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No Panic in Iran

10 October 2012

No Panic in Iran

By Gwynne Dyer

Iran’s currency virtually collapsed last week, and the public protests that followed in Tehran stirred memories of the massive anti-regime protests of 2009. This has caused excited speculation in the United States and its allies about the imminent fall of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the abandonment of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, or even the end of the whole Islamic regime. Don’t hold your breath.

Ahmadinejad blamed the currency crisis on the foreign sanctions that are crippling Iran’s trade, of course. His critics at home just blamed him: “The smaller part of the problem relates to sanctions while 80% of the problem is rooted in the government’s mistaken policies,” said Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?

It’s true that Ahmadinejad has used the country’s large oil revenues to paper over some serious mistakes in running Iran’s economy, but the current crisis was caused by a steep fall in those revenues – which is directly due to the sanctions.

Four rounds of United Nations-backed trade sanctions, ostensibly meant to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, had already cut the country’s oil exports from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.5 million b/d by early this year.

Then came new American sanctions that blocked any international bank doing business in Iran from access to the immense US market – so most of them ended their dealings with Iran.

In July came new European Union sanctions banning oil imports from Iran entirely. Since Europe was taking one-fifth of Iran’s remaining oil exports, that blow was enough to send the Iranian rial into free-fall.

Until 2009, the rate of exchange was fairly stable at about 10,000 rials to the dollar. Then it started to fall slowly, and then faster – and in a hectic few days last week, it tumbled a further 40 percent to a low of 35,000 rials to the dollar. That was when the protests began in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, whose merchants were amongst the strongest supporters of the revolution in 1979.

The protests were contained without any deaths, and the shops in the bazaar are now open again. The rial has recovered slightly, stabilising at around 28,000 to the dollar. But that is one-third of what it was worth three years ago, and the effects are being felt in almost every household in the country. Formerly comfortable middle-class families are scrambling to put food on the table, and the poor are really suffering.

So the sanctions are working, in the sense that they are hurting people. But what are they accomplishing in terms of their stated purpose of forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons programme? More importantly, perhaps, what are they achieving in terms of their UNSTATED purpose: triggering an uprising that overthrows the whole Islamic regime?

First of all, Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the US and Israeli intelligence service are all agreed on that, although the public debate on the issue generally assumes the contrary. Iran says it is developing its ability to enrich uranium fuel for use in reactors, which is perfectly legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It’s true that the same technologies give the owner the ability to enrich uranium further, to weapons grade, and there is good reason to think that Iran wants that capability. It’s probably not planning to make nuclear weapons now, but it does want that “threshold capability” in case things get really bad in the region and it needs a nuclear deterrent in a hurry.

A “threshold nuclear weapons capability” (but no nuclear weapons) is still not illegal. Other countries with enrichment facilities include Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands. Moreover, Iran’s stock of reactor-grade enriched uranium is under permanent IAEA supervision, and alarms would go off instantly if it started to upgrade that stock to weapons grade.

Israel’s current government has talked itself into a state of existential panic over Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, but the US government certainly doesn’t believe that Iran has any immediate plans to build nuclear weapons. So what are these sanctions really about?

Overthrowing the Iranian regime, of course. American sanctions against Iran long predate any concerns about Iranian nuclear weapons, and would not be ended even if Iran stopped all work on uranium enrichment tomorrow. The US legislation that imposes the sanctions makes that very clear.

Before sanctions are lifted, the president must certify to Congress that Iran has “released all political prisoners and detainees; ceased its…violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; investigated the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists…and prosecuted those responsible; and made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary.” In other words, it must dismantle the regime.

Since stopping the enrichment programme would not end the sanctions, why would the Iranian government even consider doing so? And will the Iranian people rise up and overthrow the regime because sanctions are making their daily lives very difficult? Even anti-regime Iranians are proud and patriotic people, and the likelihood that they will yield to foreign pressures in that way is approximately zero.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“Then…Iran”; and “It’s true…grade”)

 

 

Iran: Showdown

26 September 2009

 Iran: Showdown

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Iranians have been watching too many James Bond movies. If you want to hide a secret uranium enrichment plant, you should bury it under some existing structure in the heart of the city. Hollowing out a mountain just attracts the attention of every intelligence service in the world. They start watching as soon as the first approach road shows up on the satellite photographs.

