By Juan Cole
Editor’s Note: Truthdig’s Middle Eastern affairs expert argues that the Iranian nuclear issue “has not reached the point of crisis, and therefore other motivations must be sought for the Bush administration’s breathless rhetoric.”
UPDATE: On March 13, President Bush told an audience at George Washington University: “Coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran…. Such actions—along with Iran’s support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons—are increasingly isolating Iran, and America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats.”
Bush’s allegations about the Iranians providing improvised explosive devices to the Iraqi guerrilla insurgency are bizarre. The British military looked into charges of improvised explosive devices coming from Iran, and this past January actually apologized to Tehran when no evidence pointed to Iranian government involvement. The guerrillas in Iraq are militant Sunnis who hate Shiites, and it is wholly implausible that the Iranian regime would supply bombs to the enemies of its Iraqi allies.
Although Bush charges Iran with “support for terrorism,” he seems unable to name any international terrorist incident of the past six years that can unambiguously be attributed to Iran.
His baldfaced accusation that Iran is in “pursuit of nuclear weapons” is, as we will see below, not proved either.
Bush’s vendetta against Iran is all the more invidious in light of the sweetheart deal he recently offered India, which never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A recent United Nations report says that India has been less than forthright about its enrichment programs, and that its procedures are inadequate to deter further proliferation. India dismisses the report. The Bush administration nevertheless has proposed changing U.S. law to permit the sale of nuclear technology to India.
Start of Original Essay:
Iran threatened last week to use the oil weapon if the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on the country because of its nuclear research program, promising “harm and pain” to the United States. In addition to consumer anxieties about oil prices, rumors of a planned U.S. or Israeli airstrike on Iran keep flying, and neighboring Iraqi Shiites have threatened reprisals if that is done to their brethren. What is driving the crisis between the Bush administration and Iran and ratcheting up the rhetoric?
Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi said on Friday, “If sanctions are imposed, we will definitely use the oil tool and other tools and we will stop at nothing.” The regime is clearly fearful of an international economic boycott, but feels it has its own advantages in the struggle. With increasing demand from India and China and instability in Nigeria and Iraq, Iran’s crude oil exports are important in maintaining an affordable price, especially in the winters. In some ways, by invading Iraq and destabilizing it, as well as fostering the rise of Shiite religious parties in Baghdad, the Bush administration has inadvertently strengthened Shiite Iran’s hand.
Although the doubling of petroleum prices in the past two years has so far been absorbed by the world economy, many analysts are convinced that if the price went up to $75 a barrel and stayed there for two years, it would add significantly to the underlying rate of inflation and begin subtracting 2.5% a year from world growth. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chimed in with regard to the American threats: “They know that they are not capable of causing the least harm to Iranian people. They will suffer more.”
Iran is a mid-size country of some 70 million, with a per capita income of only about $2,000 a year. It has no weapons of mass destruction, and its conventional military forms no threat to the United States. From an Iranian point of view, the Americans are simply being unreasonably aggressive. Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei has given a fatwa or formal religious ruling against nuclear weapons, and President Ahmadinejad at his inauguration denounced such arms and committed Iran to remaining a nonnuclear weapons state.
In fact, the Iranian regime has gone further, calling for the Middle East to be a nuclear-weapons-free zone. On Feb. 26, Ahmadinejad said: “We too demand that the Middle East be free of nuclear weapons; not only the Middle East, but the whole world should be free of nuclear weapons.” Only Israel among the states of the Middle East has the bomb, and its stockpile provoked the arms race with Iraq that in some ways led to the U.S. invasion of 2003. The U.S. has also moved nukes into the Middle East at some points, either on bases in Turkey or on submarines.
Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and monitor its nuclear energy research program, as required by the treaty. It raised profound suspicions, however, with its one infraction against the treaty—which was to conduct some secret civilian research that it should have reported and did not, and which was discovered by inspectors. Tehran denies having military labs aiming for a bomb, and in November of 2003 the IAEA formally announced that it could find no proof of such a weapons program. The U.S. reaction was a blustery incredulity, which is not actually an argument or proof in its own right, however good U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton is at bunching his eyebrows and glaring.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows Iran to develop civilian nuclear energy, and the United States itself urged Iran to build reactors in the 1970s. Iran does not have a heavy-water breeder reactor, which is the easy way to get a bomb. It does have light-water reactors for energy production, but these cannot be used to get enough fissionable material to make a bomb. Although Vice President Dick Cheney has made light of an oil state seeking nuclear energy, it would be a rational economic policy to use nuclear energy for domestic needs and sell petroleum on the world market. Certainly, the NPT permits such a policy.
The difficulty for those concerned with proliferation is that for Iran to independently run its light-water reactors, it needs to complete the fuel cycle of uranium enrichment. The ability to produce nuclear fuel is only one step away from the ability to refine uranium further, to weapons-grade quality. Still, it is a step away and could not easily be done in secret with inspectors making visits. Iran is experimenting with refrigerator-size centrifuges as a means of enriching uranium, but would need 16,000, hooked up in a special way, to produce a bomb. It has 164, and one of its proposals to defuse the crisis with the U.S. is to limit itself to no more than 3,000. Otherwise, it says it ideally would have 50,000 centrifuges.
No signatory of the NPT that allows regular IAEA inspections has ever moved to the stage of bomb production. Inspections have been extremely effective tools. United Nations weapons inspectors discovered and dismantled Saddam Hussein’s weapons program after the Gulf War in the early 1990s. The IAEA was even able to detect trace plutonium on Iranian equipment that came from Pakistan, which manufactures bombs. Those who remain suspicious of Iran’s ultimate intentions are not completely without a case. But there is good reason to believe that Iran’s nuclear program could have been monitored successfully.
The Bush administration has arbitrarily taken the position that Iran may not have a nuclear research program at all, even a civilian one. This stance actually contradicts the guarantees of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington officials continually intimate to the press that Tehran has an active weapons program, which is speculation. And, of course, the United States itself is egregiously in violation of several articles of the NPT, keeping enough nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to destroy the world several times over and actively pursuing new and deadly weapons, even dreaming of “tactical” nukes. Its ally in the region, Israel, never signed the NPT and was helped by the British to get a bomb in the 1960s.
The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in summer 2005 estimates that if Iran did have an active nuclear weapons program, and if the international atmosphere were favorable to it being able to get hold of the requisite equipment, it would still be a good 10 years away from a bomb. But the international atmosphere is actively hostile to such a development, and anyway it has not been proved that there is such a weapons program.
If the Supreme Jurisprudent of theocratic Iran has given a fatwa against nukes, if the president of the country has renounced them and called for others to do so, if the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence of a military nuclear weapons program, and if Iran is at least 10 years from having a bomb even if it is trying to get one, then why is there a diplomatic crisis around this issue between the United States and Iran in 2006?
The answer is that the Iranian nuclear issue is dj vu all over again. As it did with regard to the Baath regime in Iraq, the militarily aggressive Bush administration wants to overthrow the government in Tehran. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, now in a coma, urged the U.S. to hit Iran as soon as it had taken care of Saddam Hussein. The Israelis have a grudge against it because it helped end their military occupation and land grab in southern Lebanon by giving aid to the Shiite Hezbollah organization, the only Arab force ever to succeed in regaining occupied land from Israel by military means. But Iran does not form a conventional military threat to Israel.
Overthrowing the theocratic regime in Iran, Washington hopes, would reduce Hezbollah pressure on Israel over its continued occupation of the Shebaa Farms area (and, implicitly, the Golan Heights). It would make Syria more complaisant toward Israel and Washington. It would open up Iran to investment and exploration on the part of the American petroleum majors, which are at the moment excluded because the U.S. slapped an economic boycott on Iran. It might remove support for the more hard-line elements among Shiite political parties in Iraq, making that country easier for the U.S. to shape and dominate. In short, a U.S.-installed regime in Iran would hold out the promise of returning to the halcyon 1960s, when the shah was an American puppet in the region.
