Geopolitics of the Iranian Bomb

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Sometimes it helps just to open an atlas and stare for a few moments. I did so this morning, checking out the Southwestern Asia map (#98) of the National Geographic Atlas of the World (a handsome volume, by the way). And what you see on the page is something simple indeed and yet I could hardly find it in a week’s worth of reading our press on the Iranian nuclear uproar. On one side of Iran is Iraq, occupied by U.S. troops; on the other side, like two blocks set wobblingly atop each other, are Afghanistan, also partially occupied by U.S. troops, and our ally Pakistan, which, last I heard (and this is something no one writes about anymore either), was doing a pretty good job of sharing base space with our military somewhere over in the direction of the Iranian border.

The nearest I could come to any mainstream acknowledgement that, in the case of Iran (as, not so long ago, Iraq), a secret nuclear program might not be all that is at stake, or even the central issue, in the ongoing imbroglio, came in a single throwaway line in a very good Greg Miller piece in the Los Angeles Times (U.S. Lacks Reliable Data on Iran Arms) on how little the Bush administration actually knows about the nature of the Iranian nuclear program. The sentence read: “The United States has struggled to get more than glimpses and incomplete accounts of Tehran’s weapons programs, [current and former intelligence officials and Middle East experts] say, despite the fact that American spy agencies are in a better position to collect information on Iran since U.S.-led invasions and occupations of two of the country’s neighbors in the last three years.” (Oh, and parenthetically, let me offer you the good news from Miller — the CIA may not have had much success penetrating Iran, but the Agency has evidently done a tip-top job of penetrating an eager Iranian exile community in Southern California where Iranian Ahmed Chalabis undoubtedly await their moment in the neoconservative sun. “Indeed,” Miller writes, “a secret CIA station in Los Angeles for years has cultivated contacts with members of the large Iranian population in Southern California, seeking information from those who have returned from trips to Iran or are in contact with relatives there, former CIA officials familiar with the program say.”)

Of course, we know that the neocons have long been dreaming of “regime change” in Tehran and, as Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service reported recently, Frank Gaffney, a leading think-tank neocon (part of a group that seems in no hurry to leave the Washington stage), published a piece on the neocon global menu for the next four years, Worldwide Value, at the National Review on-line in perfect synchronicity with Bush’s election victory. In it, he wrote, “Regime change — one way or another — in Iran and North Korea, [is] the only hope for preventing these remaining ‘Axis of Evil’ states from fully realizing their terrorist and nuclear ambitions.” Note that lovely “one way or the other…”

So imagine, as they have for so long, a future in which the United States has its guys well situated in Baghdad, Kabul and Tehran — okay, it’s a bit of a faded dream right now, but you can’t blame a Bushevik for dreaming, can you? — and imagine that these three geopolitical building blocks just happen to lie at the heart of the so-called arc of instability, which is said to extend from at least North Africa to the Chinese border, and happens to hold the major oil and natural gas reserves of our planet… and imagine as well that with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (as well as various former SSRs to the north) in hand, endless pipelines could be built that would bring Central Asian oil to market via companies we trust; not, I hasten to add, that anyone in the Bush administration is giving the slightest thought to controlling global energy resources — otherwise we would read about it in our press, wouldn’t we?…

Now stir in a little threatening language from our Centcom Commander General John Abizaid just this week aimed at Iran and the nuclear issue. (“Why the Iranians would want to move against us in an overt manner that would cause us to use our air or naval power against them would be beyond me… We can generate more military power per square inch than anybody else on Earth, and everybody knows it… If you ever even contemplate our nuclear capability, it should give everybody the clear understanding that there is no power that can match the United States militarily.”)… Next, add a touch from an oldie-but-goodie Bush administration taking-our-country-to-war script… You remember, all those Iraqi mushroom clouds rising over our cities. Change just one letter in the country name and what do you have?… Iranian paranoia.

At least, that’s what you have if you read a respected columnist like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in whose recent column, “Engage Iran,” you’ll find the following: “But if a combination of carrots and sticks can slow Iran’s race to acquire a bomb, and check Iranian paranoia about the United States, that’s of benefit in itself.” Though calling first for European-style negotiations with Iran, Ignatius manages to end his column on these ominous, Gaffneyesque sentences: “The challenge for the Bush administration is to see if it can craft what [David] Kay [former head of the Iraq Survey Team] calls a ‘yes-able proposition’ for Tehran. If that initiative fails, as it may well, there will be time to contemplate grimmer options.”

The least that can be said is that paranoids aren’t always mistaken in their paranoia. (Not that, with all our color-coded alert upgrades and hysterical reportage on “homeland security,” we Americans ever exhibit even the slightest hint of paranoia.) But I wouldn’t want you to take what I’ve written too seriously. After all, since you can go weeks on end without reading any of the above in mainstream press accounts about the Iranian situation, maybe I’m just a paranoid.

