Iran: The babble and the bomb

Posted in Iran | 23-Aug-04 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari| Source: Asia Times

Western experts have made an art of frightening and wrong predictions about some major issues involving the Muslim and Arab world. The uninitiated should spend some time reading reckless analyses related to the Arab "petro-power" of the 1970s. According to some of those analyses, Arabs should have owned major chunks of the US and European productive sectors merely through purchases, or by investing the billions of dollars they made in that decade though the exercise of oil power. One wonders why Arabs don't own those assets.

Yet the same types of wrong-headed scenarios are being offered about a "nuclear" Iran, if it develops nuclear weapons. Let's be clear about one issue. Neither Iran nor North Korea should develop nuclear weapons. We already have too many nuclear powers on this small planet of ours, armed with enough nuclear weapons to blow it up many times over. But what if Iran does develop nuclear weapons? A number of facts and fictions about this issue should be well understood.

The first fact is that Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons. Second, it aspires to develop such weapons, if not now, then certainly in the foreseeable future - say, within 10 years. Third, Iran is genuinely afraid of a militaristic United States whose military forces are lurking beyond Iran's eastern border in Afghanistan and its western borders in Iraq, and, like North Korea, considers its own nuclear weapons as a source of deterrence to potential US military action against the regime.

The US under President George W Bush and his neo-conservative policymakers has every intention of unsheathing the regime-change strategy if he is re-elected in November. The neo-cons' aspirations of global hegemony have encountered a rude awakening in Iraq. However, those ambitions are neither abandoned, nor are they dead. They are undergoing a process of regrouping and rethinking about the future modalities of America's global dominance, but especially in the Middle East, in the event that Bush gets a second term.

Under a re-elected Bush, Iran has most to fear about America's potential exercise of regime change, for a variety of reasons. First, there continues to be bad blood between Iran and the US related to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s. Second, after the dismantlement of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran has emerged as a major country that is confronting US hegemony in its immediate neighborhood, and is willing to take on the lone superpower rhetorically. Third, Iran continues to exercise considerable influence in Iraq. As such, it challenges America's dream of establishing its permanent presence in a subservient Iraq by ensuring the creation of a diffident regime.

Implanting Western-style democracy in Iraq and in the Middle East is the 21st-century version of the white man's burden of the lone superpower. But Iran remains a force - more symbolically than militarily - against America's desire to impose democratic liberalism on the Muslim Middle East, for Iran's rulers have their own vision for their country and for post-Saddam Iraq: that of continuing with the Islamic republic and preparing ground to ensure that some form of Islamic government is established in Iraq through elections. Because of these intricate reasons for conflict with the United States, there is no wonder fears related to regime survival drive Iran to seek a nuclear-weapons option. And that very same reason serves as just another wrinkle in the continuing - or even escalating - wrangling between Iran and the US.

The chief fiction related to Iran's potential development of nuclear weapons is the frequent suggestion that Egypt and Saudi Arabia would also consider developing nuclear weapons. The fact of the matter is that Egypt has no security-related reasons to develop nuclear weapons - even though Israel is a nuclear power, it is at peace with Egypt. It is true that Egypt is not at all happy that Israel not only has nuclear weapons but is also busy developing its naval-based nuclear power, while the US is creating such a fuss about the potential nuclear weapons development by Iran and North Korea. Ideally, Egypt would like to develop nuclear weapons if for no other reasons than just to gain strategic parity with Israel. However, if Egypt were seriously to consider developing nuclear weapons, the US$1.5 billion per year in US assistance to that country would be discontinued instantly. Given its acute economic-development-related problems, Egypt can least afford a potential loss of such substantial assistance.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has no security-related reasons to develop nuclear weapons, even if Iran acquires them. Iran poses no threat to Saudi Arabia, especially considering the significance of the oil kingdom for the economies of Europe and Japan. No Iranian leader in his right mind would consider a harebrained scheme of even fomenting trouble inside Saudi Arabia, much less threatening the regime. Iran has little reason to contemplate the alternative to the current Saudi monarchy: Wahhabi extremists who don't even regard Shi'ites as Muslims. So, regardless of their mutual differences, Saudi Arabia and Iran are likely to get along even if Iran develops nuclear weapons.

Besides, developing nuclear weapons is not a realistic option for Saudi Arabia, even if no stringent global nuclear-proliferation regimes were in place. Development of nuclear weapons requires an enormous amount of indigenous technical knowledge, and elaborate supporting infrastructure, which Saudi Arabia is not only sorely lacking, but which would take decades to develop under the best circumstances. No country has, nor can any country hire, expatriate technocrats who can be counted on to make it a nuclear power.

Another suggestion floating in the US press is that Saudi Arabia has financed Pakistani nuclear weapons with some sort of secret understanding that it would be transferred, or at least shared, between the two countries. Needless to say, authors of this speculation are persons of the same background who invented the story that Saddam not only had nuclear weapons, but he was capable of launching them toward Britain within the span of 45 minutes. Considering the United States' earnest endeavors to forestall all global attempts related to nuclear proliferation, Pakistan would be wishing death for its own nuclear program by even contemplating a crazy scheme like transferring or sharing its nuclear weapons with Saudi Arabia.

As the US waits for the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union Three (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) to persuade Iran to abandon all aspirations of developing nuclear weapons, it is also becoming fairly certain that Iran has already made a decision to materialize that option. We are currently given two predictions about the date by which Iran would develop nuclear weapons. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates it to be by 2010, while Israel says 2007. Bush is likely to give the international actors time to persuade Iran to come clean regarding its nuclear program until November of this year. If he is re-elected, look for a possible preemptive US unilateral attack or a combined US-Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities by late this year, or early next year.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.