Is time running out for Iran?

Abid Mustafa

Posted Oct 2, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Is time running out for Iran?

By Abid Mustafa

On September 24 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear programme. The 35-nation board of the IAEA in Vienna said that Iran has a “long history of concealment and deception’‘. The Bush administration immediately seized on IAEA�s decision and forecasted that it would eventually lead to Iran�s isolation. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said,� We have a patient long-term strategy. It’s to isolate Iran on this question; it’s to ratchet up the international pressure on Iran,’ and assemble the kind of global coalition against Iran.�

After having spent nine months supporting Germany, Britain and France (EU-3) in getting Iran to surrender her nuclear ambitions, America finally took one step closer towards confronting Tehran and controlling Iran�s vast energy reserves.

From the outset the EU-3 talks with Iran were destined to fail.  EU diplomats struggled to reach the necessary economic guarantees promised to Iran in Paris in November 2004. Under the Paris agreement, the EU-3 agreed on Iran�s right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce the nuclear fuel necessary for its reactors in exchange for Iran giving up its ambition to produce nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the EU agreed to invest in Iran and also invite it to join a club of nuclear fuel-producing countries.

In February 2005, the US reneged on its previous stance of pouring scorn on the EU-3 initiative and started to actively support EU-3 negotiations on the condition that should the EU-3 fail to reach an agreement with Iran, they would have to recommend Iran to the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, America worked behind the scenes to scupper the EU-3 initiative. America threatened a number of EU companies with punitive sanctions if they proceeded to invest in Iran. This was aptly summed up by Lord Brown, the Chief executive of BP who said,�Right now it is impractical for BP (to invest in Iran) because 40% of BP is in the US and we are the largest producer of oil and gas in the US. Politically Iran is not a flyer. One day I hope it is.� This left the EU-3 bereft of any meaningful incentives to offer Iran and as a result, Iran had little choice, but to break off negotiations with the EU-3.

Thus America succeeded in Iran�s referral to the UN Security Council. Her next step is to get the referral approved by the IAEA board in November before moving on to declare Iran in �material breach� of any UN resolution that might be reached in the foreseeable future. This maybe too much for some members of the Security Council, but the Bush administration expects some form of international legitimacy to emerge from the deliberations at the UN. Even an iota of international cover will be enough for some in the Bush administration to push for regime change in Iran. Before such an outcome can be engineered a number of political obstacles must be surmounted first.

America�s biggest problem is that she has failed to make a compelling case about the threat posed by Iran�s nuclear capability. The fabricated lies about Iraq�s WMD to justify Iraq�s invasion has not only blighted American and British spy agencies but also made it extremely difficult for the US to put forward any credible evidence that may serve to incriminate Iran. Besides the intelligence debacle in Iraq, a US presidential commission investigating pre-war intelligence about Iraq�s weapons concluded in March this year that US data on Iran�s arms is �inadequate�. Western intelligence agencies and eminent think tanks have also revised their estimates about Iran�s nuclear bomb. On August 1 2005, the Washington Post reported that US National Intelligence estimates that Iran�s nuclear programme is 10 years away from producing a nuclear bomb. John Chipman, director of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies echoed similar findings. He said, �If Iran threw caution to the wind and sought a nuclear weapon capability as quickly as possible, without regard for international reaction; it might be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon by the end of this decade.� He also went on to say that technical problems could prolong the process and that given international pressure; it was more likely to try to accumulate the capability over 10 to 15 years. In the light of these and other reports it is difficult to imagine how the Bush administration is going to present Iran�s nuclear programme as one that is on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb.

Israel is the only country that continues to propagate the view that Iran�s nuclear bomb is months away. Sylvan Shalom, Israel’s Foreign Minister told a meeting of Jewish leaders in New York: �According to our people, security and intelligence, they are very, very close. It may be only six months before they will have that full knowledge.�

So given the paucity of data on Iran�s nuclear programme and the admission by western agencies that Iran�s nuclear bomb will be ready by 2015, the best case the US can make against Iran, is that the country�s nuclear aspirations contravene international norms. This is despite the fact that Iran�s nuclear programme is legal under NPT and Iran is doing nothing more then exercising its right under the treaty. Penalising Iran�s observance of NPT, while rewarding India (a non-signatory to NPT) with the right to produce nuclear fuel and remaining silent on Israel�s nuclear bombs, sends an unequivocal message that America is an avid practitioner of nuclear apartheid.

