Iran, America, Israel: the nuclear gamble

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 October 2009

The revelation late on 24 September 2009 that Iran is in the process of building a second uranium-enrichment plant inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom introduces a fresh source of dispute to a longstanding contest of wills between the Tehran regime and western states. The information - supplied by Iran itself to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 21 September, after it emerged that western intelligence sources had become aware of the project - is not in itself evidence that Iran has an active nuclear-weapon programme; but it most certainly does mean that Iran will have that option at a time of its choosing.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here 

The varying parts of the differentiated Iranian leadership have been consistent in denying that their state intends to acquire a nuclear-weapon capacity, though they also affirm - and foreign governments and international agencies agree - that Iran has the right to develop civil nuclear technologies. The information about the second installation both heightens the ambiguity that has always surrounded this issue, and creates a new source of tension.

Iran responded to the moment on 27-28 September by test-firing short- and long-range missiles on successive days (the latter the liquid-fuel Shahab-3 and the solid-fuel Sajil, each with a range of up to 1,987 kilometres). This forms a tense backdrop to the already scheduled meeting in Geneva on 1 October 2009, part of the ongoing cycle of diplomatic discussion among the "five-plus-one" group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - plus Iran).

The context

The strategic and economic relevance of nuclear power for an oil-and-gas-rich state such as Iran has been endlessly disputed. There is a strong and longstanding belief in Iran that the possession of a thriving nuclear-energy sector forms one of the attributes of modernity, a sentiment arguably reinforced by western nuclear lobbies' powerful advocacy of this energy source as a big part of the response to climate change.

The development of a nuclear-weapons capacity carries the civil-nuclear argument into another realm, but for many Iranian politicians there are pressing security reasons to take this course, even if their public stance (including that of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) is to disclaim any interest in a military nuclear capacity. 

The most immediate argument is the perceived need to counter Israel, a nuclear-weapons state since the late 1960s that now has a substantial arsenal. This extends to a sense of Iran existing alongside (if not indeed being encircled by) other nuclear-weapons states in the region - Pakistan and India to the east, and Russia to the north. Many western analysts pay little attention to such concerns, as indeed to Iranian perceptions of the massive United States presence in the vicinity of Iran, but this is all the more reason for registering their existence.

Indeed, it is hard to understand the tortuous arguments over Iran's nuclear plans over the past decade without taking the view from Tehran centrally into account. In this respect, President Bush's state-of-the-union address in January 2002 - which identified Iran as a core member of the "axis of evil" alongside Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Kim Jong-Il's North Korea - was hugely significant. This speech, after all, was delivered while Iran was still ruled by the relatively moderate Mohammad Khatami, whose government had - just two months earlier, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks - aided the United States in terminating the Taliban regime across Iran's eastern border in Afghanistan.

The George W Bush administration went on to demolish an even more bitter adversary of Iran,  the Ba'athist regime across Iran's western border, in 2003; but the accompanying rhetoric and the underlying dynamic meant that this also was perceived in Iran as threatening. Iran attempted to address this new situation by offering a "grand bargain" with Washington in spring 2003, but this was rejected. Iran's elite came to see the US leadership as representing a "clear and present danger", which may have been one factor in the election of the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Khatami's successor in June 2005.

It is true that the outcomes of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq were in some ways helpful to Iran: the despised Taliban were driven back, Tehran was handed greater influence in Iraq, Barack Obama is clearly different to George W Bush. But the Iranian leadership - armed with a perspective that is rooted (as authors such as Fred Halliday emphasise) in 3,000 years of continuous statehood - also understands that Obama may continue in office only until January 2013, and could well be replaced by a new president every bit as hawkish as Bush.

The calculations

At present, however, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohort do have a problem: that Barack Obama is not functioning sufficiently as the embodiment of the "evil empire". This fact is strikingly confirmed in the United States administration's reaction to the news of 24 September 2009; for it is becoming clear that Obama has effectively ruled out a military option and is sticking forcefully to diplomatic engagement. If Iran does not so engage, then US policy will be to isolate Iran through even more stringent sanctions, anticipating that even Russia will come at least part of the way (see Glenn Kessler, "U.S. Aims To Isolate Iran if Talks Fail", Washington Post, 29 September 2009).

