Iran's nuclear programme dates back to the 1960's, and the country ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970. The Iranian programme has been included in the monitoring remit of the International Atomic Energy Agency since then. There has, however, always been a suspicion that the Iranian programme incorporates a military dimension. This was highlighted by the IAEA Board of Governors' Report in August 2009 and especially in a partially disclosed IAEA document titled "Possible Military Dimension of Iran's Nuclear Program" (See http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090918/ap_on_re_eu/eu_iran_nuclear). "The agency ... assesses that Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device (an atomic bomb) based on HEU (highly enriched uranium) as the fission fuel."
Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions seem to go back to at least 1984, when Iran was at war with Iraq and Saddam Hussein himself pursued nuclear weapons. The present Supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei served then as President and is reported to have endorsed nuclear weapons, saying "a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as deterrent in the hands of God's soldiers".
Iraq savagely attacked Iran with chemical weapons and thereby caused massive casualties on the Iranian side. Iran did not respond in kind, although the country, nota bene, was itself in possession of chemical weapons produced during the time of the Shah. This fact gives Iran some credibility when present Iranian leaders claim that weapons of mass destruction are contrary to Islam.
The nuclear programme and Iran's pursuit of missile technology are perceived as an unacceptable threat by the United States, Israel and the Gulf States, and are viewed with great concern by the European Union and others. President George W. Bush promised Israel's leadership in 2006 not to let the matter rest. Vice President Richard Cheney favoured destroying Iran's nuclear capability by a pre-emptive military strike. His supporters are still loudly demanding such action.
President Bush decided against military operations in 2007. Instead, the Bush administration started to give paramilitary support to at least four resistance groups. The objective was to topple the government from within Iran. The desired result has not been achieved, but the U.S. support may be continuing. The aided organisations included Jundullah, thirteen of whose members were hanged on July 14, 2009 for involvement in terrorist strikes in 2006. According to Iran, the organisation is ideologically close to Al-Qaeda.
After Barack Obama's inauguration expectations were high: From now on, there would at least be an effort to resolve conflicts peacefully. An international seminar on Iran under the auspices of several academic institutions and the Government of Liechtenstein was quietly arranged in Liechtenstein last March. It gave the representatives of United States and Iran an opportunity to exchange ideas and to look for means to improve relations between the two countries.
Representing the Iranian leadership, the IAEA ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh was expected to attend. The presence of an official representative would have been a signal of the willingness of the Iranian leadership to engage in a genuine dialogue. Unfortunately, Ambassador Soltanieh failed to show up, possibly out of caution. On the other hand, the Chief of Staff of former President Mohammad Khatami, Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, participated.
The mood of the seminar was surprisingly relaxed. In the discussions participants sought to identify ways to gradually normalise relations and solve acute problems including the issue of Iran's nuclear programme. The Iranians staunchly defended the country's official positions, but largely without resorting to harsh or reproachful language. The seminar also produced the idea of President Obama's New Year's address to the Iranian people.
The leading reformist figure Abtahi is now paying a high price for his participation in the seminar. As one of the front runners of the reformists he was arrested after the elections on June 16. In a court hearing resembling Stalinist show trials, Abtahi was one of the principal defendants. The ragged looking cleric, who had lost 18 kilos in six weeks, was further humiliated by being brought to the court and having to face cameras clothed like a common criminal.
Abtahi "confessed" - probably under torture - to having conspired against Iran's leadership and caused disorder. According to conservative groups in Iran, he also admitted having participated in an event abroad, whose purpose was to plan a "velvet revolution". This is a likely reference to the Liechtenstein seminar.
In the internal struggle for power, Iran's Revolutionary Guard seems to be strengthening its grip. There have been calls from among its ranks for the arrest and trial of other leaders who also participated in the "velvet revolution", including Khatami and the candidates that were defeated in the elections, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
In an article on the paper's blog-pages in August, a Los Angeles Times reporter recounts how President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei had told the outcome of the presidential election to the Iranian hard line Panjereh weekly.
According to Mashaei only four million of Ahmadinejad's voters were genuine supporters meaning that twenty million whose votes he received in reality had a critical view of the government. These twenty million were a much more serious threat than the thirteen million who voted for Moussavi, Mashaei said. He estimated that more than half of the Iranian people effectively oppose the Islamic republic.
Iran's conservative leadership appears to be more reluctant than before to improve the country's relations with the West, because détente could, in the long run, seed the downfall of the Islamic republic.
"We must stand firm for our rights." To give up rights, "whether nuclear right or otherwise, would result in a nation's demise," the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on September 11 at Friday prayers at Tehran University (The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2009). Khamenei wields the final word on all Iranian political decisions.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany, met briefly with Iran's representatives in Frankfurt in early September, presumably to agree on time and place for future negotiations. The West warned Iran of new punitive sanctions unless the country decided to return to the negotiating table in earnest. Originally, end of September was one such deadline that Iran decisively rejected.
Iran nevertheless expressed willingness to discuss other pressing issues with the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. Iran also presented a (paper) to serve as the basis of discussions. Its offer of talks was accepted by the "P5+1" countries on September 10 even if the Iranian document makes no reference to the nuclear programme. Discussions commenced in Geneva on 1st October. The European foreign policy chief Javier Solana was the appointed chief negotiator with the Iranians for the six powers. The first impressions conveyed were cautiously positive. President Obama remarked afterwards: "If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely."
