Confident defiance

Print edition : March 12, 2010

In this April 8, 2008, photograph released by the Iranian Presidents Office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, 322 km south of Teheran.-AP

The steely resolve shown by Iran to chart out its own destiny in the face of Western pressures acquired high visibility in recent weeks, ahead of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Three major events in early February delivered an unambiguous message to the United States and its allies that Iran had embarked on a new course of confrontation with the West.

The first sign of this combative reassertion was Irans decision regarding its nuclear programme. At the Vienna conference in October last year, Iran agreed in principle to a plan, authored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for atomic fuel deliveries for a research reactor based in Teheran. After intense deliberations with Iran, the U.S., Russia and France, the IAEA proposed a nuclear exchange deal.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who was then the IAEA chief, proposed that Iran export to Russia the bulk of the lightly enriched uranium it produced in order to receive nuclear fuel rods for its Teheran reactor, which was engaged in producing medical isotopes for treating cancer. Russia would enrich the uranium provided by Iran to a higher level 20 per cent and send it to France for fabrication into nuclear fuel rods for use in the Teheran reactor. Once converted into fuel rods, Iran would find it technically impossible to use the material for making atomic bombs. The arrangement aligned perfectly with Western objectives of denying Iran nuclear material that could have significant military applications.

Iran has now announced that it is closing the cycle of negotiations that began in Vienna. While stating that the IAEA-proposed deal was still on the table, it declared that it was going ahead on its own with the production of uranium enriched to a 20-per cent level.

Addressing a mammoth crowd at the iconic Azadi Square in Teheran on February 11, the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iranian scientists had already produced the first batch of uranium enriched to 20-per cent purity. He stressed that Iran would soon treble the production and eventually that would meet its requirements to treat cancer patients. Pointing to the Iranian advancement in nuclear science, he said that Iran had developed the capacity to enrich uranium to an 80-per cent level. He emphasised that Teheran, however, had voluntarily decided not to carry out enrichment to that level as there was no requirement for it in Irans existing nuclear programme.

On an earlier occasion, the President had said that his country had acquired the capacity to use laser technology for uranium enrichment but had decided to persist with the gas centrifuges that were in use.

Irans clear-headed defiance on the nuclear issue has been matched with a planned effort to acquire conventional deterrence. On February 2, Iran successfully fired the Kavoshgar-3 space launcher.

Despite Irans assertion that the space vehicle would be used only for civilian purposes, such as sending satellites into space, the launch has been viewed worldwide as an announcement of the advances it has made in acquiring long-range ballistic missile technology.

The launch of Kavoshgar-3 caps a string of successes that Iran has secured in the field of missiles. The most significant of them was the launch of the Sejil-2 missile in December 2009. The Sejil family of missiles are powered by solid fuel, and hence they will make better battlefield weapons. Such missiles are more compact, pack in more fuel and therefore have a longer range than those that use the highly corrosive and difficult-to-handle liquid fuel. The pre-launch preparation time for solid fuel missiles is also relatively short, making their destruction from the air during this phase more difficult.

Iran announced that Sejil-2, coated with anti-radar material, was faster and less vulnerable to destruction by anti-missile systems. Sejil missiles, developed by the Air and Space Department of the Iranian Ministry of Defence, have a range of around 2,000 kilometres. Iran has also successfully tested the less sophisticated Shahab-4 missile, which has a range of 2,000 km, and Shahab-3, which has a reach of around 1,500 km. In recent weeks, Iran also announced other successes in military hardware such as the development of radar-evading drones and stealth fighters.

In seeking to deter aggression, Iran has specialised in the doctrine of asymmetric warfare, keeping in mind that it would never be able to match in quality and sophistication the military technology that the West has at its command. However, Iran believes that it has developed the wherewithal which, if deployed, can cause unbearable military, psychological and political damage to its attackers.

In the final analysis, the Iranians rely on their culture of martyrdom, which has roots in Shia Islam, as their ultimate deterrent. The warriors of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutions founder, amply demonstrated during the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s their ability to fight even in the face of certain death. The growing culture of militarisation in Iran, which has followed the assertions in recent years by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has heightened the consciousness, especially among non-urban youth, for military preparedness to counter threats to national security.

