After a visit to the US in February, 2006, I had written in an article titled "My Washington Diary",
"Everybody in the US without exception is convinced that Iran should not be allowed to acquire a military nuclear capability. There is a difference of opinion as to how imminent is a nuclear Iran. The professionals argue it is still years away and hence there is time to give diplomacy a chance to find a solution. The ideologues argue that it is only months away. Some say that Iran must be presumed to be already nuclear and acted against immediately. A nuclear Iran is seen as a threat not only to Israel, but also to the US. The ideologues, who feel that much time has already been wasted on diplomacy, demand the immediate announcement of a programme for bringing about a regime change in Teheran through political covert action and not through military invasion as was done in Iraq and an air strike against all nuclear establishments of Iran to be undertaken even before a regime change is achieved. They argue that a regime change will take some time to bring about and insist that an air strike on the nuclear establishments should be undertaken within the next six months. As the first step in the exercise to bring about a regime change, they want the administration to remove the terrorist tab on the Mujahideen-e-Khalq."
Since then, the "Washington Post" (April 9,2006) and the "New Yorker" (issue dated April 17,2006) have come out with similar stories regarding the options for an air strike against Iran's nuclear establishments, presently under examination by officials of the Bush Administration. Seymour Hersh, the correspondent of the "New Yorker", has even claimed that one of the options under consideration is a tactical nuclear strike against the Iranian uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, which has been reportedly constructed 75 feet below ground level.
There has already been strong criticism of the plans of the Bush Administration, if they are true, by Senator John Kerry, the defeated Democratic Presidential candidate of 2004, and Gen. (Retd.) Anthony Zinni, former chief of the US Central Command, whose jurisdiction covered, inter alia, Iran and Pakistan.
My following comments seek to answer some of the questions which might arise in one's mind in this connection.
Question # 1
Is the scare over the dangers of a nuclear Iran similar to the scare over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) orchestrated by the Bush Administration to justify its invasion of Iraq?
It is not. Even American critics of Mr. George Bush concede that there are valid grounds for his concerns over Iran's plans and intentions. The evidence against Iraq was seen by large sections of the international community as totally lacking in credibility and was not corroborated by the UN inspectors. The scare over Iraq's WMD was created by the US intelligence community and a small group of anti-Saddam Hussein Iraqi political exiles in order to provide a justification to the Bush Administration for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The publicly-expressed concerns over Iraq's WMD were seen by large sections of the international community for what they really were---a drama enacted by the Bush Administration to silence opposition to its invasion of Iraq.
The evidence against Iran has considerable credibility and is there for all to see. It was in 1988 that Iran embarked on its clandestine programme for the acquisition of a capability for the enrichment of uranium, which can be used for civilian as well as military purposes, with the collusion of Pakistan. This programme might have remained unknown to the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna had not a group of Iranian political exiles living in the West got scent of it and alerted the world. The Iranian political exiles enjoy much greater credibility than the Iraqi political exiles, who took the US and the rest of the world for a ride by circulating falsehoods.
The subsequent enquiries by the IAEA and the intelligence agencies of the Western countries have brought out the full extent of Iran's nuclear programme, the nodel points of which are the plant at Ispahan for the conversion of uranium into uranium hexafluoride and the underground plant at Natanz for the enrichment of uranium.
There is no divergence of views between the US and the IAEA on what Iran already has built up on the ground. The only divergence is for what purpose Iran has acquired this capability---- for civilian purposes for the production of power, as it contends, or for military purposes as the US, Israel and even many NATO countries and India suspect?
Iran's contention that it is acquiring the enrichment capability purely for civilian purposes and that it has no military intentions has few takers due to the following reasons:
The clandestine nature of the programme. At every stage, it has tried to keep the details of the programme secret until it was no longer able to do so. It has not shared information relating to its programme voluntarily. At every stage, it had to be forced to do so through international pressure.
Is has followed the Pakistani model of clandestine development by making its military (Revolutionary Guards) responsible for the implementation in order to ensure better secrecy.