Another hurdle for America to overcome is the lack of consensus at the UN about Iran�s nuclear programme and the measures needed to curtail it. This was evident at the IAEA board meeting where its members voted by a slim majority to refer Iran to the UN. Divisions amongst UN Security Council members over Iran are much more pronounced, particularly amongst the permanent members.

Three years ago, the UN Security Council was severely damaged in the run up to the Iraq war, with Germany, France and Russia standing against America and Britain. Bush�s visit to Europe and Russia early this year was intended to repair schisms over Iraq. It was also an implicit admission that the neoconservative inspired Bush doctrine had collapsed and an olive branch was extended to old Europe to heal the transatlantic rift.

Nevertheless, during the visit there was unanimity between America and Europe that Tehran should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, but disagreement remained on how to punish Iran�s non-compliance with their wishes. Bush echoed these differences when he said, �Great Britain, Germany and France are negotiating with the ayatollahs to achieve our common objective. This notion that the US is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. Having said that, all options are on the table.� But despite Bush�s assurance not to attack Iran, doubts in Europe still linger to this day over American intentions to use military force against Iran.

America�s relations with Russia and China over Iran are much more precarious. Both countries view an attack on Iran as Washington�s way of attempting to control the world�s oil supply. The recent announcement by Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) demanding America to vacate military bases in Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well as the unprecedented Russian-Chinese military exercises are intended to remind America that any advances against Iran will be vehemently opposed. If such a standoff were to transpire over Iran the likelihood for a new world war could increase dramatically.

Given these differences it is very unlikely that America will be able to pass a resolution that justifies use of military force against Iran. Not only are the Chinese and Russians opposed to military action but so are the Europeans. In August 2005, Chancellor Schroeder responding to Bush said, �My answer to that is: ‘Dear friends in Europe and America, let’s develop a strong negotiating position towards Iran, but take the military option off the table.�On September 3 2005, after wide-ranging talks with the EU�s 25 foreign ministers in Newport, south Wales, and Britain�s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told journalists: �Nobody is proposing military action in regard of Iran. This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and can only be resolved, by diplomatic means.� Nonetheless the Europeans are more likely to support economic sanctions than their Russian and Chinese counterparts. However, the Europeans would never support robust sanctions against Tehran, as this would hurt their commercial interests in Iran.

Whether the sanctions are watered down or not, to some in the Bush administration the very notion of sanctions represents a failure of US policy on Iran and a return to the old policy of containment pursued by previous Democratic and Republican administrations.

The issue of containment/engagement versus military force to change Tehran�s behaviour has plagued the Bush administration ever since Bush rose to office � often resulting in mixed signals from Washington. This has become a major stumbling block in formulating a coherent policy to deal with Iran. At the heart of the issue is a fierce dispute between the realists and the neoconservatives regarding the best approach towards Iran. The row has permeated all sections of the US government and has divided institutions like the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. The disagreements over Iran came to ahead in July 2004 with the publication of the report entitled �Iran: Time for a New Approach� which was prepared by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) under the direction of Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.  The report argued that Iran was not ripe for regime change as advocated by the neoconservatives. The report stated: �”[D]espite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction� Iran is not on the verge of another revolution. Those forces that are committed to preserving Iran’s current system remain firmly in control�� The report also stressed, that a �grand bargain� to settle all outstanding conflicts between Washington and Tehran is unrealistic and that talks should focus instead on making �incremental progress� on a variety of key issues, including regional stability and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The recommendations of the report were instantly dismissed by the neoconservatives who are closely associated with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Arch neoconservative Micheal Ledeen, who considers Tehran the global capital of Islamist “terror masters,” wrote in National Review Online that the CFR recommendations were “humiliating” and constituted “appeasement”.

