Saturday, November 20, 2004

Scary times on Iran

The Iranian situation is beginning to get seriously scary, with some commentators suggesting that it is only a matter of time – unless the situation can be resolved – before there is another war, precipitated by a US invasion.

The immediate causus belli remains Iran’s nuclear ambitions, on top of Tehran's support of violence in Israel and insurgents in Iraq. And, in what some think is an eerie repetition of the prelude to the Iraq war, hawks in the administration and Congress are trumpeting ominous disclosures about Iran's nuclear capacities to make the case that Iran is a threat that must be confronted, either by economic sanctions, military action, or "regime change."

However, intelligence reports, highlighted in our previous posting on this subject, now seem to be firming up, with the Washington Post reporting that the intelligence on Iranian bomb-making capabilities was provided by a "walk-in" source in the form of 1,000 pages of apparent Iranian drawings and technical documents including a nuclear warhead design and modifications to enable Iranian ballistic missiles to deliver an atomic strike.

It seems that the warhead design is based on implosion and adjusted for outfitting on existing Iranian missiles. If confirmed, this would mean Iran’s nuclear-cum-missile programs more advanced than previously known.

Despite this, the EU-orientated team of Britain, France and Germany are still urging diplomacy, placing their hopes in a deal they brokered last week in which Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program in return for discussions about future economic benefits.

US administration officials less than impressed, saying that there was "a steady tightening of outlook between hawks and doves" that Iran would use the negotiations as a pretext to continue its nuclear programme in secret.

Nevertheless, those same officials say that a military option like the one employed by Israel in 1981 against Iraq, when it bombed a reactor near Baghdad, is unrealistic because the Iranians have buried their most important nuclear facilities and can rebuild anything that is destroyed.

But one said that a military strike or sabotage was not out of the question - "you never take the military option off the table," he said - and that in any case it was "money in the bank" for Iran to be concerned about such an option, because it might be goaded into a more conciliatory approach to the United States.

Perversely, the US position, up to press, had not been to threaten war but to force the issue to the UN Security Council, where sanctions - including a ban on oil imports and technology transfers - could be considered. But the European initiative has brought such talk to a halt.

Now, the thinking is that, if the European deal falls apart – which is believed likely - administration hawks will surely enlist others in a campaign to confront Iran with threats.

Interestingly, that decision will be made by Mr. Bush with his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. She is said to be willing to try diplomacy but is not sure that it will work and is ready to look at other possibilities if it does not.

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