Question # 2
Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and its additional protocol. It had agreed to all suggestions for safeguards, which had emanated from the IAEA, including to the provisions for short-notice inspections. Legally, it has a right to produce enriched uranium for civilian purposes, provided it accepts the IAEA safeguards and supervision to prevent production of military grade enriched uranium. How is the US justified in rejecting the various initiatives taken by Iran and insisting on the dismantlement of its enrichment capability?
De jure, Iran's position is unimpeachable. De facto, its position has not calmed the fears of the US and large sections of the international community. The secrecy which surrounded its programme till it was exposed, its construction of the plant 75 feet underground and reports that in addition to enrichment technology and centrifuges, Dr. A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist, had also given it technical details, including copies of Chinese drawings, which would have facilitated the assembling of a nuclear weapon once it had acquired a capability for the production of military-grade enriched uranium, have made the US and many other countries as well as many IAEA experts doubt Iran's bona fides. Iran's assurances to the IAEA are seen merely as tactical to get its go-ahead for starting enrichment at the planned scale. There is a fear that since its original intention was to acquire a military nuclear capability till it was caught out, it would surreptiously find ways of reaching its goal despite international inspections. One would recall that in the years preceding the Second World War, the Nazis in Germany under Adolf Hitler secretly managed to circumvent all post-World War I safeguards meant to ensure that Germany would not re-arm again and re-created the German Air Force. The repeated warnings from Sir Winston Churchill and others that he must be stopped before he confronted the world with a new and powerful Air Force were disregarded. The result: the Second World War, with hundreds of thousands of deaths. The US, therefore, feels that the only way of preventing a nuclear Iran is by having its enrichment capability dismantled----either voluntarily by Iran itself under international pressure or through force, if left with no other option. The entire international community, outside the Islamic world, seems to agree that a nuclear Iran would not be desirable.
Question # 3
What are the diplomatic options under consideration?
The international community accepts the need for an assured supply of non-military grade enriched uranium to meet the requirements of the Russian-aided power stations now nearing completion and others which might come up in future. It is opposed to Iran having its own capability for the production of enriched uranium, lest it be diverted for military purposes. Iran has taken up a stand on what it projects as a matter of principle, which, according to it, even finds acceptance in international treaties. That is its sovereign right to have a research and development capability for the enrichment of uranium and, subsequently, a production capability. It has already set up a major part of its facility at Natanz except the centrifuge cascades. The centrifuges required for regular production have already been procured with the assistance of a group of Pakistani scientists headed by Dr. A. Q. Khan. It has already set up an R&D capability with a small number of centrifuges, which is reported to be already functioning. Initially, it agreed to suspend the operation of the R & D and production facilities pending negotiations with the IAEA and the UK, Germany and France. Due to lack of progress to its satisfaction in the negotiations, it has reportedly made its R&D capability operational once again, but not yet gone ahead with completing its production capability and operationalising it. It has not come in the way of inspections by IAEA experts. Russia has proposed that the facility for the production of enriched uranium be set up jointly by Russia and Iran in Russian territory to allay the fears of the West regarding possible diversion for military purposes. Iran's response to the Russian proposal has been contradictory and confusing----neither acceptance nor rejection. Its minimum condition for a diplomatic solution seems to be that if it is allowed to have an R&D capability; it might give up its insistence on a production capability. The USA and Israel are opposed to Iran being allowed to have even an R&D capability.
Question # 4
How close is Iran to a military nuclear capability?
Objective professionals in the US and West Europe are of the view that it is at least about eight years away. It has to first operationalise the Natanz enrichment plant and produce sufficient quantities of military-grade enriched uranium before it can start producing atomic bombs. They, therefore, argue that the US can afford to be patient and stick to the diplomatic route unless and until Iran starts operationalising its production capability. The ideologues argue that delays will be suicidal. They say once it became evident that Iran's original intention was to acquire a military nuclear capability, the international community should have acted. Now that there has been no progress on the diplomatic route, they urge that the time has come for action. Mr. Bush and the ideologues have increasingly convinced themselves of the need for action.
Question # 5
What are the action options available?
Two – regime change and a military strike to destroy Iran's nuclear capability – the two actions to be taken either simultaneously or one after the other.
Question # 6
Is a military invasion and occupation of Iran under consideration?
