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July 2006

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In this provocative essay the author maintains that the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program has been vastly overstated and that efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear arms should be focused elsewhere. -Pub.

Iran: The West's Nuclear Bogeyman

Historians who look at this period in world history a generation or two from now will be totally baffled by the frantic US bludgeoning of other major world powers into blocking Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear technology. A few weeks ago Iran ostentatiously announced it had succeeded in refining a small quantity of uranium that could be used for electric power generation. That bit of obvious grandstanding provoked US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to warn in exaggerated tones that this achievement "will lead only to its (Iran's) further isolation in the international community." Meanwhile US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns asserted that the United Nations Security Council was moving toward a statement disapproving Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

In a statement to a Brussels, Belgium conference shortly thereafter, Senator John McCain told his audience that "There's only one thing worse than military action (against Iran) and that's a nuclear armed Iran." This statement, albeit not from the administration, epitomizes the extreme position that the Bush administration has taken on Iranian nuclear developments. Going on from that apparent politically paranoid stance, McCain threatened that if the Chinese and the Russians did not cooperate with basically US efforts to curb Iranian nuclear development, there would be " a reaction in the U.S. Congress" including in such areas as trade.

After many months of working through third parties, while attempting to cajole or threaten Iran into abandoning its nuclear program, the Bush Administration finally has proposed to talk directly with Iran. The catch continues to be that the US wants Iran to agree to principal American demands before talks begin. For years this has been the basic Israeli negotiating strategy with the Palestinians: You do what we want you to do and then we can talk. Its success in Palestine is hardly promising. Premier Ahmadinjad has indicated he may respond to the US proposal later this summer, but it is worth examining the issues while we wait.

What really is this fuss about? Serious analysts say that if Iran achieved one weapon tomorrow, it would take the Iranians years to equal Pakistan or India in nuclear capabilities. It would take decades of dedicated nuclear development to become a nuclear power equal to Israel's reported 200+ nuclear weapon stockpile and those of any present members of the nuclear club. Even when achieved, those stockpiles long have encouraged the nuclear weapons states in a cautious policy of no first use. If Iran had such a stockpile, it might brandish them from time to time, as others have, but it would not dare use them, because that could mean the end of Iran.

Iran so far has put up with (1) variously overt and drastic US threats to use bunker busters to take out reported Iranian facilities (2) not too subtle threats of possible first use of nuclear weapons against a non nuclear state (3) widely storied US raids into Iranian territory to check out possible targets and work with dissidents such as adherents of the US-listed terrorist group MEK, (4) a reported $75 million US propaganda budget to try and talk Iranians into overthrowing their present government, and (5) mounting US pressures on nuclear club members and other governments as well as the UN to get Iran labeled as an international pariah because it wants, at minimum, to acquire the nuclear fuel cycle for supporting its own nuclear power stations.

If Iran were prone to going off the deep end, it could be said that enough provocations already have occurred. But Iran has put up with those provocations largely by standing stiffer and taller. The question many people sensibly ask, therefore, is just what is this manufactured crisis about?

That question makes the atmosphere get very foggy, because there are many different opinions. The charge made by some Bush administration critics, with some merit, is that the fuss is about a US effort to protect Israel's regional nuclear monopoly, ergo Israel's dominant military posture among Middle East countries.

The matter gets even foggier when one reads the recently published US national security strategy. That strategy labeled Iran as "the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country." As the sole superpower with enough nuclear weapons to annihilate much of mankind, facing four well stocked nuclear club members (China, Russia, France, and Britain) with collectively enough weapons to do that job without US help, and three non-club nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, and Israel) collectively able to do great mayhem to mankind, the US focused its security doctrine on a third world country with less than 70 million people, with a nuclear development program that at best has mastered chapter one of the nuclear fuel cycle, and with no known weapon system that could even reach half way to the United States. Only someone with a totally distorted concept of American security could consider Iran a strategic threat worthy of dominating US security policy.

Iran is actually important to US policy for several reasons. First, Iran is a country approaching 70 million with a rate of increase that outdistances most other countries. That means it will likely grow rapidly and at its most benign it will compete for resources. Second, Iran is the core population group of Islam's Shi'a communities and other Shi'a communities look to it for spiritual leadership. Third, Iran was a fledgling democracy half a century ago, but that was disrupted by a US sponsored coup that returned the Shah of Iran to the throne in 1953 and made Iran a US satellite until 1978. Overthrow of the Shah led Iran into its present Mullah dominated system, but it still honors a voting procedure. Fourth, underlying that US interest, Iran has the world's fifth largest known oil reserves which figured strongly in US intervention in the first place. Fifth, Iran has supported the Palestinians through various groups, and in the present Western stand down from assistance to Palestine, Iran could be the largest source of funding to Palestine's Hamas-led government. None of those factors pose a threat to the United States, but all of them make it sensible for the US to seek an open, equitable dialogue with Iran.

Even if that were it, the energies required to prevent Iran from developing some nuclear capability are both intensive in scale, including military conflict, and extensive in time; eventually at least the United States will either exhaust its resources or have more important fish to fry. Even if momentarily successful, that will hardly be the end of the story.

In the real here/now time frame, it is clear that nuclear capabilities of Israel, India and Pakistan are at least a sufficient driver of other country efforts to achieve nuclear parity of some sort. Iran's leadership may or may not be sincere in insisting that Iran has the same treaty rights as any other country to master the nuclear fuel cycle up to electric power levels of fuel refinement. But unless the treaty is changed to eliminate that right of all Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories, including the United States and other club members, Iran has a right to master the cycle. The fact that Ahmadinjad insists rigidly on Iran's right to do that is used against him by the US and others, and to be fair, Iran's refusal to give the UN IAEA watchdogs full access to nuclear facilities increases suspicion. Interestingly, Bush treats India's refusal to open its weapons sites as a given feature of the deal he made to share non-weapons technologies with India.

