The Iranian nuclear chess-game

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Paul Rogers
21 September 2005

The speeches at the United Nations general assembly during the world summit of 14-16 September did nothing to lessen the differences between Tehran and Washington over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made it clear that Iran had every right to develop a civil nuclear-power programme within the terms of the 1970 treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; the United States delegation walked out rather than listen to him, and went as far as distributing a powerpoint presentation supporting its suspicions about Iranian nuclear-weapons plans.

The continuing problems in Iraq may have made US military action against Iranian nuclear facilities somewhat less likely, but the more hardline elements within Washington’s neo-conservative community remain adamantly opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Israel, too, sees Iran as its major regional adversary and Israeli action cannot be ruled out; this could even be a politically useful diversion for Ariel Sharon during his forthcoming Likud party leadership tussle with Binyamin Netanyahu (see “Targeting Iran”, 7 July). There are even claims from Israeli government sources that Iran could have "the knowledge" to make a nuclear weapon by early 2006 (see Donald Macintyre & Rupert Cornwell, “Iran to have nuclear bomb in six months, says Israel”, Independent, 21 September 2005). Whatever this phrase means, it is clearly intended to rally support for stringent action against Iran.

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But not all analysts in the United States see the Iran problem in such alarmist terms. Some are taking a longer-term view informed by the judgment that it may simply be unrealistic to assume that Iran can be dissuaded from developing nuclear weapons by one of the three approaches available: sanctions, inducements or military action (see Michael Knights, “US long-range planners focus on containment of a nuclear Iran”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, August 2005).

The sanctions option

In current circumstances, UN Security Council approval for sanctions is highly unlikely – even if the matter ever got there, and despite the best efforts of Israel (which has its own Security Council ambitions). The close connections between Iran and China mean that China would, if need be, consider using its veto; and Russia too has expressed sympathy for Iran’s predicament.

It is theoretically possible for the United States, the “EU3” and other western European countries, and a few other allies to go their own way in imposing sanctions, but opposition from other major states – including China, India and Russia – would give them little chance of working.

The lure of economics

Some politicians argue that Iran’s youthful population and the urgent need for rapid economic growth to provide employment for the rising generation make economic inducements rather than sanctions a far more effective approach in deterring the country from developing nuclear weapons.

There are two short-term limitations to this approach. First, the current high level of oil prices is good for the regime and for the Iranian economy in general. In such circumstances, economic inducements are simply not as attractive as they might have been, say, three years ago.

Second, Ahmadinejad’s new administration has emphasised wealth redistribution as a primary objective; closer ties with western economies committed to liberal market economics would not assist this. If Ahmadinejad’s project is serious – and his outlook certainly helped get him elected – the regime he leads will be deeply suspicious of any “Greeks bearing gifts” approach from the west.

The military card

There remain powerful voices on the American right claiming that military action could halt Iranian nuclear-weapons ambitions by five-to-ten years at least, and with few adverse consequences. Some of the more sober analysts around Washington take a different view, and point to Iran’s many possible retaliatory options.

These range from sustained aid for insurgents in Iraq that would make the already precarious position of the American (and British) forces even more problematic, to the temporary closure of the Straits of Hormuz, thereby blocking oil exports from most of the Gulf region. The latter option could even be coupled with paramilitary actions against Saudi and Kuwaiti oil facilities, together causing an international oil-supply crisis and doing massive damage to western economies (see “America’s Iranian predicament”, 18 August 2005).

Furthermore, even if Iran’s civil nuclear facilities suffered serious damage in an attack, it would be near-certain that Iran would respond by withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and from International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. It could then start a highly dispersed, clandestine programme that would be far more difficult to track than its relatively open civil nuclear-power programme.

Iran could then build on any substantive progress in such a weapons programme by declaring its possession of a minimal deterrent, and even encourage other countries in the region to start their own programmes. An Iran that had already been targeted by US or Israel might find a ready ear, though some states might be impelled by strategic concerns that include Iran itself.

The obvious early candidate would be Egypt, which has considerable technological expertise and regards itself as the world's leading Arab state; the Saudis too might also develop nuclear ambitions, conscious of nuclear-armed Iran across the Persian Gulf, perhaps seeking assistance from Pakistan to speed up the process. Turkey and Syria too might eventually follow, even if such moves could be two decades or more away.

A regional nuclear arms race?

Such are the considerations leading some creative minds in Washington to plan for the idea that Iran might decide to develop nuclear weapons in the next few years and have a small arsenal by 2015. They emphasise the importance of Iran declaring its hand or otherwise: a limited nuclear-weapons capability that was not officially declared might not have a great impact, but an open claim of possession (especially following a US or Israeli attack) would be far more likely to stimulate a regional nuclear arms race.

A significant feature of this line of thinking is that the hardline neocons in Washington may be entirely mistaken in assuming that Iran aims to acquire nuclear weapons in order to use them or even to make them available to paramilitary groups. It is far more logical to assume that the Iranians, if they ever do develop a small nuclear arsenal, will see it primarily as a deterrent against US or other foreign interference in their affairs.

Between 1980 and 1988, after all, Iran fought a bitter war with Iraq in which the Saddam Hussein regime repeatedly used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, killing and injuring many thousands. The Iranians rarely retaliated, and they did not make chemical weapons available to paramilitary groups.

A cautious rethink

This indicates no more than that some thoughtful people in and around Washington are taking a more careful view of a potential crisis with Iran. It has three components. The first is recognition that any confrontation with Tehran will serve only to strengthen rather than weaken the current government. The second is awareness that the Bush administration and its neo-conservative support base got it lamentably wrong in Iraq. The third is realisation that military strikes on Iran's civil nuclear programme will literally send a future nuclear-weapons programme deep underground (see “Illusions of control: the ‘dig/bomb’ race in a fractured world”, 30 October 2002).

More generally, these figures are beginning to understand that the United States and its partners simply cannot dictate who can be allowed to have nuclear weapons. If proliferation control is ever going to work it will require much broader multilateral cooperation involving all the existing nuclear powers coupled with a steady willingness to move towards a post-nuclear age.

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

This rethinking does not mean that a crisis with Iran will be avoided. Some very thoughtful people from establishment think-tanks warned of the consequences of a war with Iraq in 2002-03, and they were simply ignored by George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest. It is, though, just possible that the Iraq experience will have a sufficiently sobering effect on wider discussions about Iran.

Against this, one raw fact must be registered. If Iran is more or less left alone, and even if it does not develop nuclear weapons, United States influence in the Persian Gulf region will further diminish. With the situation in Iraq degenerating into civil war and Iran able to go its own way, Iran has the opportunity to develop into a major regional power.

A country of 8o million people, second only to Saudi Arabia in the size of its oil reserves and second only to Russia for natural gas reserves, has major potential. That is a deeply unsatisfactory picture for neo-conservatives seeking the New American Century. So it is certainly possible that, as with Iraq, wise counsel will simply not prevail.

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