Psywar keeps Tehran on tenterhooksTo any intelligence analyst, it should be obvious that the United States has already embarked on a psychological warfare (psywar) campaign to keep Iran on tenterhooks in the hope of thereby breaking its will to resist US pressure to agree to the dismantling of its uranium enrichment capability.
It is in this context that one has to view the rhetoric of "no option excluded" coming at regular intervals from President George W Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US leaders, orchestrated leaks to the media of Pakistan's cooperation with the US in a possible covert action against Iran's military nuclear capability, of increasing Israeli contacts with Pakistan, of US drones (unmanned surveillance planes) flying unhindered over Iran's nuclear establishments from bases in Iraq, and the latest reports of a mysterious blast near the southern port city of Dailam in Iran on Wednesday.
Iranian leaders would be making a serious miscalculation - as Saddam Hussein of Iraq did - if they underestimated the determination of not only the US, but also of Israel, to see that Iran does not acquire a capability for the production of nuclear weapons.
It would be a serious mistake on the part of Iranian leaders and policymakers to think that the disastrous consequences of the US-led military intervention in Iraq and pressure from the rest of the world - with even the United Kingdom reportedly hesitant to go whole hog with the United States in the case of Iran, as it did in the case of Iraq - would deter any US military or paramilitary action against Iran, despite undoubted difficulties.
In its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring any capability that might bring a nuclear weapon within its reach, the US has three options. The first is military - an open military intervention, as in Iraq, to bring about regime change and the dismantling of Iran's nuclear capability. The Iraqi experience and the continuing instability there, two years after the US occupation, ought to discourage such an adventurist course of action.
The US underestimation of the sense of patriotism and national pride of the Iraqis is largely responsible for the mess it has created for itself in Iraq. The Iranians have even a much stronger sense of patriotism and national pride than the Iraqis, and the US would be landing in another mess if it invaded Iran.
The second option is to do an Osirak in Iran - destroy its nuclear establishments through clandestine action, either from the air or the ground or both, as Israel did to Iraq's French-aided Osirak reactor in the early 1980s.
Both the US and Israel have the capability to do so, acting in tandem or independently of each other, but a repeat of Osirak in Iran would be beset with serious difficulties, the likes of which Israel did not face in Iraq. Osirak was still under construction when Israel attacked it and it had not yet been commissioned. Hence Israel did not have to worry about collateral damage to civilians and the environment in the area due to possible radioactive leakages or other hazards. Moreover, the French engineers working on the construction quietly collaborated with the Israelis by remaining absent from the construction site at the time of the bombing. This helped minimize, if not avoid, French casualties.
In Iran, the US and Israel face two types of nuclear establishments - those already constructed and possibly already secretly working - and those still under construction and yet to be commissioned. In the first category would come the nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and possibly one other place. Under the second category would come the nuclear power stations at Bushehr under construction by the Russians, despite US pressure to stop.
A clandestine US and/or Israeli strike on the construction sites at Bushehr should be feasible without causing much collateral damage to Iranian civilians and the environment. But how about the Russians employed for the construction? Will they cooperate by remaining away from the site at the time of the raid?
A strike against Bushehr, even if successful, would not put an end to US concerns. The real source of concern at present ought to be Iran's uranium-enrichment capabilities. They would have the first priority for both the US and Israel. Here, the dangers of incalculable collateral damage to civilians and the environment could be high. This ought to act as a deterrent, but if the concerns of the US and Israel cross the limits of tolerance, they may not hesitate to organize a raid, even at the risk of serious collateral damage.
The third option is psywar, utilized with the aim of breaking the Iranian will so that the other two options become unnecessary. This option has no unacceptable risks, but its ability to produce the expected results is uncertain.
The US has already embarked on this option. The psywar is being waged at two levels - the political and the paramilitary. The political psywar, which is democracy-centric, is directed at the Iranian people and is being waged through Iranian dissidents in the US and elsewhere. It aims to keep alive and aggravate the divide between the reformists and the fundamentalist clerics and the liberals and the conservatives in Iranian civil society. It also seeks to exploit the already existing pockets of alienation inside Iran - and create more. The flow of US funds and sophisticated means of propaganda mounted from California and Iraq play an important role in this.
The paramilitary (covert) psywar, which is nuclear-centric, seeks to convey a message not only to Tehran, but also to Moscow, about the consequences of Iran pressing ahead on the nuclear path in disregard of the concerns of the US, other Western countries and Israel. This psywar is being waged from bases in Iraq and Pakistan. Its purpose is to create fear in the minds of Tehran and Moscow about the inevitability of US paramilitary action against Iran's nuclear establishments if they do not see reason and give up their present obduracy. The actions mounted by the US also seek to demonstrate its capability for paramilitary action, if it decides to act.
It is in this context that one has to view the reported mysterious blast at Dailam, which is in Bushehr province. The location of the blast is about 150 kilometers from the site where the Russians are constructing the nuclear-power stations.
Confusion in Tehran over the incident, which was reportedly spectacular without causing any human casualties, is evident from the contradictory statements emanating from Iran on the cause of the blast.
The Associated Press news agency quoted an Iranian Interior Ministry spokesman, Jahanbakhsh Khanjani, as saying, "An airplane flew over Dailam today. Minutes later, there was an explosion. But we have no reason to say it's a hostile attack. There is a big possibility that it was a friendly fire by mistake."
Iran's state TV al-Alam, which was the first to break the story, said the explosion was possibly caused by a rocket from an aircraft. Subsequently, it changed its version and said the blast might have been the result of an aircraft accidentally dropping its fuel tank.
Officials of Bushehr province, however, said the explosion was connected to "geophysical exploration" in the region, in connection with the construction of a dam.
A spokesperson of Iran's Supreme National Security Council said there was no incident and that people were stirring trouble with such reports. She reportedly said the council had declared that reports of a blast near the nuclear plant were just part of an ongoing campaign of psychological warfare against Iran.
Officials at the Russian Embassy in Tehran and at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy in Moscow - which is overseeing construction at the Bushehr nuclear plant - reportedly told CNN in a phone interview that there had been no explosion at the plant area itself.
Given the normal lack of transparency in Tehran, one may never know what really happened, but it is quite possible that the explosion was the result of a US air-mounted paramilitary (covert) operation meant to demonstrate the United States' ability to carry out such an operation without being detected and prevented by the Iranians, and at the same time convey a message to Tehran and Moscow of the seriousness of US concerns over the nuclear issue and its determination to put an end to Iran's clandestine nuclear plans.
By carrying out the strike in the same province in which the Russians are constructing the nuclear power stations, but away from the construction site, the Americans could have sought to convey their message without creating any international controversy due to human casualties and other damage.
B Raman is additional secretary (retired), cabinet secretariat, government of India, and currently director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and distinguished fellow and convener, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter. Email: [email protected].
(Copyright B Raman, 2005)