The IAEA has not been entirely detached in this. For consistency's sake, the IAEA should have reacted strongly to the Bush/ Manmohan Singh understanding, but instead blandly treated it as a step toward improving the non-proliferation regime. How a secret Indian weapons program alongside a public power program advances non-proliferation is most unclear. But to be fair in the Iran case, the IAEA is under enormous pressure from the United States and other major powers--in fact is being bullied--to find a formula for containing whatever are Iran's nuclear ambitions. That task is rendered difficult by the fact that nothing the IAEA has to say, including in its report earlier this year to the UN Security Council, actually contradicts Iranian assertions that they are only in pursuit of nuclear power capabilities.

The starting problem is that the IAEA is being required to enforce rules that substantially exceed treaty requirements. As a signer of the IPT, Iran should have the same rights as any other member to process fuel for power production. That is what Premier Ahmadinjad insists on doing. Western pressure simply causes Iran to dig in and insist on its treaty rights.

The western/IAEA approach to Iran is flawed because it makes that country's nuclear program an exception to the NPT rules. In this regard, the IAEA is not saying to Iran: if you will give us ironclad assurances that you are not trying to make a bomb, and open all your facilities to inspections under the treaty, we will honor your right to process fuel for power production purposes. Rather, the IAEA and the US led group are saying Iran must provide incontrovertible proof that it is not trying to make a bomb. But, whatever may be Iran's intentions, the collective strategy is to deny that Iran has a right to command any part of the fuel cycle.

Full out departure from the terms of the NPT is the weakest part of the Western/UN posture toward Iran. At the same time, insistence on treating Iran exceptionally is probably the most uniting pressure point with the Iranian public. As the pressures mount, this hole gets deeper and deeper. Iran feels, quite properly, that it is under assault. Thus, it fences activities that previously were open or could have been with proper treaty application, and makes matters worse by refusing IAEA access to facilities that it has permitted in the past. The strategies being pursued by both sides, in short, are losing ones.

Further strengthening Iranian leadership resolve and, it appears, public Iranian support, are moves the US is making openly to overthrow the Ahmadinjad government. In this case, however, the goal would not be mere regime change, but to take the Mullahs out of Iranian politics and overturn the clerical influence that was reinforced and capitalized by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors. A $75 million Iran propaganda budget and reports of US military/intelligence operations inside Iran, thanks to western media, are all well known to the Iranian public. Quite aside from the probability that any outside or inside move to remove religion from Iranian politics (where it has been for centuries) is probably doomed from the start, the fact that Iran is under deliberate American attack is enough to pull at least the majority of Iranians together around their leadership, hardline though it may be.

Is the bogeyman theory of Iranian intentions accurate? The theory, pushed by the neocons and Israel is that if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon the risk is the weapon will be used on Israel or it will be turned over to terrorists who will use it to (fill in the blank). In light of Israel's nuclear strength, that theory assumes an order of Iranian irrationality that even the worst interpretation of Ahmadinjad outbursts does not demonstrate. For ages the Iranians have had certain weapons capabilities for attacking Israel and they have not. They have supported groups that conduct insurgent/terrorist operations against Israel on the behalf of the Palestinians, e.g., Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and others. In this they are hardly alone. Many Arab countries have officially or unofficially supported Palestinian groups, and money is fungible. At the margin some of it can be turned into weapons.

In that sense, the US, the UN, the Europeans are all about equally guilty of providing funds which enabled the Palestinians to try to survive and, incidentally, to try to defend themselves against an invading army. But the bottom line in this discussion is that Iranians have played their role in this conflict with considerable caution. There is no reason to expect them to do otherwise, unless they are under immediate attack. In that case, all bets are off.

Ultimately the US-led political assault on Iran is perverse, both in its mannerisms and its potential consequences. The notion that Iran can be singled out for exceptional treatment under the NPT is ill-founded and is proving daily to be counterproductive. The argument, as Secretary of State Rice or US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton assert, that Iran is a grave threat to the United States is simply reckless, and not supported by known facts. It undermines what many would agree is a necessary effort to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions. But the bigger threats to world peace surely are US/Indian designs on a nuclear program outside the limits of the NPT, and US plans to build newer and more powerful nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT. Those moves are likely to fuel an arms race that includes all nuclear powers and is global in scope.

Iran, with at most a starter batch of nuclear power grade fuel in hand, is a bogeyman whose fright mask is a clown when compared with the likely ambitions and moves of the existing nuclear weapons powers. While the Bush administration struggles with the thought that it might talk with Iran, but only if Iran gives up its rights under the NPT in advance, it is worth keeping in mind that the eight known nuclear powers cast enormous shadows over the non-nuclear landscape. US scuttling of the NPT Review conference in May 2005 by refusing to review weapons reduction commitments added a double standard to the shadows. Repeated and thoughtless suggestions out of the US that it might use nuclear weapons to terminate an Iranian nuclear effort only cast those shadows more starkly.

Continuing US attempts to stiff-arm the Iranians into giving up any NPT rights they have only sharpens the image of a nuclear double standard. But the worst of it is that so long as any country has nuclear weapons, and even politely uses them as a bargaining tool with non nuclear powers, something like the Iran scenario will play itself out over and over. The real bogymen here are nuclear weapons states, not Iran.

This article was first appeared in rense.com, http://www.rense.com, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the U.S. Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counterterrorism, and as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College.

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