Is Iran the Next Target?
By Syed Arif Hussaini

Following the reelection of George W. Bush, it is but natural to ask whether Iran would be the next target for attack during his second term. His doctrine of “preemptive attack” expounded in justification of the invasion of Iraq has been reprised by him several times during the election campaign. As recently as October 30, 2004, he asserted: “We are on the offensive around the world, because the best way to prevent future attacks is to go after the enemy”.

In his State of the Union address of January 20, 2004, he had included Iran as a component of “the axis of evil”. He had done so because he said, “Iran aggressively pursues these (nuclear) weapons and exports terror”.

According to the Newsweek of September 26, 2004, military top brass were “updating plans for possible US military action in Syria and Iran”.

Researcher, author and commentator, Mark Gaffney, has warned that the United States and its ally Israel will either accede to the existence of an Iranian nuclear program or take steps to prevent it.

A word here about US-Iran relations. Exemplary friendship existed between the two bilaterally, as well as multilaterally under CENTO, till a group of revolutionaries led by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew in 1979 the US-backed Pahlavi monarchy. On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students invaded the US Embassy in Teheran and took some 55 staff members as hostage. The hostages were released after 444 days in January 1981 in a give and take deal. Relations have remained strained till now. During 1997-98 friendly gestures by President Khatami of Iran and President Clinton of the US held out hopeful signs of rapprochement.

Benefits of reconciliation are significant for both countries. Iran is a preferred pipeline route for Caspian Sea and Central Asian oil. Better relations will help augment economic growth of Iran. Considering the low standing of Iran economically and militarily, a reconciliation with the US would have been quite easy. But, Iran is viewed by Israel as a potential threat to its very existence. And, Iran is conscious of Israel’s antagonism, its nuclear arsenal, and the steps it has already taken in concert with the US, to de-fang, and turn into rubble, all those neighboring states that do not cater to its design of a greater Israel overarching the region.

Iran’s anxiety to go nuclear appears to emanate from this challenge and apprehension. And, in view of what Mr. Bush calls “unique relationship of the US with Israel” any threat to Israel is regarded as a threat to the US Iraq was no threat to the US but it certainly was one to Israel. Saddam was financing the families of suicide bombers of Palestine.

Iran might not be too far from accomplishing its nuclear ambitions. Would not Israel persuade the US to agree to a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear sites before it is too late?

The victory in the elections and the ensuing euphoria, the pressure of the neo-cons who passionately support Israel, and the enormous military might of the U.S., might incite President Bush to indulge in his doctrine of preemptive strike. But, certain factors create doubts about his adopting such a course. To begin with, he is badly entangled in the Iraqi quagmire. Instead of the cake walk, flower petals and read carpet, the U.S. finds itself entangled in an ugly insurgency that is not tapering off. And, the large military budget expended in Iraq is already creating fiscal pressures on the treasury. The economy of the country is not yet out of the doldrums. The dollar has gone down in value vis-à-vis the Euro and other currencies. If the tre nd continues owing to additional war expenditure in Iran, the Euro might bid to replace the dollar as the international reserve currency. One of the reasons for attack on Iraq, some economists point out, was Saddam’s preference of Euro over dollar for payment of Iraqi oil.

That brings us back to the possibility of a negotiated settlement of Iran’s nuclear crisis. The Group of Eight industrialized states are already seeking a negotiated resolution. Iran has been offered economic aid and assistance for its civilian nuclear energy program. But, Iran is equivocal.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, is likely to come up with some proposals at its November 25 meeting. The IAEA has not yet found palpable evidence of Iran working towards nuclear weapons. There is no smoking gun. It cannot therefore recommend to the Security Council imposition of sanctions.

As for direct talks between the US and Iran, the authorities of Iran do not rule them out but maintain that talks could take place “if America drops its position of threats”. At the same time Iran has assured European governments that Iran would enrich uranium only to the level required for the use in its nuclear reactors, as permitted under the NPT - a treaty already signed by Iran. It has all along maintained that, despite its vast petroleum reserves, it needs to enrich uranium to fuel its nuclear power plants. It cannot rely on offers of fuel from foreign countries either.

President George Bush has many a time called a nuclear-armed Iran “unacceptable” to his government. US officials are unwilling to deal direct with Iranian authorities. They are nevertheless not advocating any unilateral action. They would want the Security Council to deal with the matter. If that body found Iran in noncompliance with the NPT, the US may press for UN sanctions.

China, Russia and several European countries have interests in Iran’s oil industry and would likely oppose sanctions that interfered with their respective national objectives..

As for the US going it alone or in concert with Israel, the possibility appears quite thin. For, the US military is already stretched too much in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. A venture in Iran will hardly have any domestic support.

The US or Israel could carry out a disabling pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, the Iranians are said to have spread out their facilities in such a way that a one-time strike would not throw the entire project out of gear. It has to be a full-fledged invasion and occupation like that of Iraq.

For a variety of reasons, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. The main reason is its perception of the hostility of the US and Israel. The fear is not without foundation, as already mentioned above. The war in Iraq has diverted the attention of its antagonists, giving it more time to pursue its ambitions. As the former President Carter has said: “We can’t deal with the impulse to get the bomb, but we can stop them from getting further”. Let us hope that this is done through negotiations and not through a preemptive strike with all its short and long term adverse effects on the future of this great country.
November 4, 2004

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.