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
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
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
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
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
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
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.