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Whispers of regime change
By Ehsan Ahrari

As a number of public opinion polls show a sustained, if not growing, lead that US President George W Bush enjoys over his Democratic Party opponent John Kerry, the neo-conservatives have started a whisper campaign of possible regime change in Iran after the November presidential election. The element of hubris for which the neo-cons have been notorious is being applied cavalierly about the almost inevitability of Bush's re-election, even though much can happen before polling day. If Bush is indeed re-elected, the world is likely to encounter, if not a US military invasion of Iran, believing the whisper campaign, then most likely a preemptive neutralizing of all of its nuclear reactors.

Undoubtedly, Iran has intensified the conflict by declaring on Tuesday that it had begun "converting tons of uranium [oxide] into [uranium hexafluoride] gas", a crucial step in making fuel for a nuclear reactor - or a nuclear bomb. This was in defiance to a recent call by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for Iran to suspend all such activities. President Mohammad Khatami added a rather strange wrinkle to this episode by stating that the world must recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium for power stations, as if that right was as "natural" as the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. He added, "Then the way will be open for further cooperation. Iran is ready to continue its activities under full IAEA supervision and convince the world it is not considering atomic weapons." At least from its public statements, Iran does not want to recognize the linkages between its enrichment of uranium and possible development of nuclear weapons. The US, on the other hand, has concluded that Iran is well on its way to developing nuclear weapons.

Iran now has a full-blown credibility problem vis-a-vis the international community. Last October it announced that it would freeze all activities related to uranium enrichment. That was a reasonable position, and many countries - certainly a number of European states - believed it. Within a matter of less than a year, its government made a radical volte-face and depicted uranium enrichment as a matter of "right".

Iran might be drawing the wrong lessons from the ongoing US-North Korea nuclear weapons-related conflict. Since Kim Jong-il is being intransigent about unraveling his nuclear-weapons program, Iran seems to be operating from the premise that it, too, can get away by adopting a similar posture regarding its own nuclear program. It doesn't realize that circumstances surrounding North Korea's nuclear weapons program are starkly dissimilar from its own program for several reasons.

First, North Korea is understood to possess nuclear weapons. Such a reality makes it difficult for the US seriously to consider implementing preemption. That is not to say, however, that diplomatic pressure on North Korea will lessen in the coming months, regardless of who is sitting in the White House come January. Second, the six-nation forum on the US-North Korea nuclear weapons conflict might still pull off a negotiated solution of that conflict, especially if China envisages high enough payoffs stemming from its pressure on its ally. Third, recent reports of South Korea's development of highly enriched uranium, and even plutonium, was a setback for the United States' hardnosed position that Pyongyang unravel its nuclear-weapons program. Finally, the very nature of threats related to even a nuclear North Korea are not that grave, considering that its three neighbors - Japan, Taiwan and South Korea - also possess significantly sophisticated nuclear capabilities. So even if North Korea becomes a nuclear power - or if it already is in that category - those countries have not couched their security-related threats in stark terms. All three are protected under the US security arrangements.

On the other hand, the prospects of a nuclear Iran have already been portrayed by the US and Israel as inherently threatening to the region, and Israel in particular. One has to read some of the published top national-security-related documents - such as the National Security Strategy, the National Military Strategy and the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review - to grasp how serious the US is regarding the spread of weapons of mass destruction, especially among the so-called "axis of evil" states - Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Most important, there is no great power that would risk a serious rift with the US by even pretending to come to the rescue of Iran.

It must be stated that such grim portrayals notwithstanding, there is still ample room for negotiations. However, the sole purpose of such negotiations, at least from the US side, is for Iran to cease imminently its enrichment of uranium and, more to the point, be willing to cooperate fully with the IAEA in future intrusive inspections. Unfortunately from the point of view of Iran, in the environment post-September 11, 2001, its nuclear programs are clashing head-on with the overall US determination to unravel such programs wherever it finds them: Libya, North Korea and Iran. Of course, Libya is identified as the shining success of America's nuclear non-proliferation endeavor. North Korea's nuclear status might have become a fait accompli , but it is still not regarded as such in Washington. The chief focus of the six-nations dialogue is to unravel it, no matter what. That is why Washington is so persistently and resolutely insisting that Iran stop all its uranium-enrichment activities before they continue for too long.

What is also hurting Iran is the fact that the EU-3 (Germany, France and the United Kingdom), which are negotiating with it, are also demonstrating almost no patience. They have couched Iran's choices quite brusquely: either it cease its enriching of uranium, or the matter will be referred to the United Nations Security Council. There is a slight chance that either Russia or China would exercise their veto, if any stringent resolution were passed sanctioning Iran. However, even such a development is not likely to save Iran from a preemptive attack, if Bush wins his second term. Iran's neighbor Iraq regularly reminds the Islamic Republic how far Bush can go in terms of imposing his will.

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

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