The Iranian establishment, pushed to the defensive by a credible opposition campaign after the disputed June 12 presidential election last year, managed to demonstrate on February 11 that it had regained the upper hand. The opposition, in the face of a careful mobilisation of government supporters, heavy deployment of security forces and successful intervention by the government in cyberspace, failed to draw its supporters to the streets in any significant numbers this time. The government is likely to follow up on this success, with further attempts to marginalise the opposition.

Though opposition is in no way decimated, new factors have emerged that are causing it to lose steam. First, the death on December 19 of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who had emerged as the symbol of the opposition, dealt a heavy blow to the green movement led by Mir-Hosain Mousavi, who lost the presidential election to Ahmadinejad.

Montazeri, a spiritual leader with top intellectual credentials, was once designated as Ayatollah Khomeinis successor. But he fell out with Khomeini in the mid-1980s and was under house arrest for 20 years. In Iran, where religion and politics are deeply intertwined, a successor to Ayatollah Montazeri who could become the new spiritual symbol of the opposition is yet to emerge. Mousavi for his part lacks the charisma to carry the masses with him.

As of now, the opposition sees Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei as the new religious face of the movement. But Saneis elevation is already causing a split in Irans clerical establishment, based in Qom. The Qom religious schoolteachers association, which is close to Ahmadinejad, has already issued a statement questioning Saneis qualifications to fill Ayatollah Montazeris shoes. In Teheran, the Friday prayers speaker Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami has backed Ahmadinejads supporters in Qom, who are led by the Presidents spiritual mentor Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. The only notable support Sanei has managed in clerical circles is from Ayatollah Taheri, a former Friday prayers speaker in Esfahan.

Buoyed by the prospect of internal consolidation, the Iranian establishment has boldly defied the West on the nuclear issue and challenged the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, to denude it of its domestic authority and the country of its status as a regional power. Predictably, both the Americans and the Israelis have called for punishing sanctions against Iran.

In a meeting with diplomats of the European Union after Iran announced its decision to carry out 20-per cent enrichment of uranium, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded the imposition of crippling sanctions against it. Iran is racing forward to produce nuclear weapons.... I believe what is required right now is tough action by the international community, he said. This means not moderate sanctions or watered-down sanctions. This means crippling sanctions, and these sanctions must be applied right now.

On its part, the U.S. Treasury Department took the unilateral step of ordering further sanctions against the IRGC. The U.S. has also beefed up ballistic missile defences in four oil-rich countries in the Gulf. Besides, it is deploying anti-missile systems on some of its warships in the region. The move has been interpreted as an attempt by the U.S. to protect the worlds energy heartland from perceived Iranian missile attacks. These deployments could also help it handle, for now, the pressure imposed by the Israeli global network on Washington to respond with credibility to the Iranian military capabilities.

Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who passed away in December 2009. A successor to Montazeri who could become a new spiritual symbol of the opposition is yet to emerge.-HASAN SARBAKHSHIAN/AP

Notwithstanding the public display of outrage against Iran in the West, the imposition of a new round of international sanctions against Teheran is still far away primarily because of a lack of consensus on the issue among members of the United Nations Security Council. Within the Security Council, China has now emerged as the most vociferous opponent of a new set of sanctions against Iran.

Already viscerally opposed to the new arms deal between the U.S. and Taiwan as well as the meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, China appears to have chosen Iran as the testing ground for a serious diplomatic clash with the U.S. The Chinese assertion on the Iranian nuclear issue and its readiness to take on the U.S. could well emerge as one of the most significant developments on the international diplomatic chessboard in recent weeks.

China has spelt out with clarity its stance opposing sanctions and military action against Teheran. Speaking at an international security conference on February 5 in Munich, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said: The parties concerned should, with the overall and long-term interests in mind, step up diplomatic efforts, stay patient and adopt a more flexible, pragmatic and proactive policy. He counselled the global community that the world should be concerned about seeking a comprehensive, long-term and proper solution through dialogue and negotiations, and uphold the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and peace and stability in the Middle East [West Asia].

With their world views set so well apart, Iran and the U.S. are likely to step up the rhetoric against each other in the coming weeks and months. However, two major factors are likely to constrain the U.S. from taking tangible coercive action against Iran. It is fully aware that it cannot chart out a credible exit strategy in Iraq without assistance from Iran.

Sooner or later, the U.S. will also need Iran, which exercises significant influence among the ethnic Hazara community, to withdraw from Afghanistan in tune with the falling domestic appetite among Americans for combat in the inhospitable Afghan terrain of the Hindukush mountain ranges.

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