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
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. 
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
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
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
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.
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
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.