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Provoking Iran

Print edition : Feb 23, 2007 T+T-

An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities will have catastrophic political, economic, military and human consequences. Diplomacy is the only way out.

THE likelihood of an attack by the United States and/or Israel on Iran's nuclear installations has risen sharply and dangerously since U.S. President George W. Bush's January 10 "surge" speech. As a 50-ship flotilla led by two aircraft carriers is mobilised in Iran's vicinity, U.S. troops in Iraq are moving from a "catch and release" policy practised for over a year in respect of "suspected Iranian agents", to a "kill or capture" approach. The "surge" of 21,500 additional troops will not alter the U.S.' ability to "pacify" Iraq; they will probably target "suspect" Iranians.

The weapons being despatched to the Gulf are probably meant for Iranian, not Iraqi, targets. It makes no sense to deploy the "Patriot" anti-missile missile against Iraqi insurgents, who typically fight with guns and improvised bombs. They are meant to shoot down Iranian missiles. U.S. naval forces have trained to pre-empt Iran's likely response in case of a military attack on it: blocking shipping through the Straits of Hormuz.

The U.S. has escalated its propaganda offensive, which accuses Iran of arming anti-American Iraqi militants with powerful weapons. U.S. officials, ranging from Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns to Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. Commander in Iraq, have so accused Iran, without offering convincing evidence. Odierno says U.S. troops have seized insurgents' weapons whose "serial numbers... trace back to Iran", including RPG-29s (rocket-propelled grenade), Katyusha rockets and powerful bombs. But proof of manufacture in a particular country is not equivalent to evidence that it supplied the armaments. Besides, Iran, say independent military observers, does not make RPG-29s.

The proposition that Iran is the primary instigator of the Iraqi insurgency defies political logic. The main militias that target U.S. troops are Sunnis, and there is no love lost between them and Iran. Typically, Shia militias attack U.S. troops only in retaliation. The U.S. campaign against "Iranian agents" sounds dangerously akin to the rhetoric that culminated in Iraq's invasion. But U.S. policymakers do not seem to understand the credibility gap here - even after the disaster caused by false propaganda before the war on Iraq.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to corner a number of Iranian companies and banks and is putting pressure on European and Asian banks to stop operating in Iran. The Sunday Times reports that Ardeshire Hassanpour, a prize-winning Iranian nuclear scientist, died in mysterious circumstances - and claims, citing intelligence sources, that he was assassinated by Mossad, the Israeli security agency.

As for Iran, its top officials too have kept up their militant and boastful rhetoric about the nuclear programme. They have just installed 328 additional centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant - out of a total of 3,000 that they target to add this year. Iran has also restricted the access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to its facilities.

Beyond a point, it is futile to try to quantify the likelihood of an attack on Iran. It is more useful to criticise its rationale and explore diplomatic solutions to the nuclear crisis, which would prevent what is likely to be an unmitigated catastrophe for West Asia and for the world.

Bush's confrontationist approach is based on the idea of "foiling Iran's dream of emerging as the greatest power in the Middle East", and to resist what U.S. officials say is Iran's "destabilising behaviour" across the region. The larger goal of an attack would go well beyond neutralising Iran's role in Iraq or even de-fanging its nuclear programme. It would extend to weakening Iran as a regional power and bringing about regime change - in the fond hope, typical of the neoconservatives, that this could happen without a ground invasion by bombing up to 10,000 targets on the very first day.

However, the central premise, that Iran is an expansionist "axis-of-evil" state, has little basis in history. Iran has no recent history of invading another country, unlike Iraq, Israel and, of course, the U.S. Rather, it craves recognition as a "normal", responsible state that abides by international law.

As I noted less than a year ago during my visit to Iran, there is no broad consensus in Iran on developing a nuclear (weapons) capability - unlike in India until 1998, which however carried a caveat about not exercising it - leave alone nuclear weapons. But Iran has been less than transparent in its nuclear programme and hid facts about it for 18 years until 2002-03.

