Cooling The Iran Crisis
Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After, and The Iranian Labyrinth, both published by Nation Books, New York.
President George W. Bush’s dogged refusal to rule out a military option to resolving Iran’s nuclear issue along with his thinly disguised attempts to foment “regime change” in Tehran by bankrolling opposition is leading to a dangerous impasse.
It took three weeks of hard bargaining by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to hammer out a statement on Iran’s nuclear program. Issued on March 29, it expressed “serious concern” about aspects of the Iranian nuclear program “which could have a military nuclear dimension,” demanded a cessation of uranium enrichment and instructed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report back in 30 days on Iran’s compliance.
The council did not have to wait that long. The next day Iran’s chief representative at IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said, “The enrichment matter is not reversible.”
A week earlier the Iranians had informed the IAEA inspectors in Iran that the first set of their pilot project to configure six sets of 164 interconnected uranium-enriching centrifuges at Natanz plant was in place.
So, what next? The council’s permanent members are divided. While the representatives of United States, Britain and France keep mentioning possible sanctions against Iran, Russia and China are strongly opposed.
The IAEA’s Director, Mohamed ElBaradei, also opposes sanctions. He told a forum in the Qatari capital of Doha, “Sanctions are a bad idea. We are not facing an imminent danger. We need to lower the pitch.”
It was against this background that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a British TV network on April 2 that the United States was “committed to resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically,” and that Iran was not Iraq. “However,” she added ominously, “the president of the United States does not take his options off the table.”
The Bush administration’s options are either military or non-military. Of the former, it has two choices: outright invasion or pinprick strikes against specific nuclear and military targets. However, given a paucity of spare soldiers, the Pentagon is not in a position to invade Iran, which is four times larger than Iraq and three times more populous.
So the only feasible option is surgical strikes. For the Pentagon to do the job thoroughly, it would need to mount nearly 1,000 strike sorties, experts agree. Its targets would include not only scores of factories and workshops that make centrifuge parts as well as uranium oxide conversion equipment scattered all over the vast country but also military plants producing conventional weapons and missiles. It’s likely that some of the suspect sites would turn out to be factories or schools.
The consequences of such strikes would be dire. They would probably make the Iranian nation rally around their hard-line leaders. “Given the Iranians’ fierce nationalism and the Shiites’ tradition of martyrdom, any military move on Iran would receive a response that would engulf the entire region in fire,” wrote Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel peace laureate, and Muhammad Sahimi, petroleum engineering professor at the University of Southern California, in a recent op-ed in The International Herald Tribune .
Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki warned that any military action against Iran would result in an escalating crisis which could further destabilize the Middle East by “intensifying U.S. and British difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Pentagon’s action would raise anti-American feelings in the Shiite world –an important minority in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait and the oil-bearing eastern region of Saudi Arabia – at a time when anti-U.S sentiment is running high among Sunnis in the region due to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Given the infiltration of Iranian agents into a wide variety of Iraqi factions, Iran could activate its covert alliances in Iraq, resulting in attacks on the American forces by Shiite partisans and a further destabilization of Iraq.
In any event, military strikes will merely delay Iran’s nuclear program, not eliminate it. And they would alienate Washington’s allies in the West and the Muslim world, and turn many Iranians, who dislike the theocratic regime, into America’s enemies.
On the other hand, the non-military option still favored by hawks is economic sanctions. Unfortunately, the only sanctions that would hurt Iran concern oil, as it earns 80 per cent of its foreign revenue by exporting oil.
But what would be the consequences of cutting off supplies of the fourth-largest oil producer in the world and the second-largest exporter within OPEC? Oil prices would touch $100 a barrel. “It is dangerous to put restrictions on trade relations that could hurt one’s own side more than the other side,” said Gernot Erler, deputy Foreign Minister of Germany.
The mere testing of a short-range stealth missile with multiple warheads—and a newly developed underwater missile with a speed three times faster than a torpedo, carrying a powerful warhead—by Iran’s military during its ongoing naval exercises in the Persian Gulf pushed the oil prices up, with traders saying that the oil market had entered a more volatile phase fueled by speculative buying.
Given the impasse, it behooves the West to respond to Tehran’s proposal that the negotiating team at the IAEA should be expanded to include such members as South Africa—which voluntarily gave up its six atom bombs in 1993 – and Malaysia, the current chairman of the 117-member Non-Aligned Movement.
While the Bush administration works through a six-nation committee to negotiate with North Korea, surely it can do the same in the case of Iran.