Countdown Iran

By Alain Gresh

Le Monde Diplomatique

June 2007 Issue

Silently, furtively, sheltered from cameras, the war on Iran has begun. Numerous sources confirm that the United States has intensified its aid to several armed movements with an ethnic base - Azeris, Baluchis, Arabs, Kurds: minorities that together represent about 40 percent of the Iranian population - with the objective of destabilizing the Islamic Republic. In this context, ABC television revealed in the beginning of April that the Baluchi group, Jound Al-Islam ("The soldiers of Islam") which had just led an attack against the Guardians of the Revolution (about twenty dead) had enjoyed secret American assistance. A report by the Century Foundation (1) reveals that American commandos have been operating in the interior of Iran itself since the summer of 2004. January 29, 2002 in his State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush classified Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, in the "Axis of Evil." On June 18, 2003 he asserted that the United States and its allies "w ould not tolerate" this country's accession to nuclear weaponry. It is perhaps useful to recall the context of the time. Mr. Mohammad Khatami was then president of the Islamic Republic and was multiplying his appeals for a "dialogue of civilizations." In Afghanistan, the United States had benefited from the active support of Tehran, which had used its many connections to facilitate the overthrow of the Taliban regime. On May 2, 2003 during a meeting in Geneva between Iranian Ambassador Javad Zarif and Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad - then President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan - the Tehran leaders submitted a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the White House that covered three issues: weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and security, and economic cooperation (2). The Islamic Republic declared itself ready to support the Beirut Summit (2002) Arab Peace initiative and to contribute to the transformation of Lebanon's Hezbollah into a political party. On December 18, 2003 Teh ran signed the additional protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a protocol that several countries only have ratified and which considerably strengthens the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) surveillance capabilities.

All these overtures were purely and simply swept aside by the American administration, which remains focused on one goal, the overthrow of the "mullahs' regime." To create the conditions for a possible military intervention, it continues to brandish the "nuclear threat." For years, alarmist reports have been produced by successive American administrations and always refuted. In January 1995, the director of the American agency for weapons control and disarmament asserted that Iran could have the bomb in 2003; simultaneously Defense Secretary William Perry asserted that that objective could be reached before ... 2000. These "forecasts" were repeated the following year by Mr. Shimon Peres (3). Yet, in 2007, in spite of the progress made by Iran with respect to uranium enrichment, the IAEA deemed that Tehran will not have the "capabilities" to produce the bomb sooner than four to six years from now.

What is the situation, really? Since the 1960s, i.e., well before the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iran sought to develop a nuclear infrastructure to prepare the post-oil period. With the development of technologies, complete mastery of the civilian nuclear cycle makes the shift to military usage much easier. Have the leaders in Tehran made that decision? Nothing allows us to assert that. Does the risk exist? Yes, and for reasons that are easy to understand.

During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Saddam Hussein's regime used chemical weapons against Iran - in violation of all international treaties: neither the United States nor France became indignant over this usage of weapons of mass destruction, which traumatized the Iranian people. Meanwhile, American troops are encamped in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran is surrounded in a dense network of foreign military bases. Finally, two neighboring countries, Pakistan and Israel, have nuclear weapons. What Iranian political leader could be insensitive to such a context?

How then to avoid Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons, which would relaunch the arms race in a region already highly unstable and which would deal a fatal blow to the Non-Proliferation Treaty? Contrary to what is often suggested, the essential obstacle does not reside in Tehran's desire to enrich uranium: Iran, according to the NPT, has the right to do that, but has always asserted that it was ready to voluntarily allow restrictions to that right and to accept a reinforcement in the IAEA's controls to avoid any potential use of enriched uranium for military purposes.

The Islamic Republic's fundamental preoccupation lies elsewhere, as the agreement signed November 14, 2004 with the European "troika" (France, United Kingdom, Germany) proves: Iran agreed to provisionally suspend uranium enrichment, with the understanding that a long-term agreement "would furnish firm commitments on security issues." Those commitments having been rejected by Washington, Iran resumed its enrichment program.

Instead of pursuing an independent policy, the European Union has aligned itself with Washington. The new proposals formulated by five Security Council members and Germany in June 2006 did not contain any guarantee of non-intervention in Iranian affairs. In its August response, Tehran once again asked that "the Western parties who wish to participate in the negotiations announce, in their own name and that of other European countries, the laying aside of policies of intimidation, pressure, and sanctions against Iran." Only such a commitment would allow a revival of negotiations.

Otherwise, escalation is inevitable. All the more so as the June 2005 election of Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not facilitate dialogue, with the new president multiplying his incendiary statements, notably about the genocide of the Jews and about Israel. But Iran, a big country with a rich history, cannot be reduced to its president. Tensions within the very seat of power are strong, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has suffered an electoral debacle in the municipal elections as well as the elections for the Assembly of Experts in December 2006. More widely, economic and social opposition remains strong and aspirations for more freedom are intense, especially among women and youth. The society rejects all subordination. The only asset the regime possesses for rallying the population around it remains, precisely, nationalism, the rejection of foreign interference from which Iran suffered all during the Twentieth Century ...

In spite of the Iraqi disaster, nothing indicates that President Bush has renounced attacking Iran. That objective falls within his vision of a "Third World War" against "Islamic Fascism," an ideological war that may end in total victory only. The diabolizing of Iran, facilitated by its president's posture, falls within this strategy which may lead to a new military adventure. That would be a catastrophe, not only for Iran and the Middle East, but also for the relations that the West, with Europe in the first place, maintains with this region of the world.

(1) Sam Gardiner, "The End of the 'Summer of Diplomacy': Assessing US Military Options on Iran," Washington, DC, 2006.

(2) On this offer, see Gareth Porter, "Burnt Offering, The American Prospect," Washington, DC, June 2006.

(3) Read "Quand l'Iran aura-t-il l'arme nuclèaire? Nouvelles d'Orient," 4 Septembre 2006.