This does not argue that Iran will never develop the ambition to possess nuclear weapons and that its intentions are simon-pure. However, Iran's non-disclosure and prevarication on the nuclear issue do not constitute a material breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The U.S. is driven by entrenched prejudice against Iran because of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which led to the detention of 50 American diplomats in Teheran for 444 days; Iran's re-emergence as a mid-sized military power after its eight-year war with Iraq; its growing political, economic and strategic weight thanks to high oil prices in recent years; the recent Israeli misadventure in Lebanon, which weakened Israel politically and strengthened what is wrongly seen as "Shia power" (on the assumption that Hizbollah is just a cat's paw of Iran); and exaggerated and paranoid fears about Iran's nuclear programme.

It takes little argument to see that the U.S' motives and calculations are profoundly misconceived. The U.S. has spurned every single move by Teheran to de-escalate tensions and normalise relations - whether during the moderate Mohammed Khatami's presidency or later. Barring the shady Iran-Contra deal of the mid-1980s, the U.S. has not had even covert dealings with Iran. Washington has made no effort to assess if a rapprochement with Iran is possible. In 2003, it summarily rejected a "non-paper" sent by Teheran, which contained positive suggestions for reconciliation.

An attack on Iran will have "disastrous consequences for security in the region, coalition forces in Iraq and would further exacerbate regional and global tensions", say three former high-ranking U.S. military officers in a letter to The Sunday Times (February 4). They urge Washington to open talks "without preconditions" with the Iranian government. The letter was signed by retired Marine General Joseph P. Hoar, former head of the U.S. Central Command; retired Army Lieutenant General Robert G. Gard; and retired Navy Vice-Admiral Jack Shanahan.

Now, a broad coalition of 15 organisations in the United Kingdom, including the Oxford Research Group, the Foreign Policy Centre, the trade unions Amicus and Britain's General Union (GMB), Oxfam, the Muslim Council of Britain and others, have released a report entitled "Time to Talk", which argues that military action against Iran will further destabilise Iraq, bolster the position of hardliners within Iran, severely undermine prospects of peace in West Asia, and further inflame "the war on terror" and the violent resistance to it.

The report, released on February 5, warns that a military attack will reverse the changing balance of power against the moderates in Iran, who made substantial gains in recent elections against President Ahmadinejad's nominees. Ahmadinejad has received reprimands from politicians and religious leaders like Ayatollah Montazari for his hardline speeches and his summary dismissal of military threats from the U.S. and/or Israel. An attack will assuredly strengthen Teheran' nuclear ambitions. It can set back Iran's enrichment programme by some years. It cannot eliminate it for all time. A nuclear-armed Iran will become inevitable if the country is attacked.

An attack on Iran, which has the world's second largest hydrocarbon reserves and is its fourth-largest oil producer, will produce "energy chaos" and "havoc in the global oil market". Iran's attempts, or even threats, to intercept oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz could send "oil prices over $100 a barrel, pushing developing countries into greater poverty". A $10 price rise could cause a 3 per cent drop in the gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa. Other parts of the world, too, are liable to suffer serious economic damage.

No less serious would be the radioactive contamination unleashed by attacks on nuclear installations and the pollution caused by oil slicks and oil-well fires. Particularly disastrous will be the impact on Iran's civilian population. Most of Iran's nuclear facilities are located in densely populated cities, and those living or working nearby would be at serious risk.

The report argues that "diplomacy is the only viable option". This means that Washington must drop the condition that Iran stop enriching uranium before direct talks with the U.S. can begin. "Real diplomatic options still exist, the face-saving solution can be found to convince the protagonists to approach the table... the possible consequences of military action could be so serious that governments have a responsibility to ensure that all diplomatic options had been exhausted. At present, this is not the case."

None of this is likely to happen unless an array of different states and civil society mobilisations generate strong public opinion in favour of a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear crisis - similar in scale and scope to the powerful anti-war movement in early 2003. The time for this is now.