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    Middle East
     Dec 1, 2010

Leaks test Tehran's nuclear nerve
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

"WikiLeaks proves the world shares concerns over a nuclear Iran."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to have it both ways; lament the unauthorized release of thousands of US government documents and promise to do whatever is necessary to stop it, and, simultaneously, to harvest the Iran-bashing windfall those leaks provide.

The 219 diplomatic cables sent by US officials publicly released to date - of a reported 251,000 obtained by WikiLeaks - have been adopted at face value by much of the Western media, although one cannot rule out misinformation and fabricated cables to further


the US and Israeli war preparations against Iran over its purported nuclear ambitions.

Some of the revelations represent manna from heaven for hawkish voices in the US, Europe and Israel pushing for military aggression against Iran. These include cables saying that Saudi King Abdullah has been pressing Washington for a military attack on Iran, a sentiment shared by other leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council; Moscow betraying its contractual obligations with Iran over the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to further its interests with the US; news that Iran's ally in the nuclear talks, Turkey, has been aiding al-Qaeda terrorists fighting the pro-Iran Shi'ite government in Iraq; news that Iran may have received some 19 intermediate range missiles from North Korea.

This coincides with the ominous news from Tehran that a nuclear physicist, Majid Shahriari, has been assassinated in the streets of Tehran as he was on his way to work, with another, Fereydoon Abasi, wounded by a similar bomb, attached to his vehicle by assassins on motorbikes. This reflects poorly on Iranian security since after an attack on another scientist, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, in January, Iran had vowed to protect the lives of its nuclear scientists.

Together with Tehran's admission that its uranium-enrichment program has been harmed by a cyber-attack, the leaks surely undermine Iran's confidence as it is about to embark on a new round of nuclear talks with the "Iran Six" nations (the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany) in early December in Geneva.

Through a combination of cyber-terrorism, attacks against Iranian scientists, WikiLeaks-based psychological warfare that denotes a united regional diplomatic front against Iran by its Arab neighbors, not to mention biting sanctions that have affected foreign investment in Iran including in its energy sector, Iran's opponents have seized an opportunity to corner the country in an attempt to bring it to its knees.

The chances are that these efforts will backfire and have the opposite effect of forcing Iran to follow the model of North Korea - that is, build a nuclear bomb, something Tehran has denied doing. That would mean less instead of more cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), even entertaining the idea of exiting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ending IAEA inspections, and adopting a more bellicose military posture, instead of a purely defensive one, in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
A number of Tehran analysts have communicated to this author that there are important lessons for Iran to draw from North Korea, which like Iran is under the gun of international sanctions. One lesson is that hard power has a utility in extracting leverage and another is that it may be necessary at times to play brinksmanship and avoid giving the other side the comfort of a perpetually defensive (ie benign) posture.

According to a Tehran University political science professor who spoke with the author on the condition of anonymity, Iran should not be "a passive recipient of the blows of economic warfare that is the sanctions imposed unjustly on Iran, otherwise we may become another Iraq", referring to the pre-war sanctions on Iraq that weakened and "ripened for invasion" the Ba'athist regime in 2003.

The trouble with a more belligerent Iranian posture is that it may sound the death-knell for the nuclear fuel swap for a Tehran reactor that provides radioisotopes for tens of thousands of cancer patients. This issue will be discussed in Geneva and the chances are that a mini-breakthrough will be achieved, whereby Iran agrees to certain demands on nuclear transparency and nuclear confidence-building steps in exchange for the fuel swap.

However, should the talks fail to result in tangible gains for Iran, then the nuclear standoff will likely worsen as both sides revert to more confrontational approaches, imperiling regional peace and the health of global economy, in light of various projections of skyrocketing oil prices in the event of a war on Iran. Even short of a full-scale attack on Iran, military skirmishes and flare-ups in the Persian Gulf would prove deadly for oil prices and the world's economic recovery.

Nevertheless, not everyone in Tehran is convinced that playing a "North Korea card" with the US, presently overstretched in two wars and a brand new crisis in the Korean Peninsula, should be automatically ruled out. This in light of the incessant attacks on Iran, irrespective of the fact that unlike Pyongyang's ability to count on Beijing's protection, Iran has no such special relationship with any major power.

In turn, this has led some Tehran analysts to ponder the merits of forging closer ties with China, a major trading partner that receives some 13% of its oil imports from Iran and has serious "energy insecurity" worries - we may witness closer bilateral relations between Iran and China in the near future. This is given China's serious misgivings about the US's strategic intentions toward it, reflected in the US-India strategic cozying, and closer North Atlantic Treaty Organization-Russia cooperation to the detriment of the ties of solidarity within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Arguably, Beijing is now primed for a new round of serious geostrategic talks with Tehran that must eschew some of its antiquated antipathy toward strategic cooperation with outside powers (See A China base in Iran? Asia Times Online, January 29, 2008).

Indeed, in light of China's anger at the US for its provocative war games with South Korea so close to its exclusive economic zone, Iran's cautious optimism that China - one of the participants at the forthcoming nuclear talks - will balk at agreeing to pressure Iran may be well-founded.

The WikiLeaks-based psychological warfare revealed no taints on China's behavior. Russian leaders, on the other hand, have traded long-term interests with a reliable neighbor for the sake of their Western interests.

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. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

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