On Iran, Force Is No Option


Washington’s worry, with what it believes is Iran’s nuclear weapons program, has only been matched with its unpublicized concern over the rising costs of its Iraq policy. Washington’s Iraq approach underscores irrationality of opting for force rather than dialogue as a means for dispute settlement. The public bravado on Iraq notwithstanding the crushing costs of Iraq must force this realization on the Bush administration; and one that is bound to influence its handling of the Iran nuclear issue. In addition there are other significant considerations which deny Washington the force option; the many unanswered questions of dealing with not a completely ‘open’ nuclear program, the technical complexity of seeking to repeat Osirak strike and also the multiple and deadly ‘response possibilities’ at Iran’s disposal incase the Americans or Israelis decapitate its nuclear plants.

Meanwhile the trigger for the latest round of accentuated crisis was proposal of the European negotiating team (France, Germany and Britain), the E-3, that offered Iran a guaranteed source of fuel for its civilian nuclear plants and other economic incentives in exchange for Tehran ceding the right to develop and control of the sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle technology that could be used to produce bombs. As an NPT signatory, Iran has the right to make its own nuclear fuel while also giving IAEA the authority to ensure that Iran’s enriched uranium is for only for civilian power plants. And Iran has allowed IAEA access to watch its nuclear program.

Iran has responded harshly and swiftly to the E-3 proposal but not without leaving the door open for negotiations. "The proposal is extremely long on demands from Iran and absurdly short on offers to Iran, and it shows the lack of any attempt to even create a semblance of balance," said an Iranian statement. It complained that the European offer "amounts to an insult on the Iranian nation for which [France, Britain and Germany] should apologize." On August 8 Iran then immediately started feeding uranium ore concentrate into machinery at its conversion plant at Esfahan, a process it had frozen for almost a year. IAEA reacted to this move by passing a resolution demanding that Iran halt all nuclear fuel work. Tehran has rejected the resolution upholding its right to develop the fuel cycle for civilian purposes.

On the 16 Iran’s new chief negotiator Ali Larijani has categorically said to the daily Sharq that the Iran "deems it a principle to continue talks and it accepts negotiation as the right manner." But Iran also intends to retain its right, under the NPT, to develop a full fuel nuclear cycle-much like other NPT signatories including Japan. "We can reach a conclusion with a win-win situation defined for both sides … We should try to solve the problem in a friendly way and our objective is still preserving the fuel cycle," he said.

By doing this Iran has conveyed its negotiating bottom-line to E-3 and to the IAEA. It Iran also categorically stated that it would not suspend work at the Isfahan plant again and would seek resuming uranium enrichment, at its facility in Natanz. But Iran’s simultaneous thrust for dialogue is significant. Larijani was categorical about working out an arrangement whereby the concerns of IAEA can be addressed. "Natanz is a part of our fuel cycle and we insist on it. However, it should pass the channel of negotiations," Larijani said. Following Larijani’s line Iran’s the deputy chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, has also declared that "the Isfahan issue is over” adding that "What is left on the table for discussion is Natanz-¦ we definitely have plans for Natanz in the near future."" Putting the onus of working out a mutually acceptable settlement of the uranium enrichment question on the E-3 Iran’s Iran’s Foreign Ministry has said "Europe’s behavior will heavily influence the decision."

The nuclear question, like in all other countries, is not only linked to practical defense and development requirements. In this Hobbesian world of ours it raises emotive issues of national sovereignty and pride. Hence the August 16 gathering of 1000 Iranian students at the Isfahan nuclear plant declaring that "the movement of Iranian students insists on a complete resumption of nuclear activities as we deem it impossible to bargain about." Also earlier 300 students the British embassy with stones and tomatoes chanted, "Iran must resume enrichment."

Earlier Iran’s former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said in a Friday sermon "It is most strange that countries that initially supported Iran, changed their stance by approving the decision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is unfair and extremely unjust."

Washington’s concerns with Iran’s program are primarily political. They reflection of Israel’s concerns as well as its own concerns that a future nuclear Iran could stave off US’s attempt at intimidation; given otherwise the entire Middle East’s inability to resist US’s intimidation. The US-Iran diplomatic history since the seventies has made for exceptionally terribly distrustful Iran-US relations. As for Washington’s allegation against Iran’s nuclear program, those are still not backed credible and incontrovertible evidence.

However numerous contextual factors prevent a ‘free-hand’ for the US on Iraq. The E-3 negotiators, Britain, France and Germany are for continuation of dialogue, are against taking the matter to the UNSC. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he wouldn’t support U.S. military action against Iran, which he said a military response would be “highly dangerous.” Even if the matter gets to the UNSC Chinese and Russians will veto sanctions. American commentators argue that the $65 a barrel price of oil will deter the international community from supporting sanctions against the world’s third largest oil producer. Already Iran’s chief delegate has suggested pushing world oil prices higher if the West tries to block its nuclear program. Also the combined impact of breaking down negotiations and imposition of sanctions could be pushing Iran towards speeding up its nuclear program. As did North Korea. If such a situation forces US military strikes against Iran, it would precipitate political and security havoc in the Middle East.

War is no option. Iran is no Iraq; three times the size of Iraq, with its revolutionary zeal intact, capacity to deal a tough blow to the global economy by interrupting supply of the 15 million barrels of oil that daily comes across the Gulf region. Bush knows force is no option. Although he told Israeli television that his country’s options against Iran includes all including the use of force, but "only as a last resort." Cyrus Nasseri, Iran’s chief delegate to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog in Vienna, told CNN European countries should "think twice" before taking any action that might be considered "coercive." "That would be a course of action that would lead to a situation where everyone would lose," he said.

With the US itself analysts like Michael Mazeer of the U.S. National War College have argued in The New Republic magazine that "Iran’s best strategy might be to lash out in retaliation." Iran has the political capacity to influence events in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the Strait of Hormuz and maybe also indirectly within the US. That is a path Washington would never wish Iran to take.

Iran is within its rights to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes provided it agrees to intrusive UN inspections. The nuclear program is a matter of national pride and no Iranian leader with any political sense would offer to give it up. To address the concerns regarding Iran taking the nuclear weapons route, the only option available to the international community is to continue with the path of dialogue. The gains made by the IAEA and the E-3 must be further consolidated through a sincere dialogue. IAEA must instead require Iran to fulfill its commitment of cooperating with IAEA by allowing it to strengthen its monitoring controls.

The UNSC route will prove to be counter-productive, will get Iran off the dialogue track and the US onto a combative track.. Any attack on Iran will send the region on a spiraling cycle of conflict and chaos. That the global non-proliferation agenda is one dictated by the politics of inter-state relations and not by the inherent dangers of nuclear proliferation has yet again been emphasized by the recent US-Indo Nuclear agreement. NPT and US’s own laws prohibit transfer of nuclear technology to non-NPT signatories. Washington’s move to acknowledge India’s nuclear status and opt for nuclear cooperation would have been a wise move had it covered Pakistan, the other nuclear power as well. But the fact that Israel and India are considered ‘kosher’ nuclear states compared to Pakistan reinforce the reality of a selective global non-proliferation policy.

As also does the fact that while Washington and IAEA are busy drawing up punitive measures against Iran for resuming conversion of uranium, a process which Iran is allowed as an NPT signatory, by contrast the US administration has started work on the legislative changes required to implement the US nuclear cooperation agreement with India, a country that has a declared nuclear weapons program. Two acts of Congress, Section 129 of the Atomic Energy Act and the amendment to this Act, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Act of 1978, which prohibit transfer of civilian nuclear reactors and other nuclear technology to a non-NPT signatory country, are on way to be amended.