However, the beginning of the second Bush presidency heralded the decline of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. Some of the neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton were ushered out of foreign policy making roles and given policy implementation roles at the World Bank and the UN, while others like Douglas Feith was forced to leave. The departure of the neoconservatives gave way to realism and soft power in the Bush administration. To a large extent parity was restored between the influence of the US State Department and Pentagon over foreign policy matters. Collaboration with other nations to solve political crisis in Sudan, Lebanon, North Korean, and Iran is reminiscent of multilateralism employed by previous US administration.

The ascendancy of realism in the Bush administration has not completely silenced neoconservative views on Iran. The ever present Dick Cheney an ardent supporter of neoconservatism has taken it upon himself to ensure that should the opportunity avail itself, America is prepared to use overwhelming force against Iran to occupy its oil and gas fields.

For sometime now, the Cheney faction in the Bush administration has been secretly preparing to attack Iran. This came to the world�s attention early this year, when Seymour Hersh revealed in the New Yorker that American Special Forces had conducted reconnaissance missions inside Iran for six months. Apart from US commandos operations inside Iran, aerial surveillance of the country has been rampant. On February 13 2005, The Washington Post revealed that the US military had been flying surveillance drones over Iran for nearly a year to seek evidence of nuclear weapons programs and detect weaknesses in air defences. The paper went on to state: �The aerial espionage is standard in military preparations for an eventual air attack and is also employed as a tool for intimidation�.

America also enlisted Musharraf to assist the American military and her surrogates to launch attacks from inside Pakistan. Richard Sale, the intelligence correspondent for United Press International, wrote that Musharraf had allowed Iranian anti-regime fighters to operate from Pakistan’s Balochistan province that abuts Iran. Sale claimed that the fighters included those from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department. Americans already have access to DalBaladin airbase which is the largest airbase in Balochistan. The current insurgency in Balochistan has been exploited by Musharraf to build new military installations and other facilities that the Americans can use in any confrontation with Iran. Such reports seem to be highly credible when measured against the backdrop of the military activity in Balochistan and Musharraf’s statement on Iran, when he said,� We hope the US doesn’t attack Iran. In the event of an attack, Pakistan will remain neutral.�

Musharraf�s assistance to US military planners extends beyond Balochistan. He has helped American soldiers to become familiar with the terrain of Tehran by facilitating joint exercises between the Pakistani and the American army in Karachi. The existence of such exercises was confirmed by a spokesman of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Colonel Tahir Idrees Malik, who described them as anti-terrorist drills. 

In May 2005, Rumsfeld visited Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Pakistan to negotiate the use of airbases as part of a plan to complete Iran�s encirclement. In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld met with Karzia to discuss the possibility of making several American airbases permanent. A small proportion of these bases are in close proximity to Iran. For instance the military base in Herat is undergoing renovations by the US military. In December 2004, US Army spokesman Major Mark McCann said, �We are building a base in Herat. It is true.� Another base of significance to US military planners is Shindand Air Field in the western province of Herat. Shindand is about 100 kilometres from the border with Iran, a location that makes it controversial. According to the US-based think-tank Global Security, Shindand is the largest air base in Afghanistan. The proximity of Shindand to Iran could give Tehran cause for concern, says Paul Beaver, an independent defence analyst based in London. In Azerbaijan, Rumsfeld discussed the prospect of upgrading its military base in Baku. The upgraded base will host a new rapid reaction force, called the Caspian Guard, as well as state of the art radar equipment.