Mending Fences

Once upon a time… as any good geopolitical fairy tale should begin… Iran was, of course, “ours.” Our CIA (along with the Brits) toppled its elected government back in 1953 — back, that is, in the days when we weren’t quite so keen as now on bringing “freedom and democracy” to the benighted Middle East (where it’s a well accepted fact that no one has ever had a taste of such a sweet fruit) — replacing the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq with a most undemocratic Shah, who, as our man in Tehran, became a heavily armed regional bulwark against the Soviet menace (and oil incursions of any sort) — until, of course, he wasn’t, and the history of our encounter with Islamic fundamentalism began in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini and an embassy full of American hostages… which was how, in the roller-coaster ride that passes for history, by the mid-1980s another distinctly undemocratic guy, the later-to-be-oh-so-evil Saddam Hussein became our substitute guy in the Gulf oil lands and our replacement bulwark against Iranian Khomeini-ism, even at a time when he actually did possess and was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops and his own people — until, of course, he wasn’t… but let’s not go there, shall we?

The headlines in our media these days have been about the President’s efforts to “mend fences” in Europe in the New Year, in Canada now. Of course, I watched him on TV the other night in a joint appearance with Paul Martin, the Canadian PM, reaching a mending hand across the border — possibly the Iranian border — by publicly reaffirming that, if there was a Saddam around threatening our country, Canadians should make no mistake, our President would whack him again, whatever they or anyone else might think.

In a Wednesday Wall Street Journal op-ed (“Imperial Russia, Vassal Ukraine”) former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Bzezinski wrote the following sentence, directed at the Russian leadership. “[The transformation of the Ukraine into a Russian satellite] would be a tragic setback for those in Russia who have recognized… that to be a hated imperial power is not a blessing but a historic curse.” I’m for teaching Russian oligarchs that lesson, but I wonder if it doesn’t have wider applicability. I suspect that the Bush administration is, at this very moment, taking that famed “global test” and failing miserably. Whatever fences are being mended in Canada (behind which embargoed Canadian cows are undoubtedly mooing madly), the Bush administration has been unmending fences just about everywhere else at a relatively rapid pace. Whatever the outcome in the Ukraine dust-up, for instance, where Bush administration former Cold War-niks can hardly resist the urge to roll Russia back to its 14th century borders, they stand to lose one of their last European “friends,” as Katrina van den Heuvel writes at her Nation magazine blog (Truth and consequences in Ukraine) in a particularly savvy piece about the Ukrainian crisis. She comments: “Even apart from the possibility of civil violence, the result may be a new European divide between East and West; the end of any meaningful Russian cooperation with the US — remember Putin has been one of Bush’s leading European ‘friends’ since the Iraq war began; and if Ukraine is ‘lost,’ we may even witness the destabilization of Putin’s leadership and Russia itself.”

And unlike Iran, Russia, of course, does have a nuclear arsenal of monstrous proportions. As for Iran, unfortunately my sources in Southern California are much weaker than the CIA’s, but given our world it would be something like a minor miracle if the Iranians weren’t secretly working towards nuclear weapons. Given the symbolic value a nuclear arsenal has on this planet (see the Abizaid quote above), such an arsenal is more or less coin-of-the-realm for a state with any pretensions even to regional power. Check out, for instance, our allies Israel (with its perhaps 200 nuclear weapons, a staggering arsenal that goes largely unmentioned in pieces in our media on the nuclear issue and the Middle East) and heavily nuclear-armed, bosom-buddy Pakistan, which has actually been the planetary proliferator of proliferators in recent years, and you’ll see what I mean.

Paul Woodward put the matter sanely recently at his warincontext.org website, “However, the big issue is not Iran — it’s nuclear proliferation,” he wrote. “The administration’s current policy could be described as swatting nuclear flies. It wrestles with the individual threats while attempting to do nothing more than maintain the nuclear status quo. Nevertheless, a country such as Iran sees no reason why it must be excluded from the nuclear club while Pakistan’s nuclear status goes unchallenged — even though the latter’s role in proliferation is widely acknowledged. Meanwhile, America apparently has no greater ambition than to serve as a burly bouncer at the doors of the nuclear club.” And a burly nuclear bouncer at that.

So let Dilip Hiro, Iran expert, veteran journalist, and author explain some of the complex international politics that lie behind the most recent Iranian nuclear negotiations and consider which fences in our world are really being mended. ~ Tom

Iran’s Nuclear Issue

By Dilip Hiro

Imagine a pious Muslim faced with a ban on fabricating a certain kind of weapon. He is committed to obeying unquestioningly the fatwas of his religious leader and yet discovers that producing such a weapon, or threatening to do so, is a strong lever for gaining benefits from a powerful group living in the neighborhood. Replace “a pious Muslim” with “Iran,” and “a powerful group” with the 25-member European Union (EU), and the above sentences aptly sum up the current Iranian-EU relationship.

