|A peek into Iran's nuclear
By Sreeram Chaulia
The contention of a senior Russian diplomat, Vladimir
Voronkov, that Iran is presently incapable of developing
nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them has reopened
an international Pandora's box.
The comments by Voronkov, head of the Russian Foreign
Ministry's Department of European Cooperation, cast doubts
on, if not contradict, Israel's assessment that Iran is
rapidly gaining nuclear-weapons capability in the guise of
"peaceful" electricity generation.
Russia's word has a notable significance on the matter
because it enjoys unparalleled access to Iran's nuclear
facilities. Russian engineers working for a Russian company
are building Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor and are in daily
touch with Iranian ground realities. Voronkov buttressed his
claim by adding, "This information is confirmed by all the
services responsible for the collection and analysis of
If Moscow's combined intelligence agencies are in agreement
that Iran does not have nuclear-weapons capability, it calls
for serious rethinking about whether the "crisis" built up
over Tehran going nuclear was nothing but a bogey to roll
back its rise as the impresario of a Shi'ite resurgence in
the Middle East.
Long before the George W Bush administration began
trumpeting the Iranian nuclear threat theory to the level of
an international headache, Israel was gravely worried that a
nuclear-armed Tehran could neutralize Tel Aviv's regional
lead in unconventional weaponry. As an undeclared nuclear
weapons power since the 1960s, Israel has been watching its
volatile neighborhood like a jealous hawk for any signs of
other states acquiring the ultimate deterrent.
In 1981, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin
ordered Operation Opera, a surreptitious air strike to bomb
and damage Iraq's Osirak reactor before it could be loaded
with nuclear fuel and possibly used for weapons production.
At that time, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein pleaded the
exact line that Iran's political leadership is purveying
today - that Osirak was part and parcel of Baghdad's legal
and "entirely peaceful" civilian nuclear program.
In September 2007, Israel did a redux of Osirak by aerially
bombarding Syria's partially built nuclear reactor near the
Turkish border which was allegedly a joint venture with the
government of North Korea. Planning for this strike happened
in early 2007, when the head of Israeli intelligence, Meir
Dagan, presented Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with "evidence"
that Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear weapon from North
Korea to give Tel Aviv a "devastating surprise".
Compared to the Osirak incident, Israel's Syria attack is
shrouded in greater mist and speculation. One theory is that
the Syrian reactor was only partially constructed and that
it was years away from churning out anything threatening to
Israel. The New York Times cited an American official that
the action was a warning from Israel to Iran rather than a
pre-emptive strike to decapitate Syria's barely existent
plutonium infrastructure. The fact that Syria and Iran are
close allies holding out against Israeli and American
designs in the Middle East makes this interpretation
Israel started sounding alarm bells about Iran's nuclear
program in 1991, but these fell on deaf years in Washington
for a long time. From the mid-1990s, Israeli strategists
were issuing dire predictions that Iran is just "a few years
away" from acquiring a nuclear weapon. While the Bill
Clinton administration did not buy this threat perception,
Israel found empathy in the succeeding George W Bush White
House and Pentagon. With many of the neo-conservatives
hailing from Jewish backgrounds, or attached to the special
US-Israel relationship, it became relatively easy for the US
to push Iranian nuclear weapons to the top of the stockpile
of pressing global issues.
Before the US military campaign in Iraq got bogged down in
fierce anti-colonial resistance and sectarian violence, it
was common to hear neo-cons in the US and Israel reach
shrill pitch about the impending disaster of Iran going
nuclear. Sensing a window of opportunity to fulfill their
dream of forcible "regime change" in Tehran, the neo-cons
used Iranian nukes as the casus belli. The US
intelligence community was cowed by its political bosses to
concur that Iran posed a serious world threat.
But as the war in Iraq dragged on and drained American troop
morale and public enthusiasm, internal rifts cropped up
within the US over plunging into a second war before the
first was won. The 2005 National Intelligence Estimate, a
comprehensive report based on consensus among various
American spy agencies, projected that Iran is "about a
decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a
nuclear weapon". This revised figure was double the previous
conjecture of a five-year distance between Tehran and the
atom bomb. It poured cold water on war-mongering rhetoric by
downplaying the urgency of the "Iranian nuke crisis", which
had been highlighted by Israel as a ticking time bomb that
must be defused by all means.
Adding another twist to the empirical debate about whether
or not Iran has nuclear weapons is the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog
organization. In June 2008, IAEA director general Mohamed
ElBaradei cast a new stone into already rippled waters by
opining, "It would need at least six months to one year to
reach the point where we would wake up one morning to an
Iran with a nuclear weapon." In November this year, a
routine IAEA update based on inspections recorded that Iran
had already produced enough low-enriched uranium to build a
single atomic bomb.
Israel and the neo-cons, whose influence in US policymaking
has gradually declined, jumped at this neutral view and
again sharpened their knives. Talk that Bush would bow out
of power by waging war on Iran mounted in step with the
IAEA's revelations. The seesaw drama about Iran's possession
or lack of nuclear weapons was always integrally linked to
Israeli and US war-making intentions.
Unfortunately for ElBaradei, who is on record that he will
resign if Iran is physically attacked, his public candor
about Tehran's imprecise and opaque disclosures has played
into the hands of those itching for a military solution.
The latest Russian pronouncements are antidotes to the
Israeli scare tactics. But like all previous assessments,
Moscow's words can also be questioned for their veracity.
Among the permanent members of the UN Security Council,
Russia is strategically the closest to Iran and a staunch
opponent of using force on Tehran. With rumors abounding
that Israel could "do Osirak 3" on Iran at any moment, the
Russian release could be timed to protect a friend.
Russian and US representatives are also meeting in Moscow to
sort out a spat over Washington's proposed stationing of
anti-missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech
Republic. Voronkov specifically mentioned Iranian delivery
systems (read missiles) in his announcement, a likely
message for Washington which is portraying the Iranian
missile threat as the raison d'etre for militarizing eastern
However, it bears reminder that even Russia and China
acquiesced in three rounds of UN economic sanctions against
Iran for refusing to suspend its nuclear activities. As
Tehran plays hide-and-seek with the IAEA and European Union
interlocutors, the "Iranian nukes" cover story is set to
dominate international headlines. US president-elect Barack
Obama's remark that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" keeps
the door open for speculation about the technical status quo
of Tehran's weapons program.
The military decapitation option might not be taken off the
table by Israel, despite Obama's inauguration next month in
Washington. With the smog around Iranian nukes showing
little sign of clearing, a dangerous informational confusion
persists in which war could still break out.
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international
affairs at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of
Citizenship and Public Affairs in New York.
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