Friday, October 2, 2009

Iran under nuclear scrutiny again

AT the time of writing this piece, the outcome of the first meeting between the United States of America and Islamic Republic of Iran for the first time in 30 years scheduled for the 1st of October in Geneva was not known. Hopefully, their first encounter would engage the two nations in dialogue that would bring them together to work for peace rather than war and destruction towards which Bush seemed hell bent to go. Bush called Iran “an axis of evil” when he was threatening to browbeat the rest of the dissenting world to submission.

Iran is crucial to world peace for many reasons. First, its geopolitical location is something that no one can sidetrack. Second, it is a very rich country with capability to achieve goals it sets for itself. Third, despite what the western press may be suggesting, Iran is far from breaking in the seams due to internal political conflicts. Fourth, it has rich history and traditions; its people are proud inheritors of a civilization that have remained unbroken over thousands of years. Finally, it can be militarily attacked by any country, be it the United States or Israel that is just itching to take down Iran's nuclear installations that it claims are for peaceful use, only if the objective is to throw up the world in flames.

Hence, when Barak Obama made his first overture to Iran soon after becoming the President for engagement, the rest of the world was relieved because it ended what Bush had threatened, a new World War by attacking Iran. In Cairo, a few weeks later, President Obama made further overtures. Unfortunately, since then Iran had a disputed election that the western press attempted to blow out of proportions into a potential civil war between the clergy and the reformists. They also hinted at serious dissensions within the clergy. President Obama, who had remained quiet over Iran's disputed elections initially, came out later and spoke in favour of the reformists, sending a tough message to President Ahmedejine without derailing the possibilities of discussion and negotiation between the two former antagonists.

Unfortunately, ahead of the talks in Geneva between the US and Iran, new tension has appeared in the midst of the two countries. It has only been revealed last week that Iran has a second nuclear enrichment facility at Qum, Iran's religious capital, hitherto kept secret from the IAEA. This one is inside a facility occupied by the Revolutionary Guards. The serious question with the Qum discovery is whether there are many more like this where Iran is enriching uranium for the bomb while opening to IAEA the far larger one at Natanz to keep them off the track.

The new site has brought strong comments from President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, all demanding immediate access to the site. Gates said that the new facility is “part of a pattern of deception and lies on the part of the Iranians from the very beginning with respect to their nuclear program.” He said he feels that Iran will eventually build the nuclear bomb although there may be no formal decision to do so yet. Gates, however, clearly gave his verdict for diplomacy over a military response for which the Israelis are itching.

For the Israelis the revelation has come at an opportune moment ahead of the G20 Summit in Pittsburg on September 24-25. They wanted this Group to issue tough sanctions and push forward its intention to do with the Iranian nuclear reactors what it did with the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq in June 1981 by carrying out surgical air attacks. While one understands the Israeli concerns, what is incomprehensible is why those to whom Israel is appealing do not turn back to ask them about their own arsenal of nuclear weapons. Then of course, the case Israel is making to attack Iran the way it attacked Iraq is not, even for argument's sake, the same for Iraq was a murderous regime led by Saddam Hussein while Iran has a mature and responsible leadership at the helm. In fact, logically looking at the issue there is no reason why Iran would eventually not have the bomb as long as Israel has those weapons. Iran has Pakistan and Russia as neighbours that are both nuclear weapons states, which is an additional reason to go for the bomb.

Iran of course has consistently said that its nuclear programme is peaceful. Its argument is to sell its oil and gas for foreign cash while using nuclear energy for electricity and power for industrialization and economic development. The Shah of Iran who purchased Iran's first nuclear reactor in 1959 from USA and hoped to build 23 such reactors by the 1990s used this argument. There were few suspicions about Iran's nuclear programme but the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war in the decade following put an end to such suspicions.

These suspicions re-surfaced when Iran made its intentions to build seven nuclear reactors to generate 1000 MW electricity from each by 2025. In 2003, Iran said that acquiring nuclear weapons is inhuman and immoral and against its basic principles and defense doctrine. At about the same time, Supreme Leader Khamanei and President Khatami have said that Iran would not give up its uranium enrichment programme at any cost. These statements do not make Iran's intent absolutely clear. Intelligence works by international powers as well as IAEA have given further cause of doubt about Iran's nuclear intentions. Meanwhile, the Iranian leadership, particularly President Ahmedejine is under pressure from within and needs whatever help they can get. Iran was therefore looking optimistically towards the opening of dialogue with the USA and the revelation of the Qum site has come at an inopportune time for Iran.

It has however come as handy for those led by the USA who want to end Iran's desire for the nuclear bomb, if any. After the Qum revelation, President Obama said in his weekly radio address that his offer to Iran for serious dialogue “remains open” but “it must now cooperate fully with the IAEA and take actions to demonstrate its peaceful intentions”. European countries also are now expected to pressure Iran to follow its agreement with the IAEA to allow its inspectors to go virtually anywhere to follow suspicions of nuclear work. At the threat of tough economic sanctions by the US and western nations, IAEA, urged by the US and western nations, would now seek from Iran documents based on their intelligence work suggesting that Iran was working on designing warheads and technologies for detonating a nuclear core. Iran had denied having such documents for last 3 years. The IAEA would now insist also that Iran must inform the Agency its intentions to build future nuclear facilities that Iran had originally agreed to do under the agreement but later renounced.

There are a host of other issues that the US would like to press forward with Iran on the nuclear question such as interviewing key officials, accesses to computers, etc. following catching Iran with the Qum reactor. The officials are not confident that Iran would comply with many of their requests but nevertheless they feel that they can turn the nuclear standoff with Iran of the last seven years sharply in their favour.

Gates' intuition that Iran would eventually have the bomb may be prophetic. Pakistan's Prime Minister ZA Bhutto had said in the 1970s that Pakistanis would eat grass to produce the nuclear bomb to be even with its nemesis India. Iran will do what Pakistan did; have a bomb because Israel is a nuclear weapons state. To dissuade Iran, the US and others meeting Iranians for direct talks in Geneva must balance the Israeli factor. Iranians are not Japanese and have no historical need to renounce the military option. Hence those negotiating with Iran must keep in mind what Gates has said and give Iran enough incentive not to build the bomb. They must also keep in mind about Iran-China closeness on energy exploration and development in Iran. China is crucial to influencing Iran on the nuclear issue and would be unlikely to push Iran too much.

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