Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Iran - is it a threat? Some thoughts

Iran had, allegedly, been proposing to force Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians to wear yellow, blue and red badges. This has been a rumour, all the more dangerous because it would be believable of such a country under the current leadership, and could make surrounding countries panic. Hopefully it will remain just a rumour.  Anyone European who has grown up in the shadow of World War II will shudder at the memories evoked by this of Jews in Nazi Germany being forced to wear the yellow star badge so that they could be singled out for special treatment: social ostracization, loss of privilege, medical experimentation, imprisonment or death.

However,  President Ahmedinejad has publicly stated more than once that he does not recognise the right of Israel to exist, claims that the holocaust was a myth  and is systematically building up a stock of nuclear material and means of delivery via missiles. At the same time Israel is already fully armed and has some kind of nuclear capability which it keeps well hidden from the world while refusing to sign international non-proliferation treaties.

Israel is not the only enemy of Iran, which is predominantly Shi’a. There is age-old enmity between the Shi’a and Sunni Moslems. Iraq has a large Shi'a population ruled by a Sunni minority, while in Syria the situation is reversed. Other Moslem countries are predominantly Sunni (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and ruled by Sunni.  Shi’a and Sunni will only unite when they have a joint interest in fighting a common enemy (e.g. Israel or occupying powers in Iraq).

After reading the detailed and balanced report on Iran’s nuclear capability, including missile delivery, in Prospect (April 2012) by Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, I for one have no doubt that Iran is within a few years, if not less, of being able to deliver a nuclear attack on surrounding countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia or Israel). Below are some facts from the report. All the locations are in Iran, which disengaged from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2002-2003.

  • uranium (U) mines in Gchine and Saghan, and a U-milling factory in Ardakan
  • military research complex in Parchin where nuclear weapons development is suspected
  • fuel enrichment plants in Fordow and Natanz
  • pilot laser U-enrichment plant in Lashkar Ab'ad
  • estimated time to produce one weapon's worth of nuclear bomb material (highly enriched U) is less than a year
  • continual upgading of U-enrichment centrifuges originally aquired from Pakistan; this would allow faster production of weapons grade U
  • the IAEA reported in November 2011 that 'there is credible evidence that Iran has pursued all the technologies necessary for weaponisation.'
  • its ballistic missile Ghadr-1 is able to deliver warheads to Israel and Saudi Arabia
  • the Sajjil-2, under development, could reach Egypt and Greece

The race to stop Iran arming has become desperate, with western led computer virus attacks (Stuxnet etc.) on its nuclear technology and assassinations of its nuclear specialists, probably by Mossad.

On the other hand the US intelligence community judges that overall Iran is a ‘rational actor’ which responds to reason, i.e. as a nation it is not likely to act like a suicide bomber. Supporting this, Iran has proved adept at playing cat-and-mouse with the international community as it seeks to impose sanctions. Given the economic problems it faces one can only assume that Iran feels it has something to gain by acquiring nuclear weapons other than wiping Israel off the face of the earth.

So what is President Ahmadinejad planning, bearing in mind that he is surrounded by conflicting interests -as is the case for leaders in all nations?

Here is a possible scenario, which makes the assumption that the US and other western nations would not wish to commit to a ground war and that Iran is aware of this, partly because public opinion in western democracies is a restraint and partly because the USA is rapidly building up alternative oil supplies independently of the Middle East. It also assumes that the USA would not launch a nuclear attack, again for fear of public opinion, but also because of the danger of yet more jihad groups and of wider effects (radioactive fallout, mass refugee movements, world markets). In the light of these assumptions he might adopt a strategy of threat. Just to illustrate the kind of leverage he might obtain here is one of many possible scenarios:

1. Build up a convincing nuclear threat, announcing it suddenly.

2. Use the threat of mutually assured destruction against Israel.

3. Come to an agreement with Israel.

4. Threaten to bomb nations with predominantly Sunni populations (e.g. Saudi Arabia) in order to make gains from them.

5. Having eliminated the USA and Israel as threats embark on a regional or global jihad.

This should at least be considered as a scenario by the rest of the world. If it did happen it could have major repurcussions, including sectarian conflict throughout the region and North Africa, especially between Shi’ites and Sunnis, although this is a possibility in any case as the conflict between these sects escalates in Syria. Hopefully, public opinion in Iran, more in touch with the 21st century world via the web, will force a moderation of policy before it’s too late.

Whatever happens, let us hope that  the world, or even part of it,  is not destined to another tragic episode of human conflict and misery.  Kyrie Eleison.