Iran: The Slow-Motion Crisis

5 August 2005

Iran: The Slow-Motion Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

Everybody will drag their feet as much as possible, because nobody, including the Bush administration, really wants the United States to attack Iran. There may be as much as eight to twelve more months of diplomatic manoeuvring before the crisis hits. But there is going to be a crisis, and it is going to be big and dangerous.

“We hope to restart work by the beginning of next week when preparations are complete,” said Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani last Wednesday. The seals on Iran’s uranium enrichment project, put into place last November when Tehran agreed to a temporary suspension of its programme to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle, will be removed as soon as the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency can get its surveillance equipment back into place in Isfahan.

The last offer of the “EU-3” (Britain, France and Germany) — a package of economic inducements designed to persuade Iran to abandon its ambitions — was duly delivered to Tehran on Friday, but that game is over. Rohani is leaving his job to make room for somebody more congenial to the new, hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran is calling the Europeans’ bluff. It may be calling the American bluff, too.

There is a significant possibility that President George W. Bush is bluffing when he hints that he might attack Iran if it doesn’t halt its nuclear fuel programme. He doesn’t actually say he will, just that all options are on the table — and his options are not actually very good.

It’s clear that the Bush administration, already up to its neck militarily in Iraq, is deeply reluctant to get into a war with Iran, and the best evidence for that is the recent US National Intelligence Estimate, which says that Iran is ten years away from developing nuclear weapons. Just six months ago, it was saying five years.

The US intelligence agencies whose estimates go into the NIE generally offer a range of possible conclusions, given the diversity and unreliability of intelligence sources. The administration that provides the agencies’ budgets can usually manipulate the process to highlight the conclusions that it prefers (as in the case of case of the invasion of Iraq). The fact that the NIE now says ten years, while Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, says three years, is a fairly reliable indication of the relative enthusiasm in the US and the Israeli governments for an attack on Iran.

Neither estimate need be true, of course. Iran insists that its civil nuclear power ambitions are not a cover for a nuclear weapons programme, and the fact that it has lots of oil does not prove that it is lying. It can make good economic sense to export oil for a huge profit and generate your own electricity: nobody says that Mexico must not build nuclear power plants. But the fact that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear enrichment capacity that would make nuclear weapons possible is deeply suspicious, since it would be far cheaper just to buy the enriched uranium abroad.

Iran probably does want nuclear weapons, or at least the option of developing them fairly quickly. Nevertheless, nothing that it is planning to do at the moment is in any way illegal or contrary to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which guarantees member states the right to develop civil nuclear power in return for the promise that they will not develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, it even promises them help in doing so.

So all the bold talk in Washington about hauling Iran before the United Nations Security Council and imposing sanctions on it is so much moonshine. The fact that Iran hid the size of its nuclear programme for some years, presumably in order not to attract unwelcome American attention, is suspicious, but none of the activities it hid were actually illegal. There is no legal case for sanctions against Iran, and the Security Council will not vote to impose them. Even if Washington could arm-twist its way to a majority vote in favour of sanctions, Russia and/or China would veto them.

What should President Bush do about this putative threat that is perhaps ten years away? The best answer might be nothing: Iran’s intentions are not certain, the government may be very different ten years from now, and any US military action now, without proof that Iran really is seeking nuclear weapons, would be completely illegal. But none of those considerations stopped Mr Bush from invading Iraq, and he is busily painting himself into a corner on this issue with his tongue. Might he actually do it again?

Attacking Iran would achieve nothing in military terms, since the United States lacks the spare military capacity to invade and occupy such a large country. All it could do is bomb Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities in Isfahan and elsewhere, and annoy Iranians to the point where they started causing trouble (and they could cause a great deal) in Iraq, the Gulf and the wider Middle East.

It would alienate even America’s most loyal allies by its sheer lawlessness, and it wouldn’t play very well at home either. Americans are turning against the cost and futility of the war in Iraq, and they will not be up for another. There will be mid-term Congressional elections next year, so that should be a decisive factor. But the truth is that nobody knows what Mr Bush will do — probably not even he himself. We live in interesting times.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“The last…too”; and “Neither…abroad”)