Thursday, April 13, 2006

The nuclear row over Iran

The nuclear row over Iran
Apr 13th 2006

From Economist.com

The war of words between western countries and Iran, which is suspected of developing a nuclear weapons programme, continues to intensify. Iran says it has enriched a small amount of uranium and boasts of plans to enrich much more. The International Atomic Energy Agency and China are each sending an enovy to Iran; America will call for coercive measures at the end of the month

MAHMOUD Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, has advice for those who oppose Iran's nuclear programme: “Be angry and die of this anger.” The war of words between the Islamic Republic and a group of western countries worried that Iran is trying to make nuclear weapons has intensified sharply. The week began with a disputed report of American plans to use nuclear bunker-busters against Iran, and continued with Iran's announcement that it had enriched uranium. Now third parties, including China and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are hurrying to mediate.

When an investigative journalist wrote in the New Yorker magazine over the weekend that America was considering tactical nuclear strikes, crisp denials came from President George Bush, from the British government and from the European Union. Some thought the report might be part of a disinformation campaign.

But these were soon followed by Iran's own angry words. On Tuesday, Mr Ahmadinejad announced that a small amount of uranium had been enriched to the relatively low level required for production of electricity in a nuclear reactor. An Iranian official then added that Iran planned a vast expansion of production, jumping from the 164 centrifuges that had produced a tiny box of the enriched product to thousands of centrifuges working on an industrial scale.

Many experts doubt Iran's ability to do this. And uranium must be enriched to a much higher grade to make weapons, something that Iran is probably quite a few years from achieving. Nonetheless, the diplomacy has taken on a new sense of urgency. On March 29th, the United Nations' Security Council issued a non-binding statement to Iran giving it 30 days to stop enrichment and return to a regime of international safeguards on its programme. If Iran ignores this deadline, as it has said it will, America will push for more coercive measures at the Security Council, in which it is supported by France and Britain (permanent, veto-holding, members) as well as Germany.

But Russia and China resist the idea of sanctions. Taking its own initiative China says a weapons-proliferation envoy will go to Iran on Friday to try to defuse the situation. He follows in the footsteps of Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's head, whose agency will report to the Security Council before it takes any further decisions at the end of the month. Mr ElBaradei has proposed letting Iran have a small enrichment programme for research, but this annoys some in the West, who say that the head of a technical agency has no place to make that kind of offer. Mr Ahmadinejad says he won't discuss the matter anyway.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have condemned Iran's enrichment announcement, but also have called on “the parties” to keep rhetorically cool. China is not eager to confront Iran aggressively. Without a united front against it, Iran can continue to play for time, insisting both on its peaceful intentions and its inalienable right to enrichment.

The evidence so far suggests that Iran is brazenly pushing ahead with both its nuclear and other weapons programmes. It claims recently to have tested new weapons, including a multiple-warhead missile which may be able to evade radar, and a “highly destructive” torpedo. It also held military exercises in the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz, through which much Middle Eastern oil is shipped. That was probably meant to indicate Iran’s ability to threaten oil supplies. Emphasising the point, an Iranian representative warned America not to “play with fire”.

But America is hardly peace-mongering either. American tactical aircraft based in the Arabian Sea have been practising nuclear bombing manoeuvres, says Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker. There are rumours that the Pentagon will deploy conventional but enormous bunker-busting weapons.

The difficult military option

The talk of military strikes, whether meant seriously or not, may be intended to put pressure on Iran to give way in future negotiations. But, as Iran’s leaders know, America’s leaders would be wise to think twice—at least—before unleashing any attack. The costs could be great diplomatically, as few American allies would support a strike. Nor would it do much good to the world economy: any disruption to oil supplies would push up already high prices.

And Iran has considerable power to make mayhem in Iraq. There, ironically, America is trying to coax the Shiite coalition that won the January election to nominate Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister. He represents a party that is widely considered to be an Iranian proxy. Though America has no diplomatic relations with Iran, its ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, may yet talk to the Islamic Republic about Iraq’s internal affairs. But efforts to seek a deal in Iraq may complicate the war of words over Iran’s nuclear plans.

America will have to think through the political effects of any military strike within Iran. Some of Mr Bush’s planners reportedly think a strike might “humiliate” the regime of Mr Ahmadinejad causing the people to rise up. The reverse may be more likely. Like him or not, Mr Ahmadinejad was elected by Iranians; even the most moderate and pro-western would not look kindly on a foreign power attacking their country.

Others, meanwhile, are still hoping diplomatic pressure might work. On Monday, European foreign ministers considered applying visa bans and financial sanctions if Iran presses on with sensitive nuclear activity. Of greater importance is persuading Russia and China, both with strong interests in Iran, to agree to tough diplomatic measures. Russia had proposed to enrich uranium for use in Iran, thereby keeping Iran from mastering the full fuel cycle. But Iran's enrichment announcement makes this seem a dead letter. Mr ElBaradei and the Chinese envoy may look for a middle ground. But given Iran's comments and America's hawkish hints, they may find nothing.

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