Nuclear row

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

Soldiers man an anti-aircraft machine gun inside the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. - RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS

Soldiers man an anti-aircraft machine gun inside the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. - RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS

The Iranian government shows no signs of winding up its nuclear programme despite escalating threats from Washington.

IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement on April 11 that Iranian scientists had successfully enriched a small quantity of uranium has once again raised the diplomatic temperature. The United States and the European Union were quick to criticise the Iranian move strongly. Russia too joined the chorus of criticism, saying that the timing of the statement was inopportune. China did not issue any statement but signalled that it supported Russia's stance.

Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran had enriched uranium to 3.5 per cent, using 180 centrifuges to run a cascade. Experts point out that for a country to build an atomic bomb, at least 80 per cent enrichment along with 16,000 centrifuges are needed. Iran, even if it is clandestinely engaged in the quest for nuclear weapons, is many years away from a bomb. "Based on international regulations, we will continue on our path until we achieve production of industrial-scale enrichment," the Iranian President told officials and diplomats.

Muhammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran's atomic energy agency, said that the goal is to expand uranium enrichment to industrial scale at its Natanz facility. Iran, he said, would start operating the first of its 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz by late 2006. There is scope for expansion to 54,000 centrifuges in the facility. Iran has been saying that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rules it has the right to conduct research for the peaceful use of nuclear power.

Ahmadinejad also emphasised that Iran had mastered the "full fuel cycle" and claimed that it should now be considered a nuclear power. "Today our situation has changed completely. We are a nuclear country and speak to others from the position of a nuclear country," he said in a speech in the third week of April.

This has, however, not stopped the hawks in the U.S. establishment from demanding an all-out war against Iran. They claim that Iran has passed a significant nuclear benchmark. One right-wing commentator said that Iran was capable of making a nuclear bomb in a couple of months' time. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, called for "strong steps" against Iran.

Only a couple of days before Ahmadinejad's announcement, American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had written an article in The New Yorker magazine detailing the Bush administration's advanced blueprint to launch a military attack against Iran. Hersh was the first to disclose the atrocities on Iraqi civilian detainees by U.S. forces two years ago. Hersh, in his latest expose, talks about U.S. plans to use tactical nuclear weapons against Iran. He writes that the U.S. attacks can take place any time. Senior officials Hersh talked to said that President George W. Bush was determined to deny Iran the opportunity "to begin a pilot programme, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium".

President Bush's two ideological soul mates, Vice-President Dick Cheney and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, had warned Teheran against pursuing its nuclear programme, which is sanctioned under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly emphasised that Iran does not need nuclear weapons as they are considered "immoral" under Islam. Cheney talked of "painful consequences" while Bolton vowed "tangible and painful consequences".

A senior British official who deals with disarmament issues, on his recent visit to New Delhi, said that a military attack on Iran was only a question of time. A recent report in the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that British and American forces had conducted joint exercises in preparation for this eventuality.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has made an impassioned plea to "Stop Bush before he attacks Iran". Jackson, who has been a consistent critic of American militarism, wrote recently in Chicago Sun-Times that President Bush was convinced that "he has absolute authority to launch a war of his choosing, without congressional approval, U.N. mandate or imminent threat".

The Iranian government, meanwhile, has shown no signs of backing down. It seems to be confident that the U.N. Security Council will not allow the Bush administration to push through a resolution calling for draconian sanctions. Moscow and Beijing have strongly signalled that they are against such a move. They have emphasised that there can be only a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out, in the second week of April, that Iran had never stated "that it is striving to possess nuclear weapons".

The IAEA chief, Mahmoud ElBaradei, who was in Teheran in the third week of April for talks with Iranian nuclear officials, called upon Teheran to take measures including the suspension of uranium enrichment activities, until "outstanding issues are clarified". He is to submit a report to the Security Council by the end of April. The Security Council also wants Iran to suspend all enrichment activity by the end of this month. After hard bargaining, it had issued a statement on March 29, expressing "serious concern" about some aspects of Iran's nuclear programme "which could have a military dimension".

