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Iran Countdown to Showdown?

Iran has removed the seals from its Natanz uranium enrichment plant and begun operations as IAEA inspectors could do nothing more than watch the Iranians do it. The war of words over Iranian Nuclear Development has heated up and taken a decided turn towards conflict as a direct result, yet there still remains measurable ambiguity beneath the surface. The EU3 have nonetheless responded with more vigor than previously seen throughout the crisis, yet the United States remains hamstrung by unclear positions offered by other players internationally (primarily Russia and China) in its efforts to bring Iran successfully before the United Nations Security Council.

The EU-3 have finally come to the conclusion that there can be no more talks without “a guarantee from Iran that it will not conduct any activities related to (uranium) enrichment.” This obvious, and long overdue, stance effectively means the end of talks, as Iran has maintained its ‘right’ to enrich uranium throughout the entire process.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weighed in, clinging to the ‘peaceful’ nature of the Iranian program by stating, ”I am telling all the powers that the Iranian nation and government, with firmness and wisdom, will continue its path in seeking and utilizing peaceful nuclear energy.”

In a rare moment of international diplomatic clarity, Britain’s Tony Blair said bluntly, “I do not think there is any point in people, or us, hiding our deep dismay at what Iran has decided to do.”

This is where the clarity ends. Prime Minister Blair then muddied the unusually clear waters by following that statement by saying that it was “time to decide” whether or not it was time to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. That decision should have already been made and made as clearly as his initial comment. Unless it is being made with a need for a guaranteed result from all members.

China is reportedly supporting the West on the Iranian Nuclear Development issue as well. Wu Bangguo, chairman of China’s NPC said to US congressmen that China “agreed that they (Iran) should not have nuclear weapons, and agreed to working with the United States and especially the EU3.” However, closer examination of their customarily nuanced and incomplete statement leaves it largely empty. Note that his statement did not address uranium enrichment, leaving the Chinese room to wiggle with the Iranian regime. With uranium enrichment, the necessary precursor to fissile weapons-grade material, nuclear weapons production in Iran is a certainty. To not oppose Iranian enrichment expressly is to either be naïve, which the Chinese certainly are not, or be either indifferent or supportive to the Iranian aims. Counter to the view of Congressman Mark Kirk that ‘China offers to help rein in Iran’, China offers nuance at best and, potentially, duplicity in its statement.

Duplicity is a strong word. But consider this report from Iran’s state-run press arm, the Islamic Republic News Agency(IRNA):

China’s Deputy Foreign Minister for International Affairs Zhang Ye Sui said here Monday Iran had the right to pursue nuclear technology.

During a meeting with Iranian enovy [sic] Mehdi Safari, he said China believed the Iran nuclear issue should be resolved within the framework of the IAEA and was opposed to having it referred to the UN Security Council.

Russia is offering support slightly more substantive than China by offering Iran enrichment on Russian soil. But this alternative was fully expected to be rejected, which it was, and offered Russia the opportunity to be seen as supportive to the West while still protecting its current and future lucrative nuclear contracts within Iran. In a statement earlier today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “The general feeling, in the light of continuing issues relating to Iran’s nuclear program, was disappointment over Tehran’s decision to abandon the moratorium and restart research in the sphere of uranium-enrichment.” This falls short of condemnation and offers little to evidence of reliable support going forward.

The United States has offered the most direct response, as White House Spokesman Scott McClellan said that if Iran “fails to abide by its international obligations there is no other choice but to refer the matter to the Security Council.”

Iran is expected to abide by IAEA agreements and IAEA directives. The wording of this White House statement is an important detail, as Kenneth Timmerman reports on a ‘confidential’ urgent report given to the IAEA Board of Governors regarding the events surrounding the breaking of the IAEA seals at Natanz. Timmerman cites his sources, stating that, in this report, the IAEA officials refused to open the seals. The Iranian nuclear team then broke the seals themselves as the IAEA inspectors looked on powerlessly. This is a critical detail openly displaying IAEA directive and Iranian defiance. The report also said that, counter to Iranian public claims, uranium hexafluoride (UF6: processed uranium ready for enrichment) was being poured into the cascaded centrifuges. If Timmerman’s sources are correct, this should weigh heavily. Further, if this urgent report was indeed delivered to the Board of Governors and an immediate IAEA call for referral does not materialize, the international community should re-think the manner in which it relies upon the body.

The current news cycle is replete with stern sound-bites that make for magnetic headlines. However, looking beyond the highlighted text displays a world still largely reluctant to act or even take a clear and unambiguous stand. Meanwhile, time continues to slip by and Iran continues to draw nearer to becoming capable of producing their own nuclear weapons.

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Are the Iranians suicidal? They would have to be if they launched a nuclear attack on any other country . Even if they gave nuclear weapons to another entity that then used them, the US would find out in half an hour, probably nuke them back and that would be the end of Teheran, including millions of innocents who dislike the regime. I think the reason Iran wants nuclear technology is not only for energy but also as an insurance policy that the US won't do to them what it did to Iraq, and deal with them a little more gingerly as it does with North Korea.

