Nuclear Conflict in Iran

Playing With Fire

Tehran has plenty at stake in its game of cat and mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agengy. What are the political goals of Iran's delaying tactics in the dispute over its nuclear program? Bahman Nirumand reports

The government in

photo: AP
Subject of debate: Iran's nuclear site Busheher near Shiraz

​​Iran has emphatically rejected the resolution of the IAEA Board of Governors from September 17th. In this ultimatum, the country was ordered to immediately suspend the enrichment of uranium and the construction of centrifuge components as well as to disclose full details of its nuclear energy program before the next meeting of the Board of Governors.

During a military parade in Tehran, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Iran would carry on with its nuclear program regardless of the consequences, even if it led to an "end to international supervision."

"We've made our choice. Now it is up to others." The community of nations, Khatami stated, must recognize Iran's "natural and legal right" to engage in the peaceful investigation and use of nuclear energy. "Otherwise, we will continue along our path even if it leads to an end to international supervision," Khatami stressed.

A Nuclear Domino Effect?

The president once again announced that Iran has no intentions of building nuclear weapons. "Whether or not we are suspected of it – under no circumstances will we try to obtain nuclear weapons, because it opposes the principles of our religion and culture and because we regard these weapons as a great danger to humanity."

But Tehran's rejection of the resolution could have far-reaching consequences, particularly as concerns Israel and the United States, but also in its relations with the European Union. The U.S. – and especially Israel – are convinced Iran is planning to build nuclear weapons. "If we fail to stop Iran in time, it could lead to a nuclear domino effect throughout the entire region," said General Aharon Zeevi, Chief of Israeli Military Intelligence.

The statements made by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were even more concrete. In an interview with the "Jerusalem Post" Sharon said he no longer had any doubts that the Islamic Republic of Iran was striving to build nuclear weapons and that the country is continuing its nuclear program through "excuses and tricks." He considers the inspections made by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the sanctions proposed by the United States to be inadequate.

Sharon said Iran poses a serious threat to Israel, since the country now has long-range missiles capable of reaching Israel. For that reason, Israel is preparing its "own measures" for defense. However, Sharon did not state openly which defense measures he was referring to.

For months, there has been speculation about a possible Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear installations. According to press reports, Israeli secret services have already presented such plans to the government. Political observers are afraid Israel may choose to carry out the military strike before the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November.

Comments from Washington have had a tone similar to that heard in Jerusalem. During a visit to Israel prior to the conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) John Bolton, United States Undersecretary of State, said that while the Bush administration is acting to bring about "a peaceful and diplomatic solution," the U.S. is keeping all its options open - "including the use of force."

According to a report in the Israeli daily newspaper "Ha'aretz," the U.S. plans to sell bombs to Israel suitable for destroying Iran's underground nuclear installations. The report was confirmed by security sources.

Diplomatic Pressure from Brussels

In contrast to the United States, the EU states, in particular Germany, France and Great Britain, have until now been trying to mediate and to solve the conflict in a peaceful way. But recent signs suggest that Tehran's delaying tactics and its announced intention of continuing a uranium enrichment program has led the European Union to take a harder line, nearer to that of the U.S.

Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warned the Iranian government not to "misjudge the reaction of the international community." Entry into the uranium and plutonium industry is "unacceptable," according to Fischer.

While attending the General Assembly of the UN, Javier Solana, the EU's coordinator of foreign policy, also said the European Union would not tolerate Iran having access to nuclear weapons. "We must continue to put our faith in discussion and dialogue. Should that fail, we will be forced to resort to other mechanisms which we really do not prefer."

Even Russia, which for years has been building a reactor block in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr, has now taken this position. In a declaration published by the Foreign Office in Moscow, Russia ordered Iran to put a stop to enrichment of uranium.

While opponents were united in their denouncement of Iran's nuclear program, it was announced that the country had begun to convert 37 tons of “yellowcake” uranium powder into uranium hexaflouride.

This gas is needed for the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium. According to experts, this conversion process would put Iran in the position to enrich enough material for five nuclear bombs.

The Maneuvering of the Mullahs

It may be asked: Why would Iran choose to play with fire? There are two possible scenarios. First, Tehran could be working on developing a nuclear bomb and, through the past two years of delaying tactics, trying to gain time.

Indeed: Despite the constant denials, especially conservatives believe that Iran also needs nuclear weapons for its defense. The country, they say, is surrounded on every side by U.S. military bases.

Therefore, the danger of a military strike is obvious, especially as the United States has come out openly in favor of a change of government in Iran. Were Iran - like North Korea - to possess nuclear weapons, says this theory, the U.S. would never dare to take such a step.

But it is also imaginable that Iran's delaying tactics are merely a ploy to gain greater concessions from the West. These would include access to nuclear technology, the lifting of the economic boycott imposed by the U.S. during the past 25 years, and an extensive trade and economic agreement with the European Union. Additionally, Tehran would like to be assured of its interests in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If the first scenario applies, one must reckon with a military strike against Iran, which would in all likelihood lead to a wildfire that would spread throughout the region.

Should, however, Iran merely be pursuing foreign policy goals, success in achieving those goals would dramatically strengthen the Islamic Republic's position both within and beyond the region, and as a consequence, within the country's borders as well. This would have a devastating effect on the vast majority of the Iranian people, who have long since turned their back on the ruling government.

Bahman Nirumand © Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Mark Rossman

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