The IAEA chief also opposes punitive economic sanctions. "Sanctions are a bad idea. We are not facing an imminent danger. We need to lower the pitch," he told a forum in Doha recently. On an earlier occasion he had said that the international community should stop thinking "that it is morally unacceptable for some countries to want nuclear weapons and morally acceptable for others to lean on them for their defence". Many commentators have written about the double standards on display. In particular, they point out to the recent "nuclear deal" the Bush administration struck with India.

The IAEA, in a statement released after Baradei's Teheran visit, said that Iran had agreed to increase cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Baradei said that there was ample time to negotiate a settlement under which "Iran's need for nuclear power is assured and the concern of the international community is also put to rest". Teheran has been saying for a long time that it wants a compromise that would address Western concerns and at the same time uphold its "right" to enrich uranium.

The highly influential pro-Israeli lobby in Washington is, however, working overtime to persuade the Bush administration to launch yet another "preventive war" in West Asia. The most powerful Jewish lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has been putting out full-page advertisements in leading American newspapers on the dangers of a "nuclear-armed Iran". This particular group has now forged a powerful alliance with evangelical Christian groups.

Two American scholars of international repute, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, have revealed in an article, published jointly in a British journal recently, the key role the pro-Israeli lobby plays in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. The authors claim that the lobby, which has strong connections with key Bush administration players, hopes that its persuasive powers will convince the Bush administration to embark on yet another disastrous military adventure. According to the authors, the ability of the Israeli lobby to raise large campaign funds for both the Democrats and the Republicans, coupled with its ability to influence Washington think tanks, gives it a decisive say in U.S. policy-making in West Asia.

Israel's government leaders and senior Army officers have been demanding for some time that the U.S. use its military force against Iran to prevent it from going "nuclear". According to Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration is relying on stories provided by the Israeli security agency Mossad and the disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan about Iran's nuclear programme. Both have told the Bush administration that Iran is running a parallel nuclear programme. IAEA officials have said that they have not found any evidence to prove the existence of such a programme. American officials do not even try to hide the Israel factor, while moving against Iran. President Bush has said on several occasions that he will use "military force" against Iran to protect "our strong ally, Israel".

The Israeli government has leaked contingency plans to attack Iran. The plans involve air strikes, attacks by commando teams and missile attacks. Israel had attacked the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq in 1981. Destroying Iranian nuclear facilities is, however, not going to be a cakewalk. Israeli planes will have to fly over Iraqi territory to reach Iran. This would require a green signal from the U.S. military, which controls Iraqi air space. Iran has spread its nuclear facilities all over the country and protected them with sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries. Iran fired newly acquired sophisticated medium-range missiles in a show of strength recently. U.S. military commentators have said that a mission to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities can be achieved only by using nuclear weapons.

The calls from world capitals for a diplomatic solution to the row are now getting louder. Some prominent Americans who had worked with Bush during his first term, are also calling for talks with Teheran on the nuclear issue. Richard Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State under Bush, said that Washington would benefit from talking to Teheran. The Bush administration so far has refused requests from its European allies to talk directly with Iran. Iran has always conveyed its readiness for direct talks. In fact, Teheran had asked for security guarantees from Washington years ago in exchange for a nuclear deal. Washington evidently has not forgiven Teheran for the humiliation it suffered at the hands of the revolutionary regime after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Since the 1990s, the Islamic government has tried to mend fences with Washington without success. Things have only gone from bad to worse with the coming of Bush the Second.

Military strategists believe that all the talk about waging war against Iran is part of a psychological offensive. It is well known that the Pentagon is against a new military adventure, given the fact the American military is already over-extended in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in the third week of April that Washington was sticking to the diplomatic track.

An American attack on Iran could lead to immediate repercussions. Oil shipments from the Gulf would be affected severely. The U.S. military position in Iraq would become even more tenuous if the majority Shias rise up in support of their Iranian brethren. The pro-American government in Lebanon would also be a casualty; the survival of the coalition government in Beirut depends on the support of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah Party.

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