Western intelligence agencies have known about Iran’s second uranium enrichment plant, hidden in the mountains west of Qom, since construction began in 2006. Amazingly, it took until now for Iran’s spooks to realise that and warn Tehran to come clean. On Monday, the Iranian government delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) admitting that the plant existed.

Hiding things always causes suspicion. “The revelation of this second nuclear enrichment site… proves beyond any doubt that (Iran) wants to equip itself with nuclear weapons,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The Qom discovery also brought Russian President Dmitry Medvedev around to the view that, “in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.”

The United States, Britain, France and Germany were already convinced that Iran is working on nuclear weapons, and Russia makes five. Out of the six countries that are negotiating with Iran (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), only China is still holding out, but it is starting to waver. Next Thursday’s meeting between Iran and the Six may not be followed immediately by sanctions, but they are coming soon.

Yet it is still not clear that Iran is actually seeking nuclear weapons. The religious leadership regularly declares that they are “un-Islamic”, and presumably takes its own decrees seriously. On the other hand, the country has been facing the threat of attack by the United States or Israel, using conventional or even nuclear weapons, for decades.

During the 1980s, the actual attacks on Iran were carried out by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but with Washington’s blessing. It was the Reagan administration that gave Saddam access to the poison gas that saved him from defeat, and Reagan also lent Baghdad the US Air Force photo-interpreters who told Saddam which Iranian targets to hit.

It was the trigger-happy crew of the US missile cruiser Vincennes, operating illegally in Iranian waters, who mistakenly shot down Iran Air flight 655 in 1988, killing all 290 civilian passengers aboard. And while neither the US nor its allies have attacked Iran directly for the past twenty years, the rhetoric about Iran coming out of Washington has been 20consistent: “rogue state”; “axis of evil”; “all the options are on the table.”

So it’s hardly surprising that the Iranians decided on a back-up site for uranium enrichment in case their main enrichment plant at Nazran were destroyed. However, the site near Qom is much smaller, and could not supply the large quantities of slightly enriched uranium that a nuclear power station requires. What it could do is supply the small quantities of highly enriched uranium that a nuclear weapons requires.

Many people therefore think that the Iranians meant to keep the Qom facility secret permanently, enriching uranium for nuclear weapons there while everybody monitored their innocent activities at Natanz. Others, including myself, think that the secondary site near Qom is meant to give Iran the option of going flat-out for nuclear weapons if the United States or Israel attacks and destroys the main enrichment site at Natanz.

Both of these possible rationales were pretty stupid, since there was really no way that the Qom site could stay secret. But it does matter which of those motives underlay the Qom site: was it to build secret nuclear weapons as soon as possible, or to have the ability to build nuclear weapons if attacked?

The probable answer, given the regime’s theological objections to nuclear weapons, is that it genuinely wants an independent source of fuel for its civil nuclear power programme, since it has repeatedly been targeted by embargoes and sanctions in the past – and it also wants the ability to produce nuclear weapons within six to twelve months if it is attacked.

A number of other countries have sought and attained such a “threshold capability” over the years, AND IT IS PERFECTLY LEGAL. Maybe it shouldn’t be legal, but under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is.

The current crisis is occurring because some countries believe that Iran intends to go beyond that legal threshold, and actually make nuclear weapons now. They are the same countries that mistakenly thought Iraq had nuclear weapons and invaded it in 2003. They may be wrong this time, too.

Some governments will argue that Iran has already crossed that legal threshold by keeping the Qom site secret from the IAEA. Under the normal NPT rules, it would only have to declare the site six months before it actually starts processing uranium there, but in 2003 Iran voluntarily signed the so-called Subsidiary Arrangement, under which it promised to inform the IAEA of new nuclear facilities in the design stage.

It subsequently repudiated that extra obligation, but the IAEA says it cannot do so unilaterally. So maybe Iran has now broken the law, or maybe it hasnt. But sanctions are now almost certain, and the odds on this ending in US or Israeli military strikes on Iran just got a lot shorter.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“During…table”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Iran: The Irrelevance of Evidence

15 November 2007

Iran: The Irrelevance of Evidence

By Gwynne Dyer

Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defence minister, is not a fan of Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, he wants him fired. “The policies followed by ElBaradei endanger world peace. His irresponsible attitude of sticking his head in the sand over Iran’s nuclear programme should lead to his impeachment,” Mofaz said during a visit to Washington in early November.

