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Iran's nuclear hide and seek
By Ehsan Ahrari

Once again, US President George W Bush has warned that the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran would be "intolerable". Bush told US newspaper executives in Washington this week that any effort by Tehran to produce a nuclear weapon would be dealt with, first by the United Nations.

"One of my jobs is to make sure they [the International Atomic Energy Agency - IAEA - and European leaders] speak as plainly as possible to the Iranians and make it absolutely clear that the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran is intolerable and a program is intolerable; otherwise, they will be dealt with, starting through the United Nations," he said.

The president said Iran's stated objective is the destruction of the state of Israel. Iran has denied charges that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.

Bush's latest salvo follows a report issued by European intelligence sources recently that accuses Iran of "concealing key elements of country's nuclear program" from IAEA inspectors. Since the report states that a committee of "senior Iranian officials" is involved in that alleged concealment campaign, the game of nuclear hide and seek has begun.

As viewed from Washington, Iran has made a decision to become a nuclear power within the near future - between three and five years - if all goes well. That conclusion is shared by both Democrats and Republicans. During the tenure of Democratic president Bill Clinton, US officials spent numerous diplomatic sessions unsuccessfully attempting to persuade their Russian counterparts that Iran intended to develop nuclear weapons. Russian officials, on the contrary, invested ample energy trying to persuade their US counterparts of Iran's desire to use its nuclear program for peaceful purposes only.

The best guess on the US side was that even Russia did not believe Iran had no ambition to develop nuclear weapons. The optimistic US spin was that Russians were in the nuclear deal with Iran for direly needed hard currency and were willing to go along with whatever harebrained rationale Iran forwarded about its nuclear program. The cynical US view is that Russia remains unfazed about the potential emergence of a nuclear Iran. After all, according to that thinking, Russia is already living with three nuclear actors in its neighborhood - China, India and Pakistan - and would not much mind the addition of a fourth one.

In the pre-September 11, 2001 era, US concern about nuclear non-proliferation was not as alarmist as it has become in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks within its borders. Since then, the prospects of a radical Islamist state possessing nuclear weapons has indeed become nightmarish for George W Bush and his neo-conservative cohorts, who also hold many important national-security positions in his administration.

More to the point, the neo-conservatives of the Bush administration entered office sworn to the proposition of making the Middle East safe for Israel's strategic preponderance over Arabs. In fact, an argument can be made that the US decision to invade Iraq was substantially aimed at achieving that objective in a significant way. Israel had viewed Saddam Hussein with considerable trepidation, especially as a result of its experience during the Gulf War of 1991, when he fired a number of Scud missies into the Jewish state, hoping to draw it into the fight and weaken the international coalition assiduously put together by president George H W Bush. In the post-Saddam era, the Bush neo-conservatives view Iran with similar concern, especially when they consider the prospects of its emergence as a nuclear power.

It is not an entirely untenable proposition that Iran indeed wants to become a nuclear power. It knows that the United States and the Soviet Union avoided all potential of direct confrontation during the Cold War years because they were fully constrained by the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. They knew only too well how difficult it was to keep a force-on-force conventional conflict between them from escalating into a nuclear war of mutual annihilation. Iran is fully mindful of the fact that nuclear deterrence remains quite relevant even today.

In the contemporary era, Iran has watched with rapt attention the difference between America's treatment of a nuclear (or at least potentially nuclear) North Korea and its handling of a non-nuclear Iraq. Kim Jong-il continues to dictate the terms and modalities of negotiations to Washington by offering the prospects, in return, of only freezing - but not unraveling - his nuclear-weapons program. By contrast, Saddam is in America's dungeon in Iraq awaiting a trial that will lead to his virtually guaranteed execution. Leaders in Iran are cognizant that the presence and absence of nuclear weapons have made much difference in the case of North Korea and Iraq, respectively. That might be just one very significant reason the ayatollahs refuse to foreswear the option of developing nuclear weapons.

The best thing that is going for Iran is that the Bush administration suffers from a lack of credibility regarding any claims that Iran intends to become a nuclear power. Consequently, it is relying on other sources to make the case - if not prove - that Iran plans to develop nuclear weapons. That is precisely why the intelligence report is so crucial, since it is coming from European sources. One most damaging portion of that report for Iran states: "The [Iranian] committee is making a thorough and systematic examination of all uranium conversion facilities, centrifuge component manufacturing plants and other secret installations to locate poor concealments. It will then order improved concealment measures with a view to making them hermetic before inspections resume."

Given the refusal of Germany, France, and even England to go along with the US proposal last November to persuade the IAEA to refer to Iranian nuclear activities to the UN Security Council for possible condemnation, the Bush administration views the March 27 report regarding the alleged concealment activities of Iran with considerable satisfaction.

Undoubtedly a very deft move on the part of Washington is to let its European allies take the lead of persuading Iran for increasing transparency regarding its nuclear activities. Considering the fact that Iran cannot afford to have Europeans siding with the US and go to the extent of recommending economic sanctions against Iran if it refuses to along with cooperating with the IAEA, the Islamic republic is not left with other enviable choices. But, in all likelihood, Iran will not abandon the game of hide and seek. Its own vision of security related to the possession of nuclear weapons is no different from any current possessor of those horrible weapons.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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Apr 23, 2004

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