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    Middle East
     Jan 13, 2006

Red lines in the Iranian sand
By Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI - Now that Iran has broken the seals it put two-and-a-half years ago on an atomic research facility at Natanz, 250 kilometers south of Tehran, it has passed a "red line" that makes a tough response almost inevitable.

British, French and German foreign ministers (the European Union 3 - EU-3) were due to meet in Berlin on Thursday to call for an emergency session this month of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, which would then discuss a referral of the dispute to the Security Council.

European officials warned that Tehran would have to reinstate the

seals and refrain from all the activities it announced this week if it wanted to avoid a UN referral. Tehran has given no indication that it will back down.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's head, said by resuming nuclear fuel research in defiance of previous agreements, "Tehran had crossed a red line ... We are at a stage where what is happening this week could turn into a major crisis."

The major nuclear weapon states, led by the United States and the EU-3, have warned Iran against pursuing even research that might lead to uranium enrichment. Iran insists that it will go ahead with the research, but that production of nuclear fuel remains suspended. (Currently, Iran is only converting uranium into hexafluoride gas at Isfahan, not enriching it.)

As both sides ratchet up the confrontation, the whiff of conflict hangs in the air, with distressing implications for the whole world.

Oil prices rose on Thursday, extending gains amid mounting concerns over the potential fallout from Iran's pursuit of its nuclear ambitions, according to market analysts. US crude oil futures rose 56 cents to US$64.50 a barrel, after rising 57 cents on Wednesday.

"The issue of Iran's international relations continues to rise to the fore as a major potential area of market concern. We continue to see the situation as representing the major upside risk for oil prices this year," analysts at Barclays Capital said in a report, according to Reuters.

The current crisis is likely to be more serious than in September, when the US dragged Iran before the board of governors of the IAEA, which held it "non-compliant" with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

With attitudes hardening, Iran could soon face tough sanctions from the Security Council in a telescoped replay of a part of the drama over Iraq between 2000 and 2003, which eventually led to its invasion and occupation.

There are three differences, though. Iraq's alleged nuclear activities were clandestine - although they did not result in a capability to make nuclear weapons of mass destruction, as Western governments falsely claimed. By contrast, Iran's current activities are transparent and taking place right in the presence of IAEA inspectors.

Second, Iraq in 2002-03 had no civilian nuclear program worth the name. Most of its clandestine military nuclear infrastructure was dismantled after the 1991 Gulf War under a tough UN Security Council mandate.

Iran has a civilian nuclear program, stretching from the mining of uranium to its enrichment to constructing a power reactor. Also, unlike Iraq, it can legitimately invoke its right to peaceful nuclear activities under the NPT, subject to IAEA inspections. This right is affirmed under Articles 1 and 4 of the treaty.

Third, Iraq in 2003 was a weak, militarily near-disabled country with an economy crippled by decade-long sanctions. Its totally undemocratic state had very little legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Iran is a culturally vibrant, self-confident society with a strong economy, which now stands further boosted by high oil prices. It is a middle-level military power with a popularly elected government. It will not be easy to isolate Iran, unlike Iraq.

"In fact," said Hari Vasudevan, professor of international relations at Calcutta University, "Iran enjoys a unique strategic advantage because of the highly troubled situation in Iraq, which the US has failed to quell." He added: "Sixty percent of Iraq's population is Shi'ite, and Iran wields enormous influence in Iraq. It has so far desisted from fomenting further trouble in Iraq, but could do so if cornered and provoked by the US and its allies."

Iran has two more advantages in its favor. It has been working closely with Russia in its civilian nuclear program. Russia is helping it build a power reactor at Bushehr, due to be commissioned this year.

It also enjoys a degree of support and sympathy from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and China. The bulk of the NAM group at the IAEA, barring India and a handful of small countries, abstained from or voted against the US-sponsored September 24 resolution against Iran. As did China and Russia.

"All this might only frustrate US efforts to diplomatically isolate Iran," said Qamar Agha, a Middle East expert at the Center for West and Central Asian Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. "Western Europe is far too dependent upon Iran's oil and gas to go to extreme lengths in sustaining sanctions that cripple Iran's energy generation. Therefore, the US might be tempted to use military force, jointly with Israel, to bomb select facilities in Iran."

In recent weeks, US Central Intelligence Agency director Porter Goss visited Turkey and briefed a number of other states in Iran's neighborhood on US plans for attacking Iran. Israel has already declared that Iran's nuclear program "can be destroyed".

The German magazine Der Spiegel wrote that Goss had asked Turkey to provide unfettered exchange of intelligence that could help with a mission to attack Iran. It also reported that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and Pakistan had been informed in recent weeks of Washington's military plans.

And Israel's Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu has nostalgically invoked his country's 1981 attack on Iraq's experimental nuclear reactor under construction.

A number of US doctrinal pronouncements, and reports about a recently approved US "global strike plan", with a nuclear option, suggest that a preemptive US strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, either unilateral or jointly with Israel, cannot be ruled out.

A former Indian intelligence officer, Vikram Sood, said that such an attack might use nuclear weapons. "A conventional attack on Iran would be expensive and not quite cost-effective. It would allow [for] Iranian retaliation." To preempt retaliation, the US might use tactical nuclear weapons against Iran's underground facilities.

"The tragedy unfolding," said Sood, "is that if the US believes that its adversary possesses or has the intention to possess WMD [weapons of mass destruction], then it is justified to consider this a threat to itself and to US forces in the region. It must, therefore, act preemptively. The fear also is that unlike in the case of Iraq when considerable time was spent in building the case, this time the attack will be sudden and actual justifications will be given later."

Any such attack would break the 60-year-old, very welcome, taboo against the use of nuclear weapons - with extraordinarily negative consequences for global peace and security.

Such an outcome can only be prevented if the West moves away from coercive diplomacy to isolate Iran and opens serious talks with it, and if the nuclear weapons states rethink their own policies.

As the West accuses Iran of nursing nuclear ambitions, it has itself no intention of reducing nuclear arms. The US has embarked on a plan to expand its nuclear capability both upward, through "Star Wars", and downward, through bunker-buster bombs. Similarly, Britain has announced a $40 billion replacement project for the Trident missile.

Smaller nuclear states such as Israel, India and Pakistan have set negative examples.

(Inter Press Service)

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(Jan 11, '06)

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(Jan 7, '06)

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(Dec  16, '05)


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