As the heat index rises, the momentum for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is also growing. Last month, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak reminded the world that the window of opportunity for a successful strike was rapidly closing as Iran moved forward with its uranium enrichment programme. Later, Leon Panetta, US Secretary for Defence, revealed to the media accidentally on purpose that his intelligence pointed to an Israeli attack on Iran in late spring or early summer of 2012.
Speculations have also been made regarding the special ordinance that would be required by Israeli or American planes that would be capable of destroying nuclear facilities buried deep underground or under rock cover. Although some reports have suggested that the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal, the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP), would not be enough to reach Iranian labs, other experts have suggested that there would be no hesitation to withdraw from a one bomb – one kill model to multiple sorties against a single facility, thereby bringing Iranian nuclear infrastructure within the ambit of American weapons.
Amidst the escalating war of words, military preparations are underway on the ground – Iran has started conducting air drills and other manoeuvres in the south of the country while the United States has started practicing amphibious assault drills and reportedly positioned thousands of troops on Oman’s Masirah island and Socotra in Yemen.
The US and Israel – and indeed, it is primarily those two countries leading the rest of the West – have worked very hard through diplomatic isolation, indirect military action, economic sanctions, assassinations, bomb blasts, cyber attacks, and now the threat of “pre-emptive” strikes to tame Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet Tehran has doggedly pursued its nuclear programme in face of mounting difficulties. As Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, the leader of Iran’s clergy, has repeatedly pointed out, Iran’s programme is a civilian one for much-needed nuclear energy and not a weapons programme. Echoing the Supreme Leader Khamenei, Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akhbar Salehi announced at the Conference on Disarmament,
We do not see any glory, pride or power in the nuclear weapons — quite the opposite…the production, possession, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is illegitimate, futile, harmful, dangerous and prohibited as a great sin.
Western objections to Iran’s programme arise not from any legal infringement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the latter’s part but the lack of transparency. The International Atomic Energy (IAEA) has yet to find any conclusive evidence that Tehran has embarked upon a weapons project, yet it referred the case to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in February 2006. For all intents and purposes, this was ultra vires the IAEA’s authority under Article XII(7)(c) of the IAEA Statute. In response, Tehran has made true its threat to make IAEA inspections of its facilities difficult. Contrary to common wisdom that inspection and surveillance of nuclear facilities is mandated by the NPT, it is the IAEA Additional Protocol which allows for unscheduled inspections of nuclear facilities and more comprehensive surveillance of facilities. These commitments are voluntary in the sense that maintenance of an Additional Protocol with the IAEA is not a legal requirement under the NPT.
All this, however, bypasses the root cause of problem and instead distracts world attention with symptoms. The basis of Iran’s challenge to the international nuclear regime is inequality, not just a recent Iranian experience but one it has endured for over a century. Iranians are tired of being puppets on the world stage with strings being pulled by Moscow, London, Washington, and in the future, perhaps Beijing. Iran’s memory of subjugation and subservience goes back to at least the Great Game between Russia and Britain. In 1907, an Anglo-Russian agreement divided Iran between a northern zone wherein Russian influence was paramount and a southern zone under British control. In the aftermath of the Mashrutiyyat (Constitutional Revolution), the Russian expulsion of Morgan Shuster (who had been brought in to reform the Treasury and limit foreign or Shahist influence) despite the wishes of the new Majles and the British abandonment of the Constitutionalists in favour of the Shah snuffed out Iranian democracy before it had a chance. However, agitation in the form of the Jangal movement continued in Gilan until 1921 when it was finally quashed by the British after the Soviets withdrew support to the revolutionaries. Two years earlier, the British had cajoled the Shah into signing the Anglo-Persian Treaty, which, most Iranians felt had reduced their country to a vassal of the British Empire.
The pattern of Western interference (always to Iran’s detriment) repeated itself in 1953, when democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was ousted during a joint mission by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British MI6, code-named Operation Ajax. Mosaddegh’s sin had been a wide range of social reforms, the most grievous of which had been the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). At the time of nationalisation, the British-owned company controlled all oil in Iran but paid less than 20% as revenue to the Iranian government. After the coup, the new Prime Minister, Fazlollah Zahedi, concluded an agreement with a new oil consortium (comprising of the AIOC, the US, the Netherlands, and France), which agreed to share profits on a 50-50 basis with Iran, but not to open its books to Iranian auditors or to allow Iranians onto its board of directors.
