Cornered Iran may turn more desperate

In perspective


Tehran’s furious reaction to fresh demands to halt uranium enrichment and cease construction at a newly revealed nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom was consistent with the country’s increasingly erratic behaviour. Iranians are a prickly people, highly susceptible to affronts, and they are particularly upset over pressure to halt nuclear research.

Since India and Pakistan developed nuclear bombs in secret without being subjected to sanctions and threats of military action, Iranians ask why they are targeted when their programme is designed to produce only fuel for power plants. Iran’s clerical rulers believe themselves to be cornered and under siege.

Therefore, no one should have been surprised by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s response to a resolution adopted last Friday by the International Atomic Energy Agency castigating Iran for building the Qom facility without informing the agency and pressing Iran to halt uranium enrichment. He said Iran would construct 10 new industrial-scale nuclear facilities and install 5,00,000 centrifuges with the object of producing annually 250-300 tonnes of fuel for power plants. Experts say this is empty talk since Iran does not have funds, technical expertise and equipment to carry out such a scheme.

More serious is the threat that Tehran would consider reducing cooperation with the IAEA which it regards as a tool of the US and its allies. Although Russia, China and India were among the 25 members backing the IAEA resolution, they made it clear they do not support stronger sanctions. While China and India are eager to take part in the development of Iran’s energy sector, Russia is engaged in the construction of Iran’s sole nuclear power plant at Bushehr.

Defence

Why is Iran so determined to maintain its modest nuclear programme? University of Michigan professor Juan Cole argues that Tehran seeks a ‘rapid breakout capability’ rather than an arsenal of bombs. This means achieving the ability to, in Cole’s words, “make a bomb in short order if it is felt absolutely necessary to forestall a foreign attack”. This would mean Iran “would have the advantages of deterrence without the disadvantages of a bomb”.

Cole believes his theory explains Iran’s contradictory behaviour: its rejection of the bomb as ‘un-Islamic’, cooperation with the IAEA, and the failure of the IAEA to discover “any trace of a weapons programme”.

Iran’s rejection of the proposal to send most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for preparation for medical use is explained by Tehran’s desire to maintain a stock for a potential bomb if the need arises.

Cole contends that the West opposes Iran’s drive to achieve “rapid breakout capability” because it would change the balance of power in the region and remove “forcible regime change as an option”.

Ahmadinejad’s statement coincided with the adoption of legislation allocating $20 million for anti-western militant groups and investigations into US and British conspiracies against the clerical regime.

If the law is approved by the Council of Guardians, the recipients of funding are likely to be the Lebanese Shia Hizbollah movement and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Washington, in particular, insists that Iran halt aid to these organisations, regarded by the US and Israel as terrorist groups. This law, submitted to the majlis last August, could be Iran’s reply to US financing of anti-regime radio and television broadcasts and Kurdish, Baluch and Arab insurgents who have carried out assassinations and staged bombings in ethnic minority areas.

Meanwhile, a US intelligence report revealed that Tehran has boosted its naval capabilities and is reinforcing its naval presence in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian leaders have said that they would “consider closing or controlling the Strait if provoked,” the report said.

The detention on Nov 25 by the Iranian navy of a British-crewed sailing yacht that strayed into Iranian waters en route from Bahrain to Dubai showed that the Iranian navy is on the alert and prepared to act against any perceived provocation.

Iran’s increasingly assertive behaviour could be a consequence of a three-way power struggle between Ahmadinejad, Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards Corps or pasdaran.  Gary Sick, a US expert on Iran, holds that the pasdaran carried out a soft coup following the disputed presidential election in June.  In his view, the military is now consolidating its power and could, eventually, install army rule. If Sick is correct, Iran could react to sanctions by providing aid to insurgents in Iraq or encourage Hizbollah and Hamas to resume attacks on Israel.

If Israel makes good on threats to attack Iran’s nuclear plants, Tehran could also stir up trouble for US and Nato forces in Afghanistan as well as in strategic Gulf states, particularly Shia majority Bahrain which hosts a major US naval base. Closing the Strait of Hormuz, even for a short period, would shut off the flow of Gulf oil to India and the East as well as to the West, drive oil prices through the roof, and exacerbate the global economic crisis.

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