Nuclear poker over Iran
Iran'S face-off with the United States and the European Union on the nuclear issue has reached a critical pitch with Teheran threatening to end its voluntary cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) if it is referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's statement came in reaction to the January 12 joint declaration by the European Union-3 (Germany, France and Britain) that its talks were at a "dead end" after two and a half years of acrimonious bargaining and that "the time has now come for the Security Council to become involved".
Also in the backdrop were reports that the U.S. and Israel have drawn up plans to strike Iran's nuclear facilities with bunker-buster bombs - a possibility that is liable to have the most horrifying consequences imaginable not just for the already-destabilised West Asian region, but the entire world.
Although Iran's stance has hardened, Mottaki laced his remarks with caution and offered to continue negotiations. Most important, he stopped short of threatening to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He warned: "The Europeans will lose the means which are now at their disposal if Iran's case is sent to the Security Council... . The [Iranian] government will be required, in conformity with the law adopted by Parliament, to end all its voluntary measures of cooperation" with the IAEA, including surprise inspections under the Additional Protocol.
Yet, Mottaki reminded the E.U.-3 that Iran on January 10 had only opened the Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran for "research", that too under the IAEA inspectors' watch. He called on Europe to "not make propaganda over research which is natural and normal" and said Iran was prepared for talks with the Europeans on enrichment. Iran also described a proposal to enrich uranium on Russian territory and send it back to Iran as a good starting point for negotiations.
The Western states have also sent out signals that they want "consensus", not confrontation. While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deplored Iran's move to break the seals on the Natanz plant as "dangerous defiance", she said this is "an end of diplomacy". Even President George W. Bush, after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said: "Our job is to form a common consensus... . This is what called diplomacy." British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also said: "No one is talking about invading Iran... . Iran is not Iraq."
Despite all these qualifications, however, it is clear that the Iran-West confrontation has reached a new high. Part of the impetus for this was apparently provided by Iran's decision to break open the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. But beyond a point, this is a deceptive explanation: the reopening of the plant under the IAEA inspectors' noses is a largely symbolic act. It does not significantly alter the material reality. Iran does not produce uranium hexafluoride gas of high quality with which to run its crude centrifuges. It has only about 150 of them, when thousands are needed to produce a sizeable quality even of low-enriched uranium, usable in a power reactor, leave alone the highly-enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon.
According to independent experts, Iran's gas conversion facility is flawed and cannot yield high-purity hexafluoride to be processed into uranium metal. ("India's nuclear albatross", Frontline, October 7, 2005) Centrifuging gas is a far, far more difficult technology than converting the oxides of uranium to haxafluoride, a simple chemical process. Uranium centrifuges spin at extremely high speeds such as 800 to 1,200 revolutions a second. They break down if there is even the slightest material imbalance and asymmetry or poor lubrication. Even bad bearings can cause crashes.
Even India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has had trouble stabilising the centrifuges at the Rare Materials Plant near Mysore. Iran can be expected to be much worse off. It is probably five to 10 years away from mastering the technology for a bomb.
The West surely knows this. The real cause of the heightened tension probably lies elsewhere. Powerful states like the U.S. want to pre-empt Iran from embarking on acquiring an enrichment capability and thus set a deterrent example for other aspirants to a nuclear weapons status - just as it thought it had done with Iraq. (It is another matter that the whole rationale of the war on Iraq was based on a tissue of lies. The U.S. also cannot explain why it "tolerates" North Korea's self-avowed claim to a nuclear weapons status while opposing Iran's nuclear programme.)
Iran too cannot be unaware that the West would exploit any move on its part to indicate that it is resuming its nuclear programme. Teheran is taking a calculated risk by going beyond gas conversion into "research" in enrichment. Its likely motive is to get the U.S., rather than just the E.U.-3, to start talking to it. After all, the EU-3 have been less than honest in the way they have conducted the talks with Iran. By mid-2005, they had a "package" ready with incentives for Iran in return for a suspension or slowing down of its nuclear pursuits. This might have been acceptable to Teheran. But as soon as the possibility of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad winning the presidential election against Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani emerged, they dropped the package.
Iran is keen to get the Americans to talk to it for another reason too: it wants to be accepted as a "normal" state, with full diplomatic relations with Washington. That would end Teheran's isolation and help it access technology and markets.
Iran'S calculation is threefold. First, even if it is hauled up before the Security Council, the chances of tough sanctions being imposed on it are low. Such sanctions will necessarily target Iran's oil, and send its prices sky-high, affecting Western economies the most. Iran, after all, has 10 per cent of the world's crude oil and the second largest reserve of natural gas. Countries like Japan and much of the rest of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are desperately dependent on Iran's oil. Neither they, nor the U.S., can afford high oil prices. Thus, the Japanese, German and French governments have all said that the call for sanctions against Iran is "premature".
Secondly, Iran knows that neither Russia nor China is fully with the West on the issue of a punitive or coercive approach towards Teheran. Russia has a major economic stake in Iran. It is building a civilian nuclear plant at Bushehr and says it will go ahead with sales of short-range missiles worth $1 billion to it. China is a major consumer of Iran's oil and has just signed agreements for hydrocarbon prospecting and production in Iran. It has repeatedly called for "consensus" and negotiations with Iran. After the breaking of the seals at Natanz, China refused to sign a joint statement with the other permanent members of the Security Council.
