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.


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