy and impinge upon its sovereignty and legitimate right to pursue an independent foreign policy. In a recent blistering attack on the US, Iran's all powerful supreme religious and political leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamanei, who is identified with the hard line Islamist faction in Iranian politics, warned Washington against interfering in Iranian affairs and asked it to stay out of Iran's nuclear program. He claimed that Iranian leaders, whether hard line or moderate Islamists, were united on this issue. In an echo of the long standing enmity between the two sides, he condemned the US as 'arrogant rude and deserved a punch in its mouth'. He has reportedly instructed Iran's chief negotiators in Geneva not to negotiate beyond the point that may undermine Iran's sovereignty and entitlements under international law, and has said that if this results in a confrontation with the US, let it be so.

The Iranian negotiators believe that talks with the three European powers and the IAEA have now passed the point by which the US could rely legitimately to take the issue to the UN Security Council later this year. They have expressed cautious optimism about the success of the talks with the European powers. They have also said in private that even if the talks fail the US may not be able to secure a Security Council resolution, for either Russia or China would be willing to veto it. Both Moscow, which has assisted in the construction of Iran's nuclear facilities and extracted guarantees from Tehran not to produce nuclear bomb grade enriched uranium, and Beijing, which has also developed considerable economic and trade ties with Iran, have backed Iran in the nuclear dispute. In this, they are motivated by geopolitical considerations of their own in opposition to those of Washington. At the same time, the Iranian negotiators have no illusion about the possibility of a Bush Administration's resolve to seek a regime change in Iran irrespective of what they say or do with regard to the Iranian nuclear program. They point to the example of Washington's dealing with Saddam Hussein's regime over his alleged WMDs. At this stage the distrust and enmity between the Bush Administration and the Iranian Islamic regime run so deep that no one can rule out the possibility of a US or an Israeli (or a combined) military campaign against Iranian nuclear instillations and other military targets in the foreseeable future.

It is reported that the CIA has already been active in Iran and that the Pentagon has drawn certain contingency plans for military actions. Similarly, Israel has moved closer to acting if the US fails to do so in the near future. Tehran has expressed a full awareness of such possibilities and vowed to retaliate with devastating consequences for the US and Israel in the region. Given the fact that the Iranian regime is far more resourceful than that of Saddam Hussein, its threat of retaliation has to be taken seriously. Iran is not only oil rich, with a commanding position to control the Strait of Hormuz, through which the bulk of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf countries is exported to the outside world, but also has a very sizable devoted cadre of Islamists and a formidable military machine to deploy to maximum effect. In what ways could Iran respond to a US or an Israeli attack? It has several non military and military options.

First Iran has the capacity to block the highly strategic Strait of Hormuz. Located in the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the Strait touches Iran to the north and the Sultanate of Oman to the south. It connects the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. It is about 280 km in length and 50 km in width at its narrowest point. In the early 1990s during the Iran Iraq war, Tehran had threatened several times to close the Strait and the US had pledged to keep it open at all costs. Iran has a considerable military and naval power deployed to the north, with a capacity to threaten shipping and to carry out commando actions to mine or sink a number of ships to block the Strait. Iranian officials have said that in the event of a conflict Tehran will have no hesitation to take such actions. The best way the US could keep the Strait open is to land troops on the Iranian side, but that would be something that the Iranians would want to happen as it would enable them to draw the US into a difficult and costly ground war. Yet it is also this scenario that the Americans would want to avoid, especially in the light of their bitter experiences in Iraq.

Second, Tehran is in a position to flex its oil muscle. Currently, Iran produces some 4 billion barrels of oil a year. If it institutes either a substantial reduction or a complete halt in its oil output, this would, in the present climate of growing global oil consumption, create a serious oil shortage in the world market, causing an energy crisis and oil prices to rise dramatically, with devastating economic and therefore political consequences for the US and its allies as well as the rest of the world. Neither any of the oil producing states (most importantly Saudi Arabia as the largest producer within OPEC) nor the US itself, through the release of strategic reserves, will be in a position to compensate for the loss of the Iranian oil. Of course, such a development will also be extremely harmful to Iran itself, but several Iranian policy makers have indicated in private that when it comes to the survival of the Islamic regime and therefore Iran, no means will be spared.