America is also planning to use nuclear weapons against Iran. Media reports are rife with speculation that these weapons will be used to destroy Iranian bunkers impregnable to conventional weapons. On May 15 2005, the Washington Post reported that Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had approved a top secret �Interim Global Strike Alert Order� directing the military to assume and maintain readiness to attack hostile countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction, specifically Iran and North Korea. The paper went on to state: �The inclusion, therefore, of a nuclear weapons option in CONPLAN 8022 �  a specially configured earth-penetrating bomb to destroy deeply buried facilities, if any exist � is particularly disconcerting. The global strike plan holds the nuclear option in reserve if intelligence suggests an “imminent” launch of an enemy nuclear strike on the United States or if there is a need to destroy hard-to-reach targets�. Whether America intends to use CONPLAN 8022 or not, largely depends upon the ability of the US government to dupe the American public into believing that there is a real and immediate threat from a known adversary.
Right now the American public is increasingly weary of US commitments abroad and this represents a major challenge for the Bush administration�especially for those in the administration who seek military confrontation with Iran. The rising US casualties in Iraq, the mounting costs of the Iraq occupation and the ferocity of the ever-expanding resistance in Iraq have taken its toll the US public. This has been further compounded by the inept response of the US federal government to the relief effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This has prompted the American people to seriously question the wisdom of maintaining US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Americans are suffering at home. Majority of Americans on either sides of the political divide want to bring the troops home and reduce the financial burden of the Iraq war. Americans believe that the money saved could be better spent on helping fellow Americans made destitute by Katrina and Rita.

Even the Republican Party has not been spared from the fallout of Katrina and Iraq. Differences amongst the party ranks have threatened to destabilise the party over Iraq and Katrina. To make matters worse, some Republicans have stopped listening to the Whitehouse. Instead they are taking their queue from their constituencies in order to reposition themselves for the forthcoming elections in 2006. The stepping down of Tom Delay the Congress Majority leader and the ethics charges against Bill First the Senate, Majority Leader have added to Bush�s growing political woes. Bush now has to contend with charges of nepotism within his party.

With the American public preoccupied with domestic issues and the Republican Party marred with hubris and scandals, it is unlikely that President Bush will be unable to muster support for a new military confrontation with Iran�should the opportunity arise. However, if America were to experience another 9/11 type of attack the US public mood could be manipulated to support military action against Iran.

But Tehran is not taking any chances. The Iranian government has taken note of US military deployments in the neighbouring countries and has taken several steps to fortify Iran against a possible US invasion. The first sign came in June with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who proceeded to purge the military, the security apparatus, the civil service, state-owned corporations and the media of moderate elements. The most significant purges occurred in the military top brass. Among those replaced are the commander-in-chief of the regular army and his four deputies, 11 senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and five commanders of the paramilitary Mobilisation of the Dispossessed. The minister of intelligence and security, and the minister of the interior who controls the police and the gendarmerie, have also been replaced. But, perhaps, the strongest sign of Iranian military preparedness stems from the military build-up in the five provinces bordering Iraq. The region, with a population of 20 million, has been put under the control of the IRGC. Iran is estimated to have 250,000 troops in the area, its biggest military deployment since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Iran has also tightened its grip on Turkomen, Arabs, Baloch, and Kurds who live in the southwest, southeast, and northwest of the country. This is because Tehran fears a multiple prong attack from the US which may result in separation of the Arab province of Khuzestan, the Kurdistan province and the Baloch province of Khorasan from the motherland.

The neoconservatives want to transform the region into territories controlled by Arab Shias, but segregated from Sunni dominated areas. In many ways this is an offshoot of the old American plan to divide Iraq into 3 segments and to gather the Arab Shia�s under America�s leadership. The reason behind this, is that the majority of the oil of the Middle East lies in Arab Shia dominated lands such as Southern Iraq, Khuzestan, Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia. In short, the neoconservative vision for the region is a magnified picture of Iraq�segregated oil rich US protectorates surrounded by managed chaos. A recipe for perpetual wars, continuous occupation of Arab lands and bloodshed� this is the neoconservative dream.

In conclusion, the realists in the Bush administration have the upper hand. Their preferred method of dealing with Iran�s nuclear programme is through multilaterism and diplomacy, as opposed to unilateralism and military intervention.  However, the failure of the Bush administration to subdue those voices who exhort military action against Iran continues to alarm the world. But these concerns appear to be over-stated as Iraq, Katrina and scandals in the GOP threaten to derail Bush�s foreign policy agenda.

October 1st 2005