Enriched by millions of daily encounters in bazaars, Iranians are adept at bargaining and confident in the knowledge, acquired over centuries, that skillful bargaining and brinkmanship go hand in hand. This is what just happened in Paris between the officials of Iran and the EU troika — France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The subject was Tehran’s nuclear program; the occasion, the run-up to the finalization of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report for its 35-strong board of governors on November 15. The Iranians dragged out the bargaining until the last minute before initialing a deal subject to the approval of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) in Tehran.

It was a deal that was meant to prepare the way for further negotiations. Iran has agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing programs until a “grand bargain” is reached in which the EU guarantees nuclear, political, and trade concessions in return for Tehran’s indefinite suspension of the same programs. Though negotiated by the troika, the agreement’s ownership lies with the European Union as a whole. To the undisguised relish of the Iranians, this deal killed the Bush administration’s pet plan to refer the Iranian case to the United Nations Security Council for censure or the possible imposition of sanctions for its alleged breaches of the IAEA nuclear protocol.

Both Iran and the EU have a stake in seeing that the next round of negotiations, starting on December 15, succeeds. By clinching a deal with the European Union, the Iranian leadership aims to achieve two strategic objectives: improve Iranian living standards through a Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, and forestall the Bush administration’s “hegemonistic designs” by widening of the political gap between the United States and the European Union over Iran.

The EU threesome has stayed firmly on the Iranian diplomatic path, despite American pressures, in order to protect the interests of its companies which already have lucrative contracts in Iran’s oil and gas industry and are hopeful of securing more in the future.

Countering American Hegemony

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Islamic Republic’s opposition to the imperial ambitions of the two superpowers narrowed to the winner of the Cold War: Washington. At a joint press conference with visiting Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev in February 2000, for instance, Hassan Rouhani, secretary-general of Iran’s SNSC, summarized his country’s foreign policy in this way: “Cooperation among Iran, Russia, India and China is very important if one hopes to confront the hegemonic policies of America.”

That was one year before the arrival of George W. Bush in the White House, his unveiling of a thoroughly unilateralist foreign policy based on “preventive” force, the ominous inclusion of Iran in his “Axis of Evil,” and, of course, his illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. That, in turn, led French President Jacques Chirac to articulate a competing vision of a multi-polar world in which the United States, the European Union, China, India, and Russia all would be poles. In this context, it was no accident that Paris was chosen as the venue for the recent Iranian/EU negotiations.

In Iran, even diehard conservatives now agree that developing cordial relations with the European Union is an effective and necessary way to curb Washington’s designs on their country. They are also realistic enough not to underestimate the power of the Bush administration: It successfully pressured Japan to withhold its signature on a $2 billion deal to develop the enormous Azadegan oilfield in Iran, and the EU to suspend its nine-month-old negotiations with Tehran on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

But then, Iranian conservatives and others are equally aware that, singularly, on the issue of Iran, even Britain has stood apart from the U.S. and with its European partners. As a consequence, the British Foreign Minister Jack Straw — as they are well aware — is derided by the hawks in Washington, the effective makers of Middle East policy, as “Ayatollah Straw.” They wish to see this policy gap between Washington and London maintained, if not widened.

To Each Its Own Interests

At the same time, Iranian leaders want to extract maximum possible benefits for their country in their dealings with the European Union. The most effective way to do this, unsurprisingly, was to acquire as many bargaining chips as possible. And so they resumed the manufacture of centrifuges for enriching uranium in July — but only after the EU troika had reneged on its part of a deal it had signed with Tehran in October 2003. The three European countries delivered neither promised technological and economic benefits to Iran, nor did they address Tehran’s security concerns which are closely tied up with the denuclearization of the Middle East (read: Israel and its sizeable nuclear arsenal). They even failed to get the Iran file downgraded at the subsequent IAEA governors’ meeting — as stated in the agreement.

So on October 31, amid chants of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) and “Death to America,” all 247 members present in the Iranian parliament unanimously called on the government to restart the country’s uranium enrichment program, using its already manufactured centrifuges, and to exercise its right to complete the nuclear fuel cycle enshrined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory.

A nuclear fuel cycle consists of mining uranium ore (in which only seven out of every 1,000 uranium atoms are the lighter fissile isotopes U235, the rest being the heavier U238), processing it into uranium oxide (yellow cake), transforming it into uranium tetraflouride (UF4) gas, and then uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, followed by enriching UF6 to varying degrees of U235 purity: 3.5—4% pure for use in nuclear power reactors, 10—20% pure for use in research reactors, and 90%-plus pure and so usable in nuclear weapons.

