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Iran not off the hook yet
By Ritt Goldstein

Speculation on potential US or Israeli military action has surrounded tense negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program and ambitions. In light of the realities currently dominating US and Iranian politics, separate interviews with three leading American defense experts foresee the likelihood of either overt or covert US action against the Islamic Republic, questions of geopolitical power eclipsing those of nuclear and energy security.

When asked what he envisaged would be the Bush administration's eventual answer to Iran's nuclear facilities, John Pike, president of the noted Washington-area defense think-tank Global Security, told Asia Times Online, "I think we're going to blow them up." He added that he believed the effort would be some time before the 2006 US elections.

At the end of November, Britain, Germany and France - the "Big 3" - on behalf of the European Union succeeded in securing an agreement with Iran that it would voluntarily suspend uranium enrichment and other sensitive nuclear pursuits. Iran is seeking a package of incentives on security, trade and technology in return, and negotiations with the three are scheduled to resume some time this week.

This is the second agreement reached between Iran and Europe, the first widely said to have foundered through US efforts. At issue are Iran's efforts to expand its nuclear capabilities vastly through the pursuit of new reactors and the creation of a self-sufficient nuclear fuel cycle, to which it is entitled under international treaty. But substantive questions of weapons ambitions exist, and elements within the administration of President George W Bush have proved problematic in finding an accommodation.

"I think, in fact, the administration policy is designed to kill the agreement between Europe and Iran," a former US Energy Department official and current associate director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's non-proliferation program, Jon Wolfsthal, told this journalist. He pointedly added that "the deal will collapse and elements within the administration will get the confrontation with Iran that they desire".

On December 12, the New York Times headlined, "US and Europe are at odds, again, this time over Iran".

As of late 2002, Iran sat atop roughly 9% of the world's known petroleum reserves and concurrently held the planet's second-largest deposits of natural gas. A "who's who" of leading EU energy firms has established themselves in Iran, a country whose energy resources were long US-dominated, particularly from the 1953 Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored coup ousting Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh, installing the Shah ... until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

After the 1979 revolution, US sanctions precluded a return of the US energy industry's dominance. Beyond EU energy firms, China's Sinopec has recently completed extraordinarily sizable energy agreements with Iran for liquefied natural gas and oil. The agreements are variously estimated as worth between US$90 billion and $200 billion, and come at a time when Chinese oil imports have doubled within the past five years and risen 40% during the first eight months of 2004.

An interview with the United States' leading authority on resource conflict, security-studies Professor Michael Klare of Hampshire College, substantively added dimension to the relationship between Iran's energy and ongoing events.

Klare told this journalist that "the world is approaching a global energy crunch, right now". On December 8, Klare published an article titled "Looming energy crisis overshadows Bush's second term", also warning that "competition among major consumers for access to the remaining supplies will grow increasingly more severe and stressful".

In reply to whether the administration was seeking confrontation with Iran for its energy assets, Klare said, "It's all about power, and the oil of the Persian Gulf is the most important geopolitical focus of power in the world."

Klare defines control of the Persian Gulf as control of the global economy. He believes the Bush administration isn't necessarily pursuing Iran's resources for its own use, but to control them in order to "have the veto power over the allocation of Persian Gulf oil".

Unaware of Klare's remarks but voicing a similar perspective, Pike separately added, "It's only incidentally about control of oil, it's about control of everything ... power. At the end of the Cold War we found ourselves like a colossus astride the Earth, and we basically concluded that it would be possible to make the world safe for America."

Pike emphasized that the key Bush administration concern he perceived was "spreading the American peace". He added that there was a conviction that a few countries were "hostile to the 'new world order', and they're going to have to be brought into line".

On December 3, in a speech given at the Nehru Foundation in New Delhi, Russian President Vladimir Putin was widely perceived to have chastised such US conduct, speaking of the dangers inherent in "a dictatorship in international affairs ... even if that dictatorship is coated in beautiful pseudo-democratic phraseology".

Both Klare and Pike drew analogies to Ukraine and US action there, Klare specifically speculating on the use of covert action to "provoke a domestic uprising", this providing a mechanism to "open up Iran's oilfields to American companies" through regime change. Pike explicitly termed Iran "the frontline state in the anti-hegemonist camp", adding that both Russia and the US had also "decided to draw a line" in Ukraine, with it, too, having "emerged as a frontline state".

Klare noted that an immense pipeline project China is considering, direct from Kazakhstan to China and bypassing the Persian Gulf, is an effort to ensure an unimpeded energy supply, a supply outside US control. And control, as well as its "enforcement", appears to be the key US issue.