True, China may present difficulties here, given its close relationship with Tehran over oil-and-gas deals as well as armaments supplies (see Michael Wines, "China‘s Ties With Iran Complicate Diplomacy", New York Times, 30 September 2009). But even without China's aid, a United States-led coalition could significantly increase the damage to Iran's already shaky economy.

In a broader frame, the foreign-policy approach of the Obama administration poses serious difficulties to Ahmadinejad, who badly needs an external enemy to divert attention from the failing economy and the deep political divisions inside Iran (see Nazenin Ansari, "Iran's unfinished crisis", 16 September 2009). In the absence of such an enemy, and with the United States highly unlikely to take the war option, the obvious and logical option is to use every opportunity to identify Israel as the core threat.

This motive is matched and even exceeded on the other side: for both the rightwing government of Binyamin Netanyahu and a wider, deep-seated and cross-party view in Israel hold that Iran simply cannot under any circumstances be allowed to become a nuclear-weapons power. This combination of circumstances makes it more than likely that the period following the Geneva meeting on 1 October 2009 will be characterised by Iran's further diplomatic stalling and high-pitched anti-Israel rhetoric, and Israel's own repeated warnings about the imminent nuclear danger from Tehran.

This means that Obama will have the tough job of persuading the Israelis not to take military action against Iran on their own account. He will persist in this, both out of conviction and from underlying concern over the probable results of any Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. These were explored in an Oxford Research Group briefing  - Iran: Consequences of a War (February 2006) - which at the time of publication and after was widely read, in Tehran as well as in Washington. The document is still pertinent.

In military terms, Israel has the capacity to inflict serious damage on most of Iran's current nuclear facilities, principally by using its recently acquired long-range F-15I and F-16I strike-aircraft as well as its ballistic and cruise missiles. It might even be able to conduct an operation without overflying Iraqi territory - if Jordan and Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have their own concerns about Iran, give such permission; but in any case, it is unlikely that any attack would do more than set Iran's nuclear ambitions back by two or three years.

The consequences

In the short term, and especially from an Israeli perspective, there would be value in accomplishing even this: for it could be seen as sending the necessary message that Iran will not be permitted to take the nuclear-weapons path, either now or in the future.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

At the same time, this assessment could be deeply mistaken in that it underestimates greatly the immediate consequences an attack on Iran is almost guaranteed to provoke:

* It unites much of Iranian political opinion behind Ahmadinejad and his intransigent allies - at least for some months. He may be disliked in many circles and hated in some, but if the country is under attack this will transcend political differences

* Iran formally withdraws from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. This will disallow any future inspections, and allow the country to rebuild its bomb-damaged facilities and move as rapidly as possible to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. This alone means that more attacks from Israel will be necessary - leading to a long-term state of war

Iran also has other options, although it may chose to wait for months or even years to utilise them:

* Engineer a series of crises over transit through the Straits of Hormuz, not sufficient to demand an out-and-out response from the United States fifth-fleet but more than enough to send shock-waves through the oil markets. Such a process could be sustained for many months

* Increase engagement with the Shi'a majority in Iraq, to the extent of encouraging more forceful opposition to any continuing US presence in the country

* Provoke more difficulties for the US-led coalition in western Afghanistan, less by aiding Taliban elements than by expanding Iranian influence from Herat eastwards and undermining central governance in Kabul

* Aid the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon even more overtly in its confrontation with Israel.

If any of these actions and strategic choices were in turn to lead to a forceful US response -  perhaps around 2013-14, after the end of the Barack Obama presidency - then Iran has more extreme options in its armoury: including the paramilitary targeting of oil-and-gas production and transport facilities in western Gulf states.

The predicament

It is relevant to these prognoses that most Arab elites would quietly welcome an Israeli strike on Iran, but that Arab public opinion would be bitterly opposed. The absence of any real political progress in achieving a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key factor here. An additional relevant factor is that while Iraq is the only major Arab state with a Shi'a majority, there are substantial Shi'a communities in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. There is particular concern in security circles in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that Shi'a minorities would react with great anger to an Israeli attack on Iran.

All these issues have been analysed in great depth in Washington policy-circles. The Barack Obama administration is facing a difficult position as a new period of negotiations with and about  Iran gets underway (see Godfrey Hodgson, "Barack Obama's great test", 30 September 2009). Some of the wilder voices on the American right argue even now for military action against Iran. But this constant domestic refrain pales against a far greater external challenge: from elements in Tehran that actively want confrontation, and from an Israeli government that could be all too ready to oblige.

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