The nuclear issue is for the most part a pretext for the Americans to exert pressure on the regime in Tehran. This is not to say that proliferation is not a worrisome issue, or that it can be ruled out that Iran wants a bomb. It is to say that the situation simply has not reached the point of crisis, and therefore other motivations must be sought for the Bush administration’s breathless rhetoric.
President Ahmadinejad, it should be freely admitted, has, through his lack of diplomatic skills and his maladroitness, given his enemies important propaganda tools. Unlike his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier. He went to an anti-Zionist conference and quoted Ayatollah Khomeini, saying that the “Occupation regime” must “vanish.” This statement about Israel does not necessarily imply violence. After all, Ariel Sharon made the occupation regime in the Gaza Strip vanish. The quote was translated in the international press, however, as a wish that “Israel be wiped off the map,” and this inaccurate translation has now become a tag line for all newspaper articles written about Iran in Western newspapers.
In another speech, Ahmadinejad argued that Germans rather than Palestinians should have suffered a loss of territory for the establishment of a Jewish state, if the Germans perpetrated the Holocaust. This argument is an old one in the Middle East, but it was immediately alleged that Ahmadinejad was advocating the shipping of Israelis to Europe. That was not what he said.
It is often alleged that since Iran harbors the desire to “destroy” Israel, it must not be allowed to have the bomb. Ahmadinejad has gone blue in the face denouncing the immorality of any mass extermination of innocent civilians, but has been unable to get a hearing in the English-language press. Moreover, the presidency is a very weak post in Iran, and the president is not commander of the armed forces and has no control over nuclear policy. Ahmadinejad’s election is not relevant to the nuclear issue, and neither is the question of whether he is, as Liz Cheney is reported to have said, “a madman.” Iran has not behaved in a militarily aggressive way since its 1979 revolution, having invaded no other countries, unlike Iraq, Israel or the U.S. Washington has nevertheless succeeded in depicting Iran as a rogue state.
A final issue between Iran and the United States that might explain the escalating rhetoric over nonexistent nukes is Iraq. The U.S. is bogged down in a quagmire there, fighting militant Sunni Arabs. But it has also seen its political plans for Iraq checked on several occasions by the rise of powerful Iraqi Shiite parties, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Dawa Party, and the Sadr Movement. Iran hosted SCIRI and Dawa in exile in the Saddam years, and has close relations with them. There are allegations that it gives them money.
To any extent that Iran has helped these parties win elections and maintain their paramilitary forces, it has undermined the American hope of installing a relatively secular figure as a Karzai-like ruler. The U.S. would very much like to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, and aggressiveness on the nuclear issue is a way for the Bush administration to enlist European and other countries in the effort to put pressure on Iran and make it cautious about intervening too forcefully in Iraqi affairs.
In fact, the Shiite parties in southern Iraq are homegrown and would almost certainly have done well in elections without any Iranian support. The Americans are in some ways scapegoating Iran for their own failures of analysis. They appear to have been unaware of how popular the Shiite religious leaders had become in the late Saddam period, and so were unprepared for their strong showing in the U.S.-sponsored elections.
The United States has succeeded in bringing Iran before the United Nations Security Council, though it is unclear if that body will slap economic sanctions on Tehran. Such a move could be vetoed by Russia or China, both of which have high hopes of sharing in the Iranian oil bonanza. If an international boycott is imposed, it will mainly harm the civilians and children of Iran. The crisis has been fueled by Ahmadinejad’s alarming and foolish rhetoric, and by the clever aggressiveness of the Bush administration, which is better at framing its enemies than any other U.S. administration in history.
Washington no longer has much leverage on Iran. Its military is bogged down in Iraq, and its diplomats are forbidden to speak to Tehran under most circumstances. Its attempt to prevent even a civilian Iranian nuclear energy program may convince the clerical hard-liners to pull their country out of the NPT and to end international inspections. If the Iranians really did want a bomb, they could not have asked for a better pretext to leave the NPT. President Bush’s policies toward Iran have already failed, and could fail even more miserably in the months to come.