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Iran: Burning the Bridges

3 May 2006

Iran: Burning the Bridges

By Gwynne Dyer

The draft resolution on Iran’s nuclear activities that the United States, Britain and France presented to the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday is designed to fail. By making it a Chapter Seven resolution (one that is mandatory under international law and can be enforced by sanctions or even by military action), the authors have guaranteed that it will ultimately face a veto by Russia and China, neither of which is convinced that such extreme measures are necessary.

They are not necessary, but this resolution burns the bridges on further negotiations (not that the US was willing to talk directly to Iran anyway), and there have been heavy hints in Washington of military action against Iran. If President Bush follows the same path that he took into Iraq, a “failure to act” by the Security Council is the necessary preliminary to an attack on Iran. Such an attack would make no military sense, but American foreign policy is still in the hands of neo-conservatives whose mantra used to be that “the boys go to Baghdad, the men go to Tehran.”

Even if Iran does intend to build nuclear weapons eventually, there is no urgency. As Robert Joseph, US undersecretary of state for arms control, said in March, the US intelligence community believes that Iran is “five to ten years away from a nuclear weapons capability.” Attacking Iran is also a military nightmare for American strategic planners: former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke pointed out last month that the Clinton administration also contemplated a bombing campaign in the late 1990s, but “after a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States.”

Even massive US air strikes that killed thousands of Iranian nuclear specialists (plus many hundreds of civilians) would only set Iran’s programme back a couple of years, and a land invasion is out of the question: the US army is already stretched too thin by Iraq. Iran might be able to close the Gulf to oil traffic — its sea-skimming and underwater anti-ship missiles are good enough to give the US Navy a run for its money. It could tip the world’s oil markets into turmoil just by withholding its own oil exports. And it could set southern Iraq on fire by mobilising its Shia allies there.

So Iran is unfazed by US threats. Indeed, it has chosen this week to launch its new Oil Stock Exchange, an upstart rival to the London and New York exchanges where almost all of the world’s exported oil is currently traded. This will involve the establishment of a new Iranian “marker” crude, and probably the denomination of its price in euros, not in US dollars. There seems to be no fear of the US reaction.

The prediction that this new oil bourse would attract an avalanche of customers eager to get out of US dollars and lead to the downfall of that currency was always vastly exaggerated. Contracts made under Iranian law are not very attractive to the world’s big traders, and the market will struggle to find its feet at first. But Tehran is well aware of the conspiracy theorists who argue that the US invaded Iraq to punish Saddam Hussein for demanding that his oil be paid for in euros, and warn that Iran might face a similar fate. It clearly doesn’t give their warnings a second thought.

Iran will not back down, and neither will the United States. The crash is probably still many months away, but these two countries are on a collision course. So it might be a good time to reconsider the question of what capabilities Iran is really seeking with its nuclear programmes.

Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was started by the Shah, but cancelled by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution because weapons of mass destruction were “un-Islamic”. It is not known when it started up again, but it certainly didn’t go into high gear until the late 1990s, probably in response to the Pakistani nuclear weapons tests of 1998. For although Pakistan is a safe neighbour under its current regime, Shia Iranians worry about what might happen if the Sunni extremists who are also present in considerable numbers, even in the army, ever gained power in Pakistan.

Iran’s activities nevertheless remained legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, since all the early steps towards a nuclear weapons capability — essentially, developing the ability to enrich uranium or to reprocess plutonium — are identical to those you would take if you just wanted to have the full fuel cycle for civilian nuclear power generation under your own national control. And if Iran’s major goal is the ability to deter attack if Pakistani nuclear weapons fall into the wrong hands, it is probably only seeking a “threshold” nuclear weapons capability for now: that is, to get to the point where it could build the actual weapons in six months or so, if the local strategic situation suddenly went really bad.

There are many other counties with this kind of “threshold”capacity, from Japan and Brazil to Sweden and South Africa. It’s a perfectly legal position to occupy, and given that Iran lives under the shadow of Israeli, American, Russian and Indian nuclear weapons as well as Pakistani ones, it’s not unreasonable for Tehran to want to get there. There is obviously a diplomatic deal to be made here, if anybody’s interested.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“So Iran…thought”)