Mofaz was getting his retaliation in first. As he foresaw, the IAEA director’s report on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, released on 14 November, said that Tehran was years away from an ability to make nuclear weapons.

Not only that, but he said that Iran is complying with a work plan agreed with the IAEA last August to clear up the remaining questions about a project that the Iranians insist was only ever about making fuel for civilian nuclear power stations. How can you bomb a country, or even impose serious sanctions on it, if the head of the IAEA won’t accuse it of seeking nuclear weapons?

Well, you can if you really want to. It was the same Mohammed ElBaradei who reported to the United Nations Security Council on 14 February, 2003 that “We have, to date, found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq.” The United States and Britain insisted that their intelligence said otherwise, Iraq was duly invaded, and nobody even apologised when no “prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities” were found.

ElBaradei must feel a strong sense of deja vu as his reports on Iran four years later get the same treatment in the major Western countries. French Defence Minister Herve Morin responded that “Our information, which is backed up by other countries, is contrary [to Mr ElBaradei’s comments]” — as if Western intelligence agencies had a strong record in this field.

For the simple-minded, White House spokesperson Dana Perino offered an even clearer proof of Iran’s wickedness. Iran, she said, is “enriching and reprocessing uranium, and the reason that one does that is to lead towards a nuclear weapon.” Case closed.

Apart from the eight nuclear weapons powers (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel), four other countries already have plants on their territory for “enriching and reprocessing uranium” under IAEA safeguards: Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Brazil. Argentina, Australia and South Africa are also building or actively considering uranium enrichment facilities, again under IAEA safeguards. So there was some rapid back-pedalling at the White House when a journalist inquired if all these countries are also seeking nuclear weapons.

US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe was wheeled out to “clarify” Dana Perino’s statement. “Each country is different, but obviously Dana was asked and was talking about Iran.” he explained. In other words, the real proof that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons lies in the fact that we know in our hearts that it is evil.

It really is as simple as that. Iran’s goal by its own account is precisely the same as that of Argentina, Australia or South Africa: to acquire the ability to enrich uranium for nuclear power generation under full IAEA safeguards. This is perfectly legal, and indeed is the “inalienable right” of every signatory under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Iran has signed).

The problem is that this same ability to enrich uranium for nuclear power generation also confers the ability to enrich it much more for use in nuclear weapons. So long as the IAEA safeguards are in place that won’t happen, but if a country later quits the NPT and expels the IAEA (as North Korea did in 2003), it doesn’t take long to start making bombs. It’s really a question of trust. Nobody thinks Argentina will do that; lots of people fear that Iran would.

Suspicions of Iran are even greater because much of its early work on uranium enrichment was done secretly with equipment bought on the black market. There is a plausible explanation for this — ever since the revolution of 1979, a US-led boycott has made it almost impossible for Iran to buy nuclear technology legally — but it doesn’t help Tehran’s credibility now.

All ElBaradei can do is to assess whether Iran is obeying international law, but that is of little interest to Israel and the Western governments that are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Iran’s ultimate goal is nuclear weapons.

That is why the issue was taken away from the IAEA two years ago and transferred to the UN Security Council, where the Western great powers can simply declare that Iran is a threat to the peace and impose sanctions on it — if they can get the Russians and the Chinese to go along with them.

Moscow and Beijing have complied on two occasions, but they seem unlikely to assent to the harsher sanctions that the US is now seeking. In which case the next step for the United States — “all the options are on the table” — may be a unilateral attack on Iran. Most Iranians don’t believe that even the Bush administration could be that foolish, but recent history is not on their side.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Suspicions…weapons”)

The Iranian “Crisis”

28 August 2006

The Iranian “Crisis”

By Gwynne Dyer

The United Nations Security Council deadline for Iran to stop producing enriched uranium expires on 31 August, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annnan arrives in Tehran on 2 September. Washington demands UN sanctions against Iran if it doesn’t stop, and hints at air strikes against Iranian nuclear installations if sanctions don’t happen or don’t work. Welcome to the crisis.