Consider a quote from Ahmadinejad that appears in few English media sources, but can be found in Unhidden Agenda by Rachel Eherenfeld & Paul E. Vallely:

On November 16, Ahmadinejad stated: "Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi." In all his public statements in Iran and abroad, Ahmadinejad’s messages are on target: Iran under his leadership must rise as a global power to lead the world in the footsteps of the prophets. He clearly follows up with actions - moving on to develop nuclear weapons.

I used this quote in a November PrincipalAnalysis titled Understanding Ahmadinejad. It is important to note that, while there may be those in Iran who have your suggested theory in mind, one would be hard pressed to find one among the ruling mullahs in the Supreme Council. Furthermore, the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is decidedly not of that thinking. Who else holds sway in Iranian foreign policy and strategy?

Ahmadinejad's belief system and chosen sect of Islam believes that if the situation in the world is dire enough, the 12th Imam will reappear. Combine that with his determination that it is his accepted missin 'to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam', and you have a recipe for disaster.

Prudence requires one to reconsider with caution the assertion that he and the mullahs of the Supreme Council simply want the US to "deal with them a little more gingerly as it does with North Korea".

I wish it were true, but do not see how it can be supported.

Three points.

First, in regard to BJ's comment, I don't see the threat as a direct nuclear attack on the U.S., nor simply as a deterrent, but as a leverage tool in fulfilling the Islamic Republic's original regional aims: (1) the spread of the revolution to nearby Arab states with significant Shia populations, namely Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and (2) the spread of Islamic revolution in any form by supporting Sunni as well as Shia terrorist groups everywhere.

In this regard, possession of nuclear weapons would give Iran the upper hand in the Persian Gulf. Right now the U.S. is the regional hegemon, and so the Arab states deal with Iran with confidence, and the shipping lanes cannot be closed. But a truly "Iranian" Persian Gulf would change the balance of power dramatically. Arabs are looking at the fact that the American public is so bothered with 2,000 casualties in Iraq; they fear the U.S. will not stand with them against a nuclear armed regime in Iran.

Second,in regard to whether or not Iran genuinely has anything to fear from Europe, this is from an editorial in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal:

It's almost enough to think the Europeans and their friends finally mean to get serious with Iran. Almost, but not quite.

Thus, even as Iran announced plans to break the IAEA seals on the centrifuges of its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, Austrian Chancellor (and temporary president of the European Union) Wolfgang Schüssel warned that it would be premature to discuss sanctions. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, added that "every effort must be made to convince the Iranians to return to the previous situation, to negotiations." Mr. Solana's idea of getting tough with the Iranians is apparently to beg them to show up for lunch...

Third, in looking at the sincerity of China's statements on Iran, it is important to remember that they were an active help in Iran's nuclear program in the 1990s. In 1996 the Pentagon labelled China the "principal supplier of nuclear technology to Iran." (This is from page 36 of Ilan Berman's book, Tehran Rising.)

You may be making a dangerous assumption with regard to Ahmadinejad's geopolitical aims. He is actively consolidating power by replacing government posts en masse, top to bottom, with IRGC veterans & allies and actively seeks to bring about the return of the 12th Imam, all while holding the presidency of the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism.

Please don't confuse this with hyperventilating or firebreathing. The fact of the matter is that we do not know for certain and are left with thoughtful analysis of intent which, at the end of the day, is still reduced to educated (relative term) guesswork on the thinking of a few men in a relatively isolated country.

Considering this, your first point would be more safely made and better received if you were applying it to, dare I say it, a secular Bashar Assad & Syria. But to apply it to a religious radical among radicals (even considered this within Iran) who, unlike Assad, lusts less for regional earthly power than religious fulfillment as he believes it is, in my view, to make a potential error in judgement that we cannot afford to risk.

I don't think it makes any difference in terms of policy. Even if Iran wanted to nuke the United States, it has only recently obtained the ability to reach Europe. Of course missile range might be extended in the future, or a nuclear weapon might be given to a terrorist group to deliver (the more realistic option). But the mere fact that Iran has the ablility to nuke Israel or the U.S. naval fleet is sufficient to justify whatever response is necessary to deal with the threat. I suppose for some others it would matter, but I don't think much if anything policy-wise turns on that issue.

As far as Ahmadinejad is concerned, he is trying spread his allies throughout the regime, but this is a president who can't reliably get his cabinet ministers approved by a parliament almost hand-picked by the regime. The Supreme Leader is, I think, pretty clearly on the side of Rafsanjani. Of course this is a battle between crazy radicals and sane radicals, they are all radical Islamists, so it is a matter of degree. But again, as far as policy is concerned, if Rafsanjani had won instead of Ahmadinejad, I think our policy response would need to be the same.