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Iran and its Nuclear Toy - Clattering of Words and Arms

Published on , , Sofia

In his bestseller “Shah of Shahs” (1982) Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski recalls how he has realised that the regime of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is doomed. The year is 1979, at a juncture in Tehran a policeman shouts at a demonstrator to move. The young man refuses until, finally, the ashamed policeman recedes. A couple of hours later the entire Tehran is talking about the incident and the victory of the Khomeini revolution seems certain.

Today, the regime of the Ayatollahs is not threatened by the fate of the Shah and the situation is far from what is described in Kapuscinski’s book. The Islamic Republic has survived the rebellious summer of 2009 when the supporters of former PM Mir-Hossein Mousavi protested against the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Persian rulers seemed to forget themselves.

But the clouds thicken. Iran entered 2012 with looming confrontation with the West and this time it seems to go beyond the usual verbal exercise.

In November 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) directly accused the Tehran regime in development of nuclear weapons. The US uncovered an Iranian plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The Iranians shot down an unmanned American reconnaissance plane. Students and Basij militia occupied the British embassy in Tehran to protest against UK’s decision for additional sanctions because of the Iranian nuclear programme.

New Year’s exchange of slaps

In the last hours of 2011 US President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that cuts off from the US financial system foreign firms that do business with Iran's central bank. On its turn, Iran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz – the only waterway for oil and gas export from the Persian Gulf through which about 20% of the world oil consumption flow.

In the first days of 2012 the EU countries agreed to ban the import of Iranian oil but gave no clear indications when the measure would effectively enter into force. A decision has to be taken at the foreign ministers meeting on 30 January but it seems that the embargo will not be applied in full. Diplomats, quoted by Reuters, say that some Member States insist the sanctions to be activated only after 3 months, while countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy, that are dependant on Iranian oil, demand a longer delay.

Most acute on the verbal level are the statements of France that demands harder sanctions. “There is no doubt that Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons”, said Alain Jupé, the French foreign minister, on the TV channel i-Télé. He pointed out that together with the oil embargo President Sarkozy has proposed freezing the accounts of the Iranian central bank.

After China, the EU is the second largest buyer of Iranian oil - it imports around 450 thousand barrels a day. The Iranians, however, do not seem particularly worried. “We can easily find a replacement for our European clients”, said Mohsen Kamsari, International Affairs Director of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). According to him, instead in Europe, the country could possibly place its oil in Asia or Africa.

In the heat of verbal exchange the spokesman of the Iranian foreign ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, made clear that his country wishes to return on the nuclear negotiations table. According to information published on the official website of the Iranian foreign ministry, a letter proposing scheduling of new talks has been sent to EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton. Brussels, however, said that no such letter had been received.

The negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme in the 5+1 format ( the permanent members of the UN Security Council US, Russia, China, France and UK plus Germany) were frozen in January 2011 in Istanbul. The international community continues the attempts to persuade the Ayatollahs to stop uranium enrichment, while Tehran continues to reject the allegations for military use of the enriched uranium saying that it is being used only for peaceful purposes. One of the Iranian explanations: the research plant in Tehran produces radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment.

Iran is a party to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty that allows for the civil use of nuclear energy together with uranium production and nuclear research. But already during the 90s the western intelligence services detected illegal Iranian deals with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of the Pakistani nuclear bomb. In 2002 Iranian opposition leaders in exile announced the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear programme. On 31 of July 2006 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1696 that demands Iran to stop immediately the enrichment of uranium.

Meanwhile, the country goes forward with its nuclear pursuits. In May 2011, following multiple delays the nuclear power plant in the south-western city of Bushehr has been set into exploitation, that was built with Russian help. Its construction began back in the mid-70s, initially with the German Siemens concern. Except in Tehran, there is an experimental reactor built in Isfahan, and in Arak is planned the construction of a heavy water production plant. The main capacity for enriched uranium production is in the city of Natanz, a second plant is working in Qom.

On 1 January 2012 the Iranian state television announced the successful production and testing of uranium fuel rods. The rods, which contain natural uranium, were made in Iran and have been inserted into the core of Tehran’s research nuclear reactor but they can be used in power plants, too, the television reported.

The hour of the military

In parallel to the nuclear boasting from Iran comes also clatter of arms. Since Christmas in the area of the Strait of Hormuz a large-scale exercise of the Iranian military navy is being conducted and the official announcement even states that a super modern medium-range cruise missile has been tested. According to the IRNA information agency the Qader missile has a range of 200 km, which even for a cruise missile is too little – the US Tomahawk, for instance, can hit targets within a 2,500 km range.

The chief commander of the Iranian army, General Ayatollah Salehi, went to the extremes by advising the US to leave the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis out of the Persian Gulf. The carrier guards the passage of tankers in the Gulf but is currently held in Oman. Ironically, it was precisely John C. Stennis that saved days ago an Iranian fishing ship abducted by pirates in the Arabian Sea.

There is an additional reason for the nervousness of Iranian military. On the eve of 2012 Washington announced a series of arms deliveries in the region. The United Arabian Emirates will receive two anti-missile devices, including 96 missiles and radars. Saudi Arabia will buy 84 fighters F-15SA for the total amount of $30 billion. The deals are obviously part of the reshuffle of the American military presence in the region and are undoubtedly aimed to intimidate Tehran.

On the other hand, the Ayatollahs are using the opportunity to bare their teeth. The inglorious withdrawal of the US from Iraq and the cuts of American military expenses and troops (by 150 thousand soldiers in 10 years) raises the self-confidence of Ahmadinejad and company. On top of this, in March there will be elections for Majlis – the Iranian parliament.

The think-tankers are currently wondering how effective will the sanctions be, taken into account that the possibilities there are almost exhausted. For years now the international community tests all kinds of measures against the Iranian nuclear programme - with an almost zero effect. Clearly, despite some extreme voices in US and Israel nobody seriously is wishing for a war. In a year of presidential elections in US and the drastic austerity on both sides of the Atlantic a military conflict with unforeseeable results is the last thing that could contribute to the improvement of global security.

Living with the bomb

According to the American Arms Control Association (ACA) the only realistic solution to the situation is diplomacy. “Misunderstandings and the lack of communication have often contributed to the outbreak of war in the modern era - from Vietnam to Iraq”, states the report of the independent group, adding that sanctions could buy time for using all other channels, including on a military level. According to ACA the diplomatic contacts between US and Iran need to be intensified in order to make the Ayatollahs reveal in full their nuclear activities.

Rouzbeh Parsi, an expert from the European Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) also thinks that more efforts could be made on the substance of negotiations with Iran. Both sides, according to him, are used to draw borders, refuse compromises and demand things that they themselves would never give and all this ruins mutual trust and worsens problems.

“If the issue of substantial negotiations is what no one really wants to deal with or risk political capital over, the really big elephant in the room is that at some point a break-out-ready Iran, i.e. capable of building a bomb without necessarily doing so, is going to be become a reality. It will entail some political readjustments but we will end up learning to live with this as we have with much else”, explains the analyst.

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