"The idea that Iran is going to sit idly by while its nuclear assets are destroyed, without taking some sort of counteraction, is, I think, hard to accept," warned Wolfsthal. He added that the belief "you can resolve the Iranian nuclear question through surgical military strikes, to my mind, isn't borne out by history, or by perception of what might happen in response to attacks".

Klare perceived that if Iran were attacked, "the potential retaliation upon energy flows, the potential for an energy crisis, a world depression", should provide incentive for administration restraint.

On September 24, Singapore's Straits Times headlined "Iran parades missiles in response to N-deadline". Speculation regarding potential targets for such reprisals includes US troops in Iraq, Israeli cities, Persian Gulf tanker traffic, or even Saudi Arabian oilfields. But while Iran could further strike at US or Israeli targets globally with asymmetrical warfare, Bush administration neo-conservatives do support military action.

Arguably expressing sentiments shared by elements that are said to include US Vice President Dick Cheney and Under Secretary of State John Bolton, Pike downplayed the potential consequences of strikes: "They're [the Iranian leadership] just going to have to take it, because they have a lot of other things that they hold dear, and that are essential to the survival of their regime, that it is within our power to deprive them of."

Pike later spoke of a potential "Khuzestan gambit", a ground assault to sever the geographically isolated Khuzestan province from Iran, capturing the vast bulk of Iranian oil in the process. With Khuzestan bordering Iraq, there has been recent speculation that such an act could be pursued relatively easily in an effort to ensure "regime change" by separating Iran from its wealth.

The alternative, less provocative possibility of covert action was raised by all of those interviewed, with speculation running from "accidental fires" to regime change promoted by the Iranian group Mujahideen Khalq, an organization currently listed as a terrorist group, but which neo-conservatives are attempting to remove from the terror list.

Notably, the National Council for Resistance (NCR) in Iran, the mujahideen's political arm, was instrumental in the 2002 revelation of Iran's hidden nuclear program. Since then, some of its further information has proved accurate, while other items are suggested as erroneous. But in a possible reflection of a potential change in the group's status, a series of US Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on Iran's nuclear program stopped listing the NCR as a terror group, although earlier versions had.

Iran has explained its nuclear ambitions by claiming a pursuit of nuclear power for electricity generation, its oil and gas resources being non-renewable and accounting for the vast bulk of its hard currency. This parallels efforts undertaken decades ago, according to a March 4 report by the CRS highlighting that Iran's nuclear program began in 1959.

"The Shah's plan to build 23 nuclear power reactors by the 1990s may have been regarded as grandiose, but was not necessarily viewed as a 'back door' to a nuclear-weapons program," the CRS stated. It also noted current Iranian plans call for the nuclear capacity to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity within 20 years. However, while the CRS observes that "Iran is years away from producing quantities of fissile material [highly enriched uranium or plutonium] that it could use in nuclear weapons", it pointedly adds that "the steady accrual of expertise in weapons-related areas is viewed with concern by many", highlighting one of the elements underlying present tensions.

Another element is what Pike had termed "the consortium".

While the black-market nuclear network of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan of Pakistan exploded into world view about a year ago, what has remained somewhat obscured is a cooperative weapons program that began during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Khan said to be then representing but one participant's nuclear endeavors. "It's a trilateral technology consortium. It's Iran and it's Pakistan and it's North Korea - they're all in it together," said Pike in explaining how Iran could have acquired nuclear-weapons assets.

Much of Pike's revelation was first broached in a March 11 CRS report titled "Weapons of mass destruction: Trade between North Korea and Pakistan".

Last winter, it emerged that Libya had obtained plans for a nuclear weapon from Khan's group, and while the "UN's International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] has said it has no evidence of Iranian possession of such plans", Pike speculated that "they know how to build several different types of [nuclear] bombs", but with information obtained through "the consortium" - Khan.

When queried as to the basis for his certainty that a nuclear-weapons program existed, Pike explained that it was "basically because they're building everything that Pakistan built as part of their weapons program". He again emphasized, "it's not so much that he [Khan] sold them the package deal, as that all three of them - Iran, Pakistan and North Korea - have been in concert for nearly a decade", adding this encompassed missile technology and uranium enrichment.

Pike's appraisals are noteworthy in that they tend to provide an accurate barometer on how the dominant power centers within the US defense community are thinking. Providing example, the Autumn 2004 issue of the US Army War College's journal, Parameters, published a strategy paper titled "Iran in Iraq's Shadow: Dealing with Tehran's Nuclear Weapons Bid".