The media love a crisis, but this one seriously lacks credibility. In June John Negroponte, US Director of National Intelligence, told the BBC that Iran could have a nuclear bomb ready between 2010 and 2015. But he said “could”, not “will”, and only in five or ten years’ time. So why are we having a crisis this autumn?

The US government’s explanation is that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad threatened in May to “wipe Israel off the map,” and that nuclear weapons are the way he plans to do it. (Any that are left over would presumably be given to terrorists.) As proof of Iran’s evil ambitions, it points to the fact, revealed in 2003, that Iran had been concealing some parts of its so-called peaceful nuclear energy programme from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for eighteen years.

But there are a number of holes in this narrative, and the first is that Ahmedinejad never said he wanted to “wipe Israel off the map.” This is a strange and perhaps deliberate mistranslation of his actual words, a direct quote from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the font of all wisdom in revolutionary Iran, who said some twenty years ago that “this regime occupying Jerusalem (i.e. Israel) must vanish from the page of time.”

It was a statement about the future (possibly the quite far future)as ordained by God. It was NOT a threat to destroy Israel. Attacking Israel has never been Iranian policy, and a few days later the man who really runs Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly stated that Iran “will not commit aggression against any nation.” While Ahmadinejad continues to say nasty things about Israel, he too has explicitly rejected accusations that Iran plans to attack it.

Of course it doesn’t. Israel has had its unacknowledged nuclear weapons targeted on Iran since Ahmadinejad was a small boy. Even if Iran were eventually to get some too, it could not realistically hope to catch up with Israel’s hundreds of weapons and sophisticated delivery vehicles. (Israel can strike Iran with aircraft, with ballistic missiles, and possibly with Harpoon missiles fired from its German-built Dolphin-class submarines and refitted to carry nuclear warheads.)

If Iran doesn’t have a serious nuclear weapons programme, why did it hide two of its nuclear facilities from the IAEA for eighteen years? Eighteen years before 2003 was 1987, at the height of Saddam Hussein’s US-backed war against Iran, with Iraqi missiles falling daily on Iranian cities. They had conventional explosive warheads, but the Iranians suspected (rightly, at that time) that Saddam was working on nuclear weapons as well.

So the Iranians probably decided to revive the Shah’s old nuclear weapons programme, and hid the plans for the new facilities to keep them off Saddam’s target list and to avoid an early confrontation with the IAEA.

Then the war ended, and work on Iranian nuclear weapons stopped too, at the latest after UN inspectors dismantled Saddam’s nuclear programme in the early 1990s. We can be sure of this because Iran would have had nuclear weapons long ago if it had wanted them badly enough: it doesn’t take over eighteen years for a country with Iran’s resources.

The undeclared nuclear facilities remained secret because it was embarrassing to admit that Iran had concealed them, but no great effort went into finishing them. (In fact, President Ahmadinejad finally opened one of them, the heavy water facility at Arak, only this month.) But the fact that Iran hid them for so long is the only reason that anybody has for doubting the legitimacy of its current actions, since it is quite legal for a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop the technologies and facilities for enriching nuclear fuels for power plants.

Iran probably does now intend to work steadily towards a “threshold” nuclear capability (the ability to break out of the NPT and build nuclear weapons very rapidly if necessary) because it is surrounded by nuclear weapons powers: India and Pakistan to the east, the Russians to the north, Israel to the west, and US forces on both its western and eastern borders in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a threshold nuclear capability is still perfectly legal, and many countries that have signed the NPT have achieved it already.

Iran’s actions are not worth a real crisis, and the situation is certainly not very urgent. Iran’s reply to the Security Council offered further negotiations on the issue, though it will not agree to stop enriching uranium as a precondition for talks. In these circumstances, neither Russia or China, two veto-holding powers, will vote to impose serious sanctions on Iran, nor will a number of the non-permanent members of the Security Council. So if the Bush administration truly believes that this is important and urgent, it will have to act alone and outside the law.

Would it really do such a foolish thing again after the Iraq fiasco? Unfortunately, it might.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Of course…ones”;and “Iran probably…already”)