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 Middle East
  Dec 17, 2008


A peek into Iran's nuclear Pandora's box
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 information."

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 plausible.

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 Europe.

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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