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Arm-twisting Iran

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005 T+T-
At an anti-U.S. rally in central Teheran, denouncing President Bush's reference to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as comprising an "axis of evil". A file picture.-HASAN SARBAKHSHIAN/AP

At an anti-U.S. rally in central Teheran, denouncing President Bush's reference to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as comprising an "axis of evil". A file picture.-HASAN SARBAKHSHIAN/AP

As a response to the growing threats of attack from the United States, Iran builds strategic partnerships with its neighbours in the east, including India, and initiates talks with the Europeans.

AS the Bush administration enters its second term, the volume of the rhetoric from Washington threatening Iran with military action is rising. Starting with President George Bush, those in charge of the administration have said that a military attack on the Islamic Republic is an option that is under active consideration. Bush's own words are: "I will never take any option off the table."

Iran's nuclear programme is apparently at the heart of the growing pressure. The U.S. and Israel have taken the lead in the campaign to dismantle Iran's atomic programme, saying that there were indications that Teheran intended to build nuclear weapons. Israeli officials have emphasised that once armed with atomic weapons and the missiles, Iran will be a major threat to Israel, pro-U.S. Gulf states and also Europe.

Despite the arm-twisting, Iran is adopting a three-pronged response in order to prevent the U.S.-Israeli combine from turning its pressure into a stranglehold. Iranian rulers are digging their heels in, to preserve their sovereignty and freedom of action.

Write-ups in the American press have reinforced the effort to rattle Iran. Writing in The New Yorker magazine, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that Iran will be the next target in the ongoing U.S. "campaign" for "the establishment of democracy" throughout West Asia. He says that the U.S. administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer in order to identify the three dozen or more nuclear, chemical and missile sites that "could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids". He adds that an American commando task force, aided by information from Pakistan, had penetrated eastern Iran from Afghanistan in a hunt for underground installations. This unit is armed with "sniffers" which are "capable of sampling the atmosphere for radioactive emissions and other evidence of nuclear-enrichment programmes".

In Israel, a feverish campaign has been launched for stopping Iran's nuclear programme in its tracks. Head of the Israeli military intelligence Major-General Aharon Ze'evi said recently that Iran was only "half a year away" from achieving independent capability for producing enriched uranium necessary for making an atomic weapon. He also emphasised that Iran could emerge as a threat to Europe as "the Iranians can reach Portugal with nuclear weapons".

Iranian leaders have effectively countered the rhetoric emerging from Washington and Tel Aviv. Iran's top national security official Hassan Rowhani said the armed forces were prepared for any military attack by the U.S. "Our plans are ready, and although an attack is very unlikely the plans have been approved by the Supreme National Security Council and given to the military forces." Rowhani added, "We will not react to an attack with diplomacy. We are ready to cut off the aggressor's hand."

Many Iranian commentators dismissed the spate of threats from the U.S., saying that they reflected domestic political compulsions faced by the Bush administration. Arshin Adib Moghaddam, who specialises on Iran at Cambridge University, told Frontline: "Much of what is currently being said about Iran is for domestic consumption. A President who is dependent upon the invented image of a tough, anti-terrorist, all-American superhero is equally dependent upon an invented enemy image. Al Qaeda is too abstract a phenomenon, but Iran is there and can be easily portrayed as the next villain."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asafi said, "We consider (U.S. threats) to be psychological warfare, unless someone wants to be making a major strategic mistake." Adding his voice to the Iranian criticism of U.S. policy, Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi expressed the opinion that Washington would make a "stupid mistake" if it translated its military threats into action. "Iran is neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. Iran is the entire Islamic world and all of history. It will neutralise any plot through its great national, military and international power and capabilities", he observed. Yunesi also dismissed the reports that the Americans had launched a covert operation inside Iran. "All military, security, economic and political measures were adopted three years ago. Iran expects to see no threat, but at the same time it has adopted all precautionary measures."

In countering the propaganda barrage that it is facing, Iran has engaged the European Union in an active dialogue to allay the E.U.'s fears about the direction of its nuclear programme. As a result of the ongoing talks with the E.U. "big three" - Germany, France and Britain - Iran has brought its nuclear enrichment programme to a halt. Following these negotiations, the Europeans, instead of issuing threats are advocating the necessity of a sustained dialogue to defuse the crisis. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, said that "diplomatic and political" means were required to persuade, not force, Teheran.

Iran's dialogue with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also appears to be making progress. IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei told The Washington Post recently that he could not see "how a military solution can resolve the Iran issue. In my view, with Iran having almost self-sufficiency in the technology, the Iranians will go underground... you might delay them, but they will rebuild it with the objective of having a weapon." He also said that Iran was "cooperating" with the agency.

Despite some success in the talks so far between Iran and the E.U., tough negotiations lie ahead. Iranian officials are apparently unhappy with the European insistence that Teheran should give up its indigenous uranium enrichment programme permanently as proof that it was not seeking atomic weapons. In return, the Europeans are offering a trade accord as an incentive. Insisting on fruitful negotiations, Iran has said that it is unwilling to freeze its uranium enrichment activities for much longer, unless the E.U. speeded up the tempo of the talks.

Apart from engaging in essential "fire fighting", the Iranians are taking steps that would restrict the West's leverage in the long run. Focussing on oil, Iran is consciously looking eastwards, with a clear intent of reinforcing its linkages with China, India and Japan. In developing new strategic partnerships, Iran is offering China and India lucrative investment opportunities in its oil sector. Iran has formalised a deal with China, which conservative estimates say would amount to upwards of $70-80 billion. It includes a Chinese commitment to purchase 250 million tonnes of Iranian liquefied natural gas over 30 years, develop the giant Yadarvan oilfield in southwest Iran, and import 150,000 barrels a day of crude from the field at market prices. In the long term, China also hopes to participate in an Iranian pipeline project that would take oil to the Caspian Sea 386 km away. From there, a link with another planned pipeline from Kazakhstan to China is envisaged.

For its part, Iran is turning to China for building its infrastructure, including motorways and underground railway lines in Teheran. Some Chinese companies seeking a niche abroad have also moved into Iran. Chinese automaker Chery Automobile Co Ltd opened its first overseas production plant in Iran in February 2003. The facility has an annual production of 30,000 cars.

Iran has also entered into an estimated $40 billion tie up with India. It covers an Indian commitment to import natural gas from Iran over a 25-year period and develop two Iranian oilfields and a gas field. Of the two oilfields, the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (Videsh) will have full rights in the development of the Jufeir oilfield, which produces 300,000 barrels a day of crude.

The development of the Yadarvan oilfield is strategically significant as it draws Iran, China and India into a major commercial partnership that has strong geopolitical overtones. India will hold 20 per cent of the stake in Yadarvan, Iran 30 per cent and China 50 per cent. It is estimated that India will be able to access 60,000 barrels a day from Yadarvan.

Iran is also making a concerted effort to shore up its ties with Japan, despite Tokyo's known pro-U.S. inclination. Last year the two signed a $2 billion deal to develop Iran's Azadegan oilfield.