In a nuclear power plant, the fuel consists of sealed rods containing hundreds of pellets of 3.5—4% pure uranium. When hit by high-energy neutrons, these pellets undergo a controlled chain reaction, emitting intense heat which transforms the surrounding light (ordinary) water into steam. That then runs the plant’s electricity generating turbines. Once these fuel rods have yielded their energy, they are called “spent rods.” These can be reprocessed with the aim of extracting from them plutonium (Pu239 or Pu241), which could be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons. (Although as yet there are no commercial electric plants using plutonium fuel, Pu239 and Pu241 do contribute towards generating heat for uranium-fuelled plants.) Nuclear fuel thus produces both electric power and more nuclear fuel, and is therefore, in principle, a renewable source of energy.

Therein is the rejoinder to those in the United States who argue that, given Iran’s enormous oil and gas resources, its government does not need nuclear power plants. Oil and natural gas deposits, being finite, will not last forever whereas a nuclear fuel cycle can be self-perpetuating. These critics ignore the fact that, despite its vast oil deposits and the largest gas reserves in the world, Russia has a thriving nuclear power industry at home. Furthermore, it exports its technology. Having already built the Iranian nuclear power station near Bushehr, it remains the favorite contractor for the eight more such plants that Iran plans to build in the near future.

Meanwhile, it is Iran’s hydrocarbon resources — an estimated nearly 10% of global petroleum reserves and the second largest gas deposits in the world — that are at the root of the pressures that British and French oil companies are exerting (discreetly) on their respective governments to cut a diplomatic deal with Tehran on the nuclear issue, and thus torpedo the American plan to take the issue to the UN Security Council with the possibility of economic sanctions or, in the future, worse.

The list of the European oil companies with ongoing oil contracts with Iran — Royal Dutch-Shell, Elf, Total SA, Agip of Italy, as well as BG (British Gas), Enterprise, Lasmo, Monuument, and so on — is so extensive that no major European Union member can afford to ignore such interests.

The Europeans are not the only ones. Last month the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Li Xhaoxing signed an oil-and-gas deal with Iran, and Chinese officials assured Hussein Mousavian, deputy to Rouhani, in Beijing that China would block any move at the IAEA to refer the Tehran nuclear dispute to the UN Security Council.

Bargaining over the Shape of the World

Whatever agreement emerges out of the “grand bargain” between Iran and the European Union, its nuclear component will be verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In his annual report to the UN General Assembly on November 1, IAEA director-general Muhammad El Baradei said that Iran needed to restore the international community’s confidence by suspending enrichment after previously providing the IAEA “information that was at times changing, contradictory and slow in coming.”

A fortnight later, what the EU troika actually got from Iran was an agreement “to cease to develop or operate facilities to produce fissile material, including any enrichment or reprocessing capability.” “Reprocessing,” a term that applies to the spent fuel rods, had not been demanded by the IAEA.

The Iran-EU deal came on the heels of a direct intervention by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. In his Friday prayer sermon on November 5, he declared that “developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons” is forbidden under Islam and “our believing nation,” and added: “They accuse us of pursuing nuclear weapons program. I am telling them as I have said before that we are not even thinking about nuclear weapons.”

What apparently drove Khamanei to this public statement was his determination to frustrate the Bush administration’s plan to isolate Iran. He had used a similar argument when, in October 2003, protests arose at home over Iran’s agreement to sign an additional protocol allowing IAEA inspectors access to any sites they wished to visit. He insisted then that the decision to cooperate with the IAEA was taken “widely and carefully” in the interests of the Islamic Republic to “foil an American-Zionist maneuver” to isolate Iran.

Since that moment both Iran and the EU threesome have raised their horizons. Besides adding in the reprocessing of the spent nuclear fuel rods from civilian projects, the Europeans plan to introduce the issues of human rights and political reform into their upcoming negotiations with Iran for the “grand agreement.”

Tehran’s wish list includes the reaffirmation of its right to a nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes; access to imported nuclear fuel at market prices for its reactors; support for Iran’s acquisition of a light water research reactor; help with regional security concerns, including combating drug trafficking; the resumption of talks on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement; support for Iran’s application for World Trade Organization membership; and the keeping of the Iraq-based Mujahedin Khalq Organization on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations.

Much tough talking lies ahead between the EU and the Middle East’s most strategic nation. All the more so when, as 34 IAEA governors welcomed Iran’s decision on the suspension of all enrichment and reprocessing activities, Jackie Sanders, the Bush administration’s representative, promptly followed up her very reluctant yes-vote with a nine-page statement asserting repeatedly that Iran has a clandestine nuclear weapons program without offering any back-up evidence.

A version of this piece will appear in print in issue #740 of Middle East International

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After as well as The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide. His forthcoming book is The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies (Nation Books). He is based in London, writes regularly for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Observer, the Guardian, and the Nation magazine, and is a frequent commentator on NBC, CNN, BBC, and Sky TV.

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