While at no time has the IAEA said there is any hard evidence of a Tehran nuclear-weapons program, the War College paper not only starts from an assumption there is a weapons effort, its first paragraph notes that "prospects are dim ... without the [US] resort to force over the coming years".

When queried as to why Iran might want nuclear weapons, Pike replied, "They have well-founded fears. Any sane Iranian leader would realize the urgent necessity of acquiring atomic bombs - as many as they can, and as fast as they can." The Parameters paper echoed, "Iranian clerics almost certainly want nuclear weapons to compensate for conventional military shortcomings to deter potential adversaries and enhance the security of their regime."

The War College piece continued, noting that Iran could not have failed to observe that once a state is able to field nuclear weapons effectively, it escapes "military preemptive and preventive action by rival states". And it appears widely held that should Iran be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, it is for defensive purposes.

Iran's nuclear program was ongoing throughout the 1980s, and it claims that because of fears of further US sponsored sanctions, it did not declare its nuclear activities to the IAEA as required. The 1980s was also a period when, among other actions, US Navy ships pursued "re-flagging operations in the Persian Gulf", with the Parameters paper noting "the US Navy readily destroyed much of Iran's conventional naval capabilities". 

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, and given US support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, US-Iranian relations have been strained. As Pike saw it, Iran has a fundamentally different relationship with Europe than the United States - "they don't chant 'death to Belgium' at Friday prayers, they chant 'death to America', and 'death to the Zionist entity'".

At the end of November, the Defense Science Board, a high-level Pentagon advisory body, issued a report highly critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the "war on terror", as well as its support for repressive Middle Eastern regimes, including countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. "Muslims do not hate our freedoms, but rather they hate our policies," the report charges.
Sources within the administration were reported in mid-November as noting that either the US or Israel might pursue targeted air strikes on Iranian nuclear assets. And while this pronouncement was accompanied by assertions that Iran was seeking to develop a nuclear missile warhead, such assertions were made months previously, suggesting administration posturing. But the proposed sale to Israel of $139 million in bombs, including 500 so-called "Bunker-Busters", is seen as aimed at the Iranian facilities, with the actual purchase potentially already completed.

Israeli pilots have been reported as practicing for an Iran mission, with both Likud and Labor members having branded the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon as unacceptable. Special "conformal" fuel tanks on F-15s and F-16s would provide the necessary range for the Israeli air force to pursue a strike.

The March 4 CRS report noted that while Iran's known violations may be minor, "some argue that a pattern of deception is significant", and Iran has been accused by the IAEA of having engaged in a pattern of deception, delay and concealment prior to October 2003. A December 12 New York Times story described the IAEA's 2003 inspection of uranium-enriching centrifuges located behind a false wall at Tehran's Kalaye Electric Co.

"We fully expect that there are going to be 'more shoes that are going to drop' in Iran. The things that haven't yet been disclosed, allegations of secret nuclear facilities, additional activities that haven't yet been reported - that's going to happen," Wolfsthal said.

All of those interviewed for this article perceived at least an Iranian flirtation with nuclear weapons. Wolfsthal emphasized that given Iran's political, ideological and security concerns, it is "a country prime for acquiring nuclear weapons".

It is, however, recognized that Iran's government does not act in a unitary manner, that different factions have a certain degree of functional independence. Potentially, nuclear decisions might have been made unilaterally by only one of Iran's dominant groups.

Pike noted that if a weapons flirtation was a product of Revolutionary Guard zeal, with Iran's other two major power blocs led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and President Mohammad Khatami not supporting it, he believed there was an opportunity to pursue a settlement of some kind. He also noted that should a weapons pursuit have been the product of "all major influential segments", then it was likely that Iran is "just not going to be talked out of it".

From the Iranian perspective, in 2002 President Bush named it among the "axis of evil", targeting it for "regime change", and the United States has led attacks and occupations of two key energy states bordering it, Iraq and Afghanistan. "In many cases, the question of who should have and who shouldn't acquire these [nuclear] capabilities really comes down to a question of trust and perception and comfort. And that's what many people think is no longer an acceptable standard," said Wolfsthal.

On December 3 in New Delhi, Putin observed, "Only a balanced system based upon international law and the international community's ability to fulfill all these norms, without exception, can lead us to resolution of the difficult missions that confront humanity."

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist based in Stockholm. His work has appeared in broadsheets such as Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Spain's El Mundo and Denmark's Politiken, as well as with the Inter Press Service (IPS), a global news agency.

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Dec 15, 2004
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