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    Middle East
     Sep 4, 2009
US faces a tough choice on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

With the coming of September, the Iran nuclear file is once again center stage. A number of developments are unfolding simultaneously that could see further sanctions imposed on Tehran for its uranium-enrichment program, especially as Israel ups the ante.

On Wednesday, the "Iran Six" - the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany - met in Germany in an attempt to secure an agreement on imposing tougher sanctions on Iran. The United Nations has already slapped two rounds of sanctions on the country.

This meeting comes ahead of a UN gathering on the subject later this month, and shortly after the International Atomic Energy

Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran's nuclear program on August 28.

The Vienna-based IAEA, whose full board meets again next week, confirmed that Iran had not suspended its enrichment-related activities and called on the country to reassure the world that it was not trying to build an atomic weapon. The report also said Tehran was producing nuclear fuel at a slower rate and had allowed UN inspectors increased access to its main nuclear complex in Natanz.

"There remain a number of outstanding issues which give rise to concerns and which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," said the text of the IAEA report, as quoted by the Associated Press. It said the IAEA "does not consider that Iran has adequately addressed the substance of the issues, having focused instead on the style and form ... and providing limited answers and simple denials."

In the face of this, after much internal debate, Iran has finalized a new "package" that lays out its perspective on how to proceed in the nuclear negotiations. The details have not been disclosed, but the fact that the Iranian side is prepared to engage in serious talks has received an enthusiastic response from Washington.

Amid all of this, the Israeli government is leading a global campaign against Iran by marshalling its forces, particularly in the US, to paint as gloomy a picture as possible of both the nature of Iran's nuclear progress, or rather threat, as well as Iran's regime, described by a Wall Street Journal editorial as "fascist". While blaming US President Barack Obama's inaction on Iran, the editorial fully endorses an Israeli strike on Iran in the event the US and its allies fail to impose "crippling sanctions" on Iran. [1]

The Obama administration has placed its hope in constructive dialogue with Tehran, something now favored by the Iranian government. The entire weight of the Jewish lobby is now trying to convince the White House that it must face the unpredictable, and dangerous, consequences of a unilateral Israeli war on Iran if it fails to put some real teeth in Iran sanctions.

Pro-Israel pundits in the US are in full stride in the the opinion columns of newspapers and on television news programs. There is much talk of "mad mullahs" and their bombs in the making, set to wipe out the Jewish state.

Relying on a caricature of Iran and Shi'ite Islam, these pundits depict an irrational Iranian regime that is under the spell of religious apocalypticism, whereby sacrificing the lives of millions of Iranians is considered a legitimate price for a noble cause. This is reductionist to the core and is based on a perverse interpretation of the Mahdist belief in Twelver Shi'ism.

The pressure on Iran continues despite the IAEA's latest report, which clearly confirms that the atomic agency has been able to continue to "verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material".

Outgoing IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei has stated that the Iran nuclear threat has been exaggerated. This is to the dislike of the Israelis, who have been blunt in attacking ElBaradei as being pro-Iran.

Yet ElBaradei's record speaks of an essentially neutral official of an international organization, although at times he did succumb to pressure from Washington and other Western capitals by refusing to give Iran a complete clean bill of health. This was after a successful Iran-IAEA workplan last year that resolved six outstanding issues between the two in Iran's favor.

As a result of Iran's nuclear transparency, per the admission of IAEA officials and many nuclear experts, any Iranian attempt to divert the enrichment process to "weapons grade" would be quickly discovered by the IAEA.

This aside, the US's own intelligence finding is that Iran has not yet decided to commence the production of highly enriched uranium. This decision may never come, particularly if the US and Iran manage to resolve some of their differences and thus change the security calculus in favor of not crossing the nuclear threshold that is within Iran's grasp, technologically speaking.

This is the nub of the problem with Israel's self-fulfilling prophecy: the more Israel threatens Iran with a pre-emptive strike in the name of halting its march toward nuclear weapons, the more it fuels Iranian national security concerns. These may then propel decision-makers to forego their declared antipathy toward nuclear weapons and pursue a "nuclear shield".

Israel's false assumption that Iran has already made that decision and that it is fully committed to treading the nuclear path is a tissue of misperception. No doubt, the "Iran threat" serves Israel's Arab policy, by creating a potential common denominator with moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have voiced concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

However, that does not mean Israel and these Arab states are on the same page with regards to Iran. Egypt, currently holding the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), supported the NAM's efforts at the IAEA meeting in Vienna to pass a resolution that bans military attacks on nuclear installations.

The benefits of an Israeli "surgical strike" on Iran's nuclear facilities are highly debatable. It could spark a major Middle Eastern conflict engulfing Iran's neighbors, not to mention igniting Iran's determination to go fully nuclear by kicking out the IAEA and proliferating nuclear weapons underground.

Israel's military option would at best introduce a temporary setback, a couple of years at best, followed by a much-energized effort on Iran's part to possess those weapons as quickly as possible, with the entire nationalistic population behind the government that has already mastered the nuclear fuel cycle.

This is a real "nightmare scenario", a permanent war on Iran, a chain of intermittent aerial bombardments, hardly an attractive scenario in today's international climate.

Those proposing war on Iran ignore this and focus instead on a one-shot deal, as if the genie of Iran's nuclear threat could be put to rest by destroying Iran's nuclear sites. It is abundantly clear this will only yield the opposite result of making manifest a hitherto latent nuclear tendency on Iran's part.

Even the rational course of action would pause on the suitability of "crippling sanctions". Such sanctions, especially a ban on Iran's imported gasoline, would most likely anger Tehran to the point of striking back. This it could do in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and beyond as payback for the pain inflicted.

This may be Tehran's message behind President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's choice of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander as defense minister: mess with us and prepare to face the consequences. General Ahmad Vahidi, wanted by Interpol in connection with the 1994 attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, is expected soon to be confirmed as defense minister by parliament.

Alternatively, the "Iran Six" could opt to respect Iran's rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, whereby it can develop a civilian nuclear program, and focus on the IAEA's safeguard and surveillance measures to ensure the peacefulness of Iran's nuclear program. This would likely deepen Iran's commitment to self-limit to its current status as a latent nuclear power.

1. Israel, Iran, and Obama The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2009.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

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