The United States regards the opening of negotiations as the beginning of a long process rather than a one-time occurrence. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon counselled the Iranians that the package of incentives offered by "P5+1" to Tehran in exchange for suspension of enrichment was a good one and they should negotiate on it.
Iran, however, just prior to the meeting with P5+1 decided to underline that it is negotiating from a position of strength. It first disclosed a secret, second uranium enrichment facility, adjacent to a military base run by the Revolutionary Guard in the village of Fordo, some 20 miles north of the city Qom, just as the world leaders gathered in New York for the annual UN General Assembly meeting in September.
Secondly, Iran carried out a set of very high profile ballistic missile launches, including the launching of a new solid-fuelled medium-range missile, the Sejil 2. This is regarded as a technological breakthrough.
Both of these events raise questions. Iran's omission to inform IAEA about the construction of the second enrichment facility has gravely damaged her credibility. Director General ElBaradei stated that Iran was "on the wrong side of law".
For many years there have been claims that a part of the Iranian nuclear program is conducted in the confines of the military, out of the reach of IAEA inspectors and monitoring. It will be difficult for Iran to explain why a very important and supposedly civilian nuclear facility is located in a heavily fortified and defended military area. Moreover, a civilian second facility of this magnitude would seem wasteful in economic terms.
Iran has already passed one particular milestone as the country has acquired enough raw material for at least one nuclear bomb. It is reported that the Fordo facility will eventually have 3000 centrifuges. It suffices to say that about 400 centrifuges in working order would be enough to further enrich the present stockpile of ca 1.6 tonne of uranium hexafluoride of low enriched uranium (LEU), produced at the Natanz facility, to highly enriched uranium (HEU) for at least one bomb's worth (22 kilos), in one year's time.
It is interesting to note, that western intelligence agencies differ in their assessment of Iran's nuclear programme, as reported by the Financial Times on September 29, 2009. The view of the United States is that Iran stopped design work on the bomb in 2003. According to the United States Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, Iran would need several years to produce a nuclear weapon, perhaps until 2015. This seems to be the reason why President Obama still wants to stick to the engagement policy.
British intelligence services, on the other hand, consider that Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead "since late 2004 or early 2005". Israeli and German assessments are more in line with the British view.
Politically Iran has already achieved one important objective. It has convinced the world of its ability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran may settle for a goal that falls just short of becoming a de facto possessor of nuclear weapons. The capability to go all the way in a rather short time will perhaps do. The final step into becoming a nuclear weapons power is of course fraught with enormous risks. It is noteworthy to observe, that Israel faced similar threats in 1967, mainly due to its nuclear program. Israel, however, won the Six-day war against all odds.
According to a term coined by IAEA's outgoing Director General ElBaradei, Iran thus belongs to the category of "virtual" nuclear states, and is in good company with countries like Japan, South Korea and South Africa, a country that formerly possessed nuclear weapons.
The agreement reached on October 1, that Iran will send a major portion of its declared stockpile of low enriched uranium, perhaps some 1200 kilos, to Russia and France for conversion to nuclear fuel, will probably defuse the situation and buy more time. Iran's agreement to allow IAEA inspectors to visit the new enrichment facility near Qom on 25 October is also welcome.
Calm appraisal of Iran's real military capability should form the basis for political decisions. Patience is necessary especially as Iran's alleged nuclear threat has been exaggerated.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak pointed out recently that not even a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel. "Right now, Iran does not have a bomb. Even if it did, this would not make it a threat to Israel's existence. Israel can lay waste to Iran," Barak said (Reuters, September 18, 2009 - http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2009/09/18/world/international-uk-israel-iran.html).
Minister Barak's sober statement is welcome, since it refers to the strong deterrence of the Israeli armed forces. But, should diplomacy eventually fail, military solutions may again be brought to the fore.
The top US military command has warned against a military strike against Iran as unwise. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen has suggested that a strike to Iran would increase uncertainty and have difficult to predict implications. As someone with a deep understanding of the region, General (Ret.) Anthony Zinni, observed already three years ago, the question is not so much about whether or not to strike, but rather about the willingness of the United States to face the consequences.
Forty percent of global maritime oil transports pass through the Straits of Hormuz. The so-called Tanker War in the 1980's remains in good memory. Iran is in the position to mine the straits effectively if she so chooses and use shore based artillery and anti-ship missiles against seafaring vessels. Denying Iran this option would likely require military occupation of vast areas of the region, a task which presumably would exceed the resources of the United States. Iran could support another terrorist insurgency in Iraq and also call on Hezbollah and Hamas, which it backs, to help mount counter attacks.
What are the whereabouts of the heavy U.S. aircraft carriers? Could one or more of them be sailing to the Middle East within striking distance of Iran in order to strengthen the heavy naval strike force already there? These were questions that defence analysts grappled with in 2006. The concentration of forces would have been a clear sign of increased military tension.
One aircraft carrier is not a sign of a looming military clash. If a second aircraft carrier is brought to the potential war zone, there is a clear political signal in the measure. The arrival of a third aircraft carrier presents a strong message of military pressure. It signifies the putting into place of the operational capability to engage in fully-fledged air war for weeks twenty-four hours a day.
Picture: Chief of Staff of former President Mohammad Khatami, Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi before and after imprisonment this year:
This is an updated version of an op-ed article published by Helsingin Sanomat on September 10, 2009.