Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Iran Matters

Iran sends a long-range message

From The Statesman

ND Batra
It was a spectacular display of missile firepower exceeded only by the Revolutionary Guard air force commander General Hossein Salami’s rhetoric. According to the official IRNA news agency, he said Shahab-3 and other missile tests should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about Iran’s “resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language...We warn the enemies who intend to threaten us with military exercises and empty psychological operations that our hand will always be on the trigger and our missiles will always be ready to launch.”

With a range of 1,240 miles (almost 2,000 km), Shahab-3 with a nuclear payload could cause massive death and destruction if it were to hit Israel; and hence the motivation for Israel to wipe out the nuclear enrichment facility before Iran is fully capable of developing weapons. Early June, Israel conducted an extensive military exercise over the eastern Mediterranean to prepare for a mission to pre-empt the nuclear threat and to send a message to Iran.

Not to be left behind, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent her own prompt message from Georgia, where she had gone to lay the groundwork for establishing an anti-ballistic missile system, asserting, “We will defend American interests and the interests of our allies...No one should be confused about that.” Israel is not expected to launch an attack on Iran without US approval, but with prevailing uncertainties occasioned by the impending presidential election, events might get out of hand. Both Iranian and US-British warships are conducting naval exercises at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 40 per cent of the world’s oil passes. If Iran blocks this strategic waterway, global economic consequences will be much more devastating than those triggered by the 1956 Suez War.

The only economic consequence of the firing of nine missiles has been the cancellation of the planned development of Iranian South Pars gas field by Total, a French oil company whose CEO, Mr Christophe de Margerie, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, “Today we would be taking too much (of a) political risk to invest in Iran because people will say: ‘Total will do anything for money’.” If France retreats, however, China will surely spring forward. With oil prices hitting $145 a barrel, petrodollars are flooding Iran, the fourth largest oil producer.

Both Republican and Democratic presumptive presidential nominees, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, iterated their positions on Iran. Mr Obama said the missile tests show “the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme is real and it is grave”, which necessitates “direct, aggressive and sustained diplomacy”, including economic sanctions. Mr McCain on the other hand says working with “our European and regional allies is the best way to meet the threat posed by Iran”. He also supports President Bush’s anti-missile defence system. Neither candidate has ruled out force as an option if diplomacy fails and Iran persists in developing nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the situation is not as frightening as it seems to be. Undersecretary of State William J Burns told Congress that “while deeply troubling, Iran’s real nuclear progress has been less than the sum of its boasts”. Tough sanctions and incentives including technical and economic help might work, it is believed, in persuading Iran to suspend its nuclear activities. Two days after the missile tests Iran agreed to resume talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Geneva on 19 July.

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) based on the findings of the 16 agencies of the US intelligence community concluded “with high level of confidence” in its report released in 2007 that Iran was not engaged in the development of nuclear weapons. In fact, Iran halted the nuclear weapons programme in 2003, though it continued pursuing nuclear energy development for civilian energy purposes. But Iran has the necessary scientific, technological and industrial base and knowledge to make nuclear bombs. Suspending the programme does not mean that Iran has altogether given up its intention to build a nuclear arsenal in the pursuit of its strategic interests in the region.

The report said, “Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” Of course, the national interest calculations include both short- and long-term cost-benefit analyses. And Iran, taking into account the ruthless determination the Bush administration displayed in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, might have thought it unwise to continue with its nuclear weapons programme.

The 2007 intelligence report, which contradicted the previous alarmist findings about Iran’s intentions, has reinforced the arguments of those Americans, Republicans and Democrats, who believe that concerted international diplomacy will work. The report recommended that “some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressure, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might ~ if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible ~ prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has continued to operate 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear energy purposes, which could give it enough fissile material to produce nuclear weapons in less than a decade if its intentions change and it can avoid international scrutiny and pressure. With the long-range Shahab series, Iran already has a well-developed ballistic missile development programme. With its immense oil and natural gas resources and nuclear capabilities, Iran is a significant power in the region and should be acknowledged as such. Nonetheless, neither Iran nor any other power should be allowed to choke the Gulf region through which millions of barrels of oil flow everyday, which the growing economies of India and China and rest of the world need.

(ND Batra is professor of communication at Norwich University)

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