In the immediate aftermath of the 28 Mordad coup, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, backed by his Western patrons, crushed all political opposition and concentrated power in himself. Tudeh Party (communists) and Jebhe Melli (nationalist liberal Mosaddegh supporters) members were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and/or executed. In all, about 800 people were killed by the CIA or CIA-paid groups. The Shah continued his absolute rule for the next 26 years with the help of his secret police, the CIA-trained Sazamane Etelaat Va Amniate Kechvar (SAVAK). Although a secular Muslim who wished to modernise the country, the Shah’s reforms caused much resentment in the Iran. While women were given the right to vote and religious garb (chador) was banned, political dissidents continued to disappear; while the White Revolution ushered in a period of modernisation of Iranian industry, it also increased the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural. By the late 1970s, the Shah had succeeded in antagonising everyone – the religious leaders, the liberals, the communists. Massive nation-wide protests forced Reza Pahlavi to flee the country and in the ensuing chaos, the Islamists (who were the best organised) struck for power. Convinced that the US had plans to overthrow their revolution again (rightly so, though it failed to materialise), a few over-zealous students took over the US embassy in Tehran, initiating a 444-day standoff.
Soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saddam Hussein sought to take advantage of the turmoil in Iran and invaded his larger neighbour on September 22, 1980. Hussein’s goals were the oil-rich Iranian province of Kuzestan and the Arvand Rud (Shatt al-Arab). Although it is wrong to say that Hussein was instigated by the US to invade Iran (Iran – Iraq relations have had a tortured past going back to 16th-century Ottoman-Persian wars), Washington was nonetheless a willing ally of the Iraqi dictator in his war against Iran. Despite more and more evidence coming out of the battle zone that Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iran and Kurdish minorities within Iraq, the US (and the West) continued to give Iraq money, technology, intelligence, and weapons and remain silent about the use of, as the fashionable phrase would later become, “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). In fact, the US Department of Commerce, in full knowledge of potential end use, approved licenses that supplied Hussein with material for his WMDs. To rub salt into the wound, the US also sold weapons to Iran through Israel and South Africa (to illegally support the Contras in Nicaragua). Iranians see this duplicity as criminal apathy on the part of the US for Iranian (and Iraqi) lives in a war that cost both nations half a million dead.
To add insult to this injurious experience with the West is the deeply flawed nuclear non-proliferation regime (Iran is not the only country who has made this argument). Aside from the standard objection of the system allowing vertical proliferation while banning horizontal proliferation is the decided unfairness of the regime watchdogs. For example, the Chinese agreement for sale of nuclear reactors to Pakistan in 2009 in blatant disregard to Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines does not instill confidence in the international community’s behaviour. Nor does US double standards when it comes to Pakistan’s nuclear programme – not only did the White House try to keep from Congress the troubling developments in Rawalpindi, but it has taken no serious action against either AQ Khan or Islamabad for the nuclear smuggling ring that was discovered in 2004. Most worrisome from Tehran’s perspective is the complete lack of desire to investigate the possibility of an Israeli nuclear arsenal among the world’s nuclear watchdogs. In effect, the US has sat on the sidelines (if not actively helped) as Israel and Pakistan, two of Iran’s neighbours, acquired nuclear capability and is arming Saudi Arabia and Turkey with state-of-the-art weaponry. If anything, Tehran needs an act of good faith from Washington than the other way around.
This feeling (of being severely wronged by the West) is not limited to Iran’s clergy – it is prevalent throughout Iran, and any dreams of regime change solving the nuclear problem will remain just dreams. Despite an ocean of differences between them, one thing Iran’s past, present, and potential leaders can agree on is that the country will not give up its nuclear programme: the Shah, before he was deposed, had stated that his country “would have nuclear weapons without a doubt and sooner than one would think.” Reza Pahlavi, the deposed Shah’s eldest son, while not going so far as to suggest nuclear weapons, did not entertain even the question of right and defended firmly Iran’s right to a nuclear programme. Even Hossein Mousavi, leader of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, was adamant that Iran’s nuclear programme was not up for negotiation. Just as Ahmadinejad and the clergy, the Shahists and Reformists are all willing to negotiate as long as Iran does not have to “pay heavy costs such as the deprivation of advanced technologies.” Said Mousavi, “We have to have the technology,” adding that the consequences of giving up the country’s nuclear program would be “irreparable.” Thus, for many Iranians across the political spectrum, the nuclear programme has become a symbol of national pride and independence (or at least protection) from Great Power politics.
For strategic planners in the US and around Europe, tasked as they are with ensuring that their country survives and hopefully thrives into the next century, past injustices hold little water. The Realist would ask how the world can trust an undemocratic Islamic country that is averse to transparency to stay true to its stated goal of producing only electricity from its nuclear establishment. How could we trust a country that has repeatedly made genocidal threats against one of its neighbours? And ultimately, how can we trust that such a country’s nuclear programme will remain within the civilian realm? These are all valid claims but ultimately fail to impress:
The first question is of an undemocratic Islamic country that is averse to transparency: democracy has nothing to do with trustworthiness as the Soviet Union has proven. China is also an undemocratic country that the world has become used to as a member of the Nuclear Club. As far as transparency is concerned, it is naive to pick Iran out for special attention. All states conceal their nuclear infrastructure to varying degrees – the P5 do so behind the guise of the NPT while others conceal as much as they can or is wise.
The third claim is that, as an Islamic theocracy, Iran cannot be trusted. For all the problems Islamic radicalism has created over the past two decades, as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, the main criterion for trust is the link between the state apparatus and terrorist organisations. Iran’s support of the Hezbollah unnerves many Iran observers; they fear that in the wrong circumstances, these weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors with no responsibility or ties to land. To be sure, there is no ironclad guarantee that Iran will never go nuclear, but if Iran were to go against their professed intentions and make nuclear weapons, it is highly unlikely that Iran would pass these weapons on to any terrorist organisation for two reasons: a. they are exceeding hard to manufacture and not liable to being just “given away,” and b. any act of nuclear terrorism would leave enough of a signature that it could be traced back to Tehran, in effect making the attack appear as a direct assault by Iran. No government would be willing to risk giving such power to an unreliable non-state actor, and Iran is hardly likely to be different. Furthermore, Islam has had little role to play as a reason for US opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme – such reservations existed even during the Shah. While eager to sell Iran nuclear equipment and technology, it was always to be under safeguards.
Israel makes much of Iran’s genocidal threats, and as its leaders remind us, they have reason not to take such things lightly. However, such bluster is not uncommon among seekers of the militarised atom – Joseph Stalin disparaged the bomb as a weapon to intimidate only the weak-nerved, while Mao Tse-tung called them paper tigers and stated that even if the West were to kill 300 million Chinese, there would be 300 million more to wipe out the West. In Iran’s case, it is likely to be the same – although Tehran would be loathe to share the role of regional power with Jerusalem, Iranians have proven keen nationalists in the past and would be willing to work with Israel. Despite a publicly anti-Israel stance since 1967, Iran began to be viewed as a threat only since 1992 (when Iranian rhetoric began to be matched by aid to the Hezbollah) in Israel. Indeed, the Shah ran a covert war in Iraq with Israeli help until 1975, and all through the Iran-Iraq War, Israel gave Iran weapons and intelligence.
Ultimately, Iran is not Israel’s problem, at least not in the greater scheme of things. Iran does not wish to hyphenate itself with Israel, preferring to deal directly with the arbiters of world order in the early 21st century. It is easy to see how Israel would prefer to deal with the problem and why, but that would only put off the Iran question a few more years. Indeed, the efficacy of preemptive strikes on nuclear installations has been questioned by experts. However, as Amos Yidlan, one of the eight Israeli pilots that took part in Mivtza Opera, argues,
Today, almost any industrialized country can produce a nuclear weapon in four to five years — hence any successful strike would achieve a delay of only a few years.
Nonetheless, for Israel, Iran is a tactical problem. It is only the US (with the help of the nuclear regime) that can truly resolve this issue. To ensure that dealing with Iran is not passed on to the next administration or the next generation, the motivations behind Beit Rahbari’s recalcitrance – or indeed Sa’dabad’s or Niavaran’s – must be understood and addressed. After all, it was not the Treaty of Versailles that brought peace but the Concert of Europe.
The consequences of a nuclear Iran would not be negligible – this single event threatens to change the face of the Middle East, and the rules of the traditional game – in which the US played to balance Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – would need to be re-written. As unsavoury as an Iranian nuclear arsenal may be to Washington, Jerusalem, London, and Paris, they need to realise that neither war, sanctions, nor regime change will solve their Persian itch; they would in all likelihood enhance an Iranian desire for nuclear weapons. This is a very emotive issue for Iranians of all political stripes. Iran’s history with the West and the atomic colonialism the nuclear regime fosters do not bode well for genuine reconciliation. President Barack Obama’s administration has been fond of saying that all options are on the table. Is this really true? Will they be wise enough to see through to the root of the Iranian standoff and seek meaningful discussions? Or will short-term expediency overrule long-term sagacity? From Tehran, the answer is ironic yet clear: ὑπὸ σκιῇ ἔσοιτο πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἡ μάχη (Then we will fight in the shade).