And thirdly, Iran has tremendous influence in Iraq's new Shia-majority government. The U.S. has not "stabilised" post-war Iraq. Grave failure stares it in the face. The Iraq situation is worsening by the week. Iraq, with Palestine, is the crucible in which the entire West Asian region will be reshaped. Iran's influence is not confined to Iraq, but extends to Lebanon and Syria as well.
There is of course the worst-case scenario: a strike by the U.S. or Israel (or by the two together) on Iran's nuclear facilities. This is not as fantastic as it might seem. The U.S. has reportedly ordered preparations for such a scenario. At the doctrinal level, the arrangements for a pre-emptive attack are in place with the Nuclear Posture Review, Washington's description of Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil", and its warning that it could use even nuclear weapons against a "rogue" state which has a programme to acquire weapons of mass destruction. (Indeed, one extreme-case scenario for a tactical nuclear strike has been developed by a U.S. physician based at the University of California, San Diego, who cites 15 reasons.
Equally serious are reports in The Guardian of Israeli plans to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. Israel regards Iran as a strategic threat because of its strong economy, further boosted by high oil prices, and its status as a middle-level military power. The perception is strengthened by Ahmedinejad's recent call for wiping Israel "off the map" and his denial of the Holocaust. Israel says that Iran's nuclear programme "can be destroyed" - presumably, in a repeat of the Israeli attack of 1981 on "Osirak", Iraq's experimental nuclear reactor then under construction.
Likud leader and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says that should he win the Israeli general elections in March, he would follow in former Prime Minister Menachem Begin's footsteps: "The Iranian threat is an existential one. In this regard I will continue the legacy of Menachem Begin, who thwarted Iran's neighbour, Iraq, from acquiring nuclear weapons by adopting bold and daring measures. I believe that is what Israel needs to do."
If Israel does strike Iran's nuclear facilities, it would play straight into Teheran's hands and help it mobilise support from the Arab states against a "Zionist plot" aimed at suppressing a nuclear challenge to the Israeli state. It is also doubtful if such an attack would fully disable Iran's nuclear programme because many of its nuclear facilities are believed to have been buried deep underground.
What is not in doubt is that a strike on Iran will open the floodgates to chaos and violence on an unprecedented and unfathomable scale in the entire West Asian region, with explosive consequences for the U.S., among other powers. The U.S. controls the airspace that Israel would have to traverse to attack Iran. It would have to approve of such a strike, which risks inviting a strategic disaster of unbelievable proportions.
The West has not resolved its dilemma. But that is unlikely to stop it from lobbying and bullying other states, including India, to isolate Iran and haul it before the Security Council. There are signs that Washington has mounted renewed pressure on New Delhi on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. In December, U.S. embassy officials gave a demarche to the Union Ministry of Petroleum against the project, which the U.S. says it opposes "absolutely". As a carrot, the U.S. is offering nuclear energy cooperation to India under the July 18 agreement. Condoleezza Rice on January 6 explicitly linked U.S. opposition to India-Iran energy cooperation with the nuclear deal.
The Western, in particular the U.S., position on Iran is shot through with hypocrisy and double standards. The U.S. insists on keeping its nuclear weapons arsenal, indeed on expanding it. It has embarked on a plan to extend its nuclear capability both upwards, through "Star Wars", and downwards, through bunker-buster nuclear weapons. There could be no example that is more negative than Washington's own addiction to nuclear weapons. So long as a handful of the world's states continue to insist on possessing nuclear weapons, they cannot make a credible case for other states not having them.
This does not argue that Iran should have nuclear weapons or that its own nuclear intentions are honourable and entirely limited to peaceful purposes. Iran too is playing a cynical game, although it cites its "right" to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the NPT. The trouble is that the same capabilities that would advance its civilian nuclear programme can be used to develop nuclear weapons in future. That highlights the basic contradiction at the heart of the NPT, and more generally, of the unequal global nuclear order, which does not effectively compel the nuclear weapons-states to disarm.
Where does all this leave India? After its disgraceful vote at the IAEA on September 24, India has lost whatever little diplomatic leverage it had with Iran. It has very little economic leverage either. Iran, with its huge oil and gas resources, is in no way dependent on India. India's only conceivable leverage could be moral or moral-political. But even that is compromised, indeed lost, by New Delhi's desperate desire to have its nuclear weapons "normalised" and its refusal to accept nuclear restraint.
India could have set a positive example if it had returned to the global nuclear disarmament agenda as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) promised in the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP). The power of this example would have been greatly reinforced if India had initiated bilateral measures of nuclear restraint with Pakistan. But the nuclear deal with the U.S. has effectively closed this option. Unless India cancels this deal, it will be compelled to accept the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, including those of the U.S. It cannot both crave acceptance as a nuclear weapons-state within the global nuclear order and demand a radical change in it.
New Delhi has reduced itself to the status of a prisoner through the disastrous nuclear deal. The agreement is not primarily about nuclear power. Nor is it a mere bilateral arrangement. At its heart is a conversation about power, in its raw, cynical form, defined by the U.S. on its terms. This means that India will be a passive, helpless spectator to the reshaping of the most volatile region of the world along even more violent lines - the very opposite of what supporters of the Indian bomb had hoped nuclear weapons would help it achieve, by expanding the scope for influencing the world and enhancing New Delhi's independence in security and foreign policy-making.
Crossing the nuclear threshold in May 1998 was a big blunder. Signing the nuclear deal with the U.S. seven years later was an even bigger disaster.