Third, Tehran is capable of making life a lot more difficult for the forces of the United States and its allies in Iraq than what they have experienced to this point. So far, Tehran has acted with much restraint in Iraq, for two main reasons. One, it has believed that no matter what, the US push for democracy in Iraq will ultimately deliver the political power to its Iraqi Shia allies. It has consequently urged the Iraqi Shia leaders to avoid the use of violence as a means to achieve what could eventually come their way through the US-backed electoral processes. However, a US or Israeli attack will change everything all gloves will be off. Tehran could be expected not only to encourage its Iraqi allies to fight the US forces, but also to send thousands of its own commandos and suicide bombers to punish the Americans in Iraq. It could also count on the support of many Shia individuals and groups within its regional network of Islamic activists to target Americans and Israelis and their interests throughout the region. Such groups include most prominently the Lebanese Hezbullah, which is widely recognized in the region as an effective counter to Israel. By the same token, it could rely on some of its Shia supporters in Afghanistan, where the Shia form close to 20 per cent of the population, to work against the Americans and their allies to undermine Afghanistan's very fragile peace and stability.

Beyond these non military options, Tehran has the capacity to take retaliatory military actions. It has built a formidable military machine, equipped with both medium and long range Shihab 1 3 missiles capable of carrying heavy payloads to hit targets as far as 2,000 kms away. This means that Iranian missiles could easily reach targets anywhere in the Gulf region and Israel. The Iranian regime could easily mobilize a million men under arms in addition to the 450,000 troops and thousands of revolutionary guards that it already has at its disposal. While they will not be able to match the American firepower, the Iranian forces could make up for this to some extent by the degree of Iranian Islamist and nationalist fanaticism that they could display.

Given the fact that a US Iranian military confrontation carries a serious risk of causing utter devastation and an inferno that could engulf the entire region, it is important for both the Iranian and American sides, and for that matter the international community, to do everything possible to ensure the success of the current talks between Iran and the three European powers. These negotiations cannot bear any positive results unless the parties involved go beyond the nuclear issue to address the conditions which have led the Iranians to live in constant fear of the US and Israel, and the Americans and the Israelis to remain increasingly suspicious of Iran's nuclear intentions. In other words, there is a political context to the nuclear row whose viable resolution depends very much on how the parties can politically come to terms with each other. One way that the Iranians can be persuaded to allay the American concerns is for Washington to come to terms with the Iranian Islamic regime and to stop constantly threatening it. Washington could also agree to a region wide regime of WMD control to include Israel. The Iranians have indicated that they will be happy to consider such a regime. However, Washington has remained averse to this idea. It has never wished Israel to become subject to the same constraints as the Arabs and Iranians.

The Australian government has supported the Iranian European powers talks and called for a speedy and peaceful resolution of the problem. While its stand is a step in the right direction, it needs to go further than this to promote a wider understanding between Tehran and Washington on a host of concerns. Canberra is well placed to use its alliance with the United States and good working relationship with Iran to engage in a policy of bridge building between the two sides. Although Tehran remains suspicious of the Howard government's support for American policies in the Middle East, it has nonetheless valued its relations with Australia to the extent that over the last decade and a half it has sent some 900 Iranians for post graduate studies in Australian universities and imported Australian wheat to the tune of some $500 million per year. Despite a reduction in its number of students in Australia in recent years and purchase of wheat due to Iran achieving self-sufficiency in 2004, Tehran still remains keen to pursue friendly and mutually beneficial relations with Australia. It is important for Canberra to play its part in bringing about a Washington-Tehran rapprochement as a foundation for resolving many long standing problems between the two sides. It is this goal towards which every responsible political activist should work.


Amin Saikal is Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East Central Asia) and Professor of Political Science. Professor Saikal has specialised in the politics, history, political economy and international relations of the Middle East and Central Asia. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University, Cambridge University and the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex), as well as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in International Relations (1983-1988). He is a member of many national and international academic organisations. He is the author of numerous works on the Middle East, Central Asia, and Russia. This is the text of his address to the Iranian Resistance Council Forum:'Options for Peace', convened in NSW Parliament House on 4 May 2005.


Also on the Evatt site: