Sunday, March 19, 2006 - Fallout from Tehran's nuclear program - Fallout from Tehran's nuclear program

Fallout from Tehran's nuclear program
analysis | Experts weigh the chances of a pre-emptive U.S. attack and consider the ramifications of an `Islamic bomb.' By Olivia Ward

Mar. 19, 2006. 01:00 AM

Remember "Shock and awe"?

As the standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions continues, the rhetoric between Tehran and Washington is ratcheting up.

Iran's insistence on its right to pursue a nuclear program it calls peaceful, and the U.S. demand that it cease and desist, have brought the world closer to a confrontation that some fear could be a replay of the invasion of Iraq.

On Thursday, U.S. President George W. Bush reaffirmed his pre-emptive war doctrine, accusing Iran of supporting terrorism. The strategy paper said: "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."

Iranian nuclear sites are reportedly marked off as targets in a Pentagon war room. John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has warned that the United States would use "all the tools at our disposal" to block Iran's nuclear program. He said the U.S. is "beefing up defensive measures" for retaliation — a hint that Washington may not rule out a pre-emptive strike using nuclear weapons.

But how likely is an attack on Iran? And in a worst-case scenario, if Tehran were able to secretly develop a bomb, would it open the way to atomic Armageddon?

"Our military is spread very thin in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Philip Coyle, a senior adviser to the Washington-based Center for Defense Information and former U.S. assistant secretary of defence. "That's the kind of situation in which defence planners will turn to nuclear weapons."

But others take a much different view.

Pre-emptive strikes have been Bush's national security strategy since 2002, notes American military expert and author William Arkin. Two years later, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved a top-secret "interim global strike alert order," putting the military on alert to attack countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction.

The order is especially aimed at Iran and North Korea, but the kind of planning that would go into a full-scale bombing campaign to end the threat of an Iranian attack — by wiping out dozens of Iranian command-and-control centres, nuclear sites and missile-launching areas — takes years rather than months.

"I reject the media swirl that says an attack is imminent," says Arkin.

"Getting to the point where the military would have an order from the president to hit Iran next week requires enormous amounts of preparation, organization and a worked-out plan for what fighting a nuclear war would mean. The military knows it is not ready for that."

He adds, though, that "this administration is committed to a course of action that it will use force to prevent others from gaining weapons of mass destruction. It has made it very clear they aren't waiting for the mushroom cloud."

But is Iran bent on developing nuclear weapons — putting hard-line clerics in control of what some fear could be an "Islamic bomb?"

In the West, opinion is divided. For some, Washington's misleading allegations about Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program have discredited more recent ones that Tehran is moving its nuclear program along a military path.

For others, Iran's refusal to answer key questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency is proof that the claims are correct.

Former IAEA weapons inspector David Albright says Iran has "crossed a well-established red line" by breaking the watchdog agency's seals on some of its nuclear sites and announcing plans to resume uranium enrichment-related activities that would provide the quality of fuel needed for power reactors or nuclear weapons.

But Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, says even if Iran decided to develop deadly weapons, "it won't happen tomorrow. If they began right away with an enrichment plant operating, it would be at least three years away. And there could be problems we don't even know about."

Experts point out that bomb-building on a national scale requires good luck as well as good engineering. Centrifuges used to spin energy-producing uranium 235 away from its heavier and more common variety, U-238, are notoriously breakdown-prone. The IAEA recorded that, in 2004, fewer than half of Iran's 1,140 centrifuges were functional. Iran plans to install some 50,000 in its main enrichment plant at Natanz.

The political motivation for Iran to build a nuclear bomb is powerful, however painstaking the process.

"As long as the U.S. makes it clear they're interested in regime change, it's in the interest of Iran to pursue its own deterrent," says Trita Parsi, a Middle East expert at Johns Hopkins University.

"They may be trying to get the technology and master the fuel cycle because they want the option of weaponizing if the situation deteriorates."

The IAEA continues to call for monitoring of Iran's nuclear program and inspections of its sites and scientific documents, while the U.S. and other Western countries urge putting it on the agenda of the UN Security Council. That could result in sanctions or military action if monitoring were not vetoed by historically reluctant China and Russia.

But, says Houchang Hassan-Yari of the Royal Military College in Kingston, "first we have to establish that Iran is really looking for a nuclear bomb. Many times in the past, the IAEA has said they couldn't find anything incriminating. The whole issue isn't a legal or technical one, it's become political."

Iran has repeatedly denied it is interested in developing nuclear weapons. And, Hassan-Yari points out, it has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — unlike India, which was recently rewarded by a nuclear deal with Washington

But fear of an "Islamic bomb" has been fuelled by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric, his denial of the Holocaust and his rabid statements against Israel, urging that it be "wiped off the map."

"The question of the nuclear issue wouldn't be an issue at all if the U.S. hadn't decided to pursue it," argues William Beeman, a professor of anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at Brown University in Rhode Island, and author of The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs:" How the U.S. and Iran Demonize Each Other.

"The U.S. was the instigator of the nuclear program in the 1970s when it sold Iran its technology. The program has continued since then, so it's disingenuous to suddenly declare it a danger."

Alarm bells have been sounded in the past, but less loudly. In the mid-1990s former secretary of state Warren Christopher declared that "based on a wide variety of data, we know that since the mid-1980s, Iran has had an organized structure dedicated to acquiring and developing nuclear weapons."

But, says Beeman, who has studied Iran for three decades, "there is no weapons program. There is nothing that could threaten the U.S. The main fear is that Iran would want to drop a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv. That is so far beyond possibility as to make the whole scenario ludicrous."

Arguments against allowing Iran to develop an atomic bomb are legion, and all of them frightening: it would destabilize the Middle East; tip the balance against Muslim moderates and toward extremists; provide "dirty bombs" for Hezbollah and anti-Western militants; entrench Iranian hardliners in power; and pose enormous danger if the country fell into political unrest and revolution.

But some observers point out that Iran may see some justification for developing a bomb.

"The American presence surrounding Iran has not improved security, but rather has put a dagger to Iran's front and back," writes non-proliferation expert George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If ever a country needs nuclear weapons to deter a stronger adversary it is Iran."

Leon Hadar, author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East and a research fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute, says the fear of an Iranian bomb is overblown.

And, he adds, looking at the question historically, there may be points in its favour.

"If you go back to when China exploded its first bomb, the reactions in the American press looked like the end of the world had come.

"China was ruled at that time by ideological fanatics who were every day reiterating their plans to destroy the West. But in the end it created a triangle of relationships that contained the Soviet Union, which was already armed with nuclear weapons."

When Pakistan set off five nuclear tests in 1998, it was also greeted with horror.

However, Pakistan's relations with its nuclear rival, India, thawed in the aftermath of the blast, and there was new agreement over the territorial issue of Kashmir. The two countries pulled back from the brink of war.

That, says Hadar, is the stabilizing effect of nuclear parity.

"I don't advocate nuclear weapons. But in the case of Iran one can see that if there were an Iranian bomb, Israel and Iran would be forced to communicate, to avoid what used to be called `mutual assured destruction.'"

And, he adds, "if Iran had a bomb, there would be a new balance of power in the Middle East, and the U.S. would be marginalized. Iran would be suicidal to think of dropping a bomb on Israel, and Israel would rethink its policy of not admitting it has nuclear weapons. It would also mean that Iran would not risk giving Hezbollah the green light to attack Israel (from Lebanon) because it would know there could be a nuclear response."

Non-proliferation advocates argue that the only solution to the escalation dilemma, ultimately, is world disarmament and a nuclear-free Middle East. Disarmament has been rejected by the U.S., which has reduced its deadly weapons but continues to advocate the development of new nuclear arms. A nuclear-free region was rejected by Israel, which like India and Pakistan has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty but is widely understood to possess nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Russia and China are showing no sign of eliminating their nuclear arsenals.

While most observers look at the possibility of an Iranian bomb with dismay, a few are beginning to argue that it could be the "shock therapy" that would jolt the Middle East toward eventual nuclear disarmament, and to peace.

"Can we live with a nuclear Iran?" asks Hadar. "Probably. Whether you are a hawk or a dove, you must prepare for a worst-case scenario. Thinking the unthinkable doesn't mean you want it to happen."

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