Not to my knowledge. It is very unlikely because of the US' experience in Iraq. American public opinion may not allow a repeat of Iraq in Iran. Even steadfast foreign allies such as the UK, which supported the invasion of Iraq, are unlikely to support a similar invasion of Iran. Even US military officers are unlikely to support it after their painful experience in Iraq. It is doubtful whether Mr. Bush would disregard all this opposition and reservations and embark on an invasion and occupation of Iran. The Iranians are as patriotic as the Iraqis and would fight against an American invasion and occupation as fiercely as the patriotic Iraqis are doing.
Question # 7
Is there any other option for regime change under consideration?
Yes, through covert political action – by using the Sunni card, the reformists card and the Iranian political exiles. The Sunnis are in a majority in the oil-producing Khuzistan province and in Iranian Balochistan. They have traditionally been opposed to the Shia regime in Teheran. There have been periodic spells of unrest and violence in these areas, but the US ability to use the Sunni card has been severely damaged because of its continuing confrontation with the Sunnis of Iraq. The reformists inside Iran, who have been unhappy with the policies of the clerics-dominated administration, are unlikely to support any US covert action if the aim of the covert action is to have Iran's enrichment capability dismantled through a new regime. The clerics and the reformists have many differences between them, but are united in supporting the nuclear programme. In the short and medium term, the US will be able to use only the political exiles of different hues – the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, the remnants of the royalist supporters etc. They may be able to create periodic spells of instability in Iran, but it is doubtful whether they would be able to bring about a regime change. It is not for tomorrow or even the day after.
Question # 8
If the regime change is unlikely in the near and medium-term future, what then?
The policy hawks in the Bush administration are pressing for quick action in the form of an air strike against Iran's nuclear establishments. They argue that the longer the delay the more difficult will be the situation in the future. If Mr. Bush decides in favor of an air strike without ground invasion, four scenarios are possible. They are listed below:
Air strikes not only against all nuclear establishments, but also against some other strategic targets such as its missile-producing capabilities. This would be feasible only if the US has precise intelligence about the location of the missile-producing facilities.
Air strikes against all its nuclear establishments, including the Russian-aided power stations under construction, the uranium hexafluoride factory at Ispahan and the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. Any attack on the Russian-aided power stations would strengthen Iran's argument that the US is opposed to its acquiring any nuclear capability----civil or military. Moreover, it could cause Russian casualties.
Air strikes against Ispahan and Natanz. The Ispahan plant is already working. An air strike against it could cause unpredictable environmental and other collateral damage.
An air strike against Natanz only. It is reportedly not yet operational. The possibility of environmental and other collateral damage would be the least, if Natanz could be destroyed through conventional bunker-busters before it is made operational by Iran. If the US uses tactical nuclear bunker-busters, the damage could be incalculable, meet widespread international criticism and further add to the anti-US anger in the Islamic world.
The strongest possibility is that the US might make a conventional strike against Natanz, even if it won't destroy the facility. It would definitely cause considerable damage, delay the operationalisation of the plant by many years and convey a clear message to Teheran of the US determination to prevent its operationalisation.
Question # 9
Presuming Mr. Bush decides in favor of a conventional strike against Natanz, would he ask the US Air Force to do it or would he let the Israeli Air Force do it?
The prevalent opinion in professional circles is that it would be better for the US itself to do the air strike. They fear an Israeli strike may further unite the Islamic world against the US and Israel.
Question # 10
How would Iran retaliate?
Use the oil card and cause shortages and price rise in the international oil market. Unlikely, particularly since the Iranian economy is already going through difficulties. If it uses the oil card, it will be lifting a big boulder and dropping it on its own feet.
Use the terrorism card. Iran had never hesitated to use the terrorism card in the past and could do so again---through the Hizbollah and other surrogates. But, its ability to hurt American lives and interests would be limited to the Gulf area. It may not have the capability for a major terrorist strike in the US homeland or even in Europe.
Add to the difficulties of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. Very likely. Theoretically, it has considerable capability for keeping the US forces bleeding in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it remains to be seen whether it would be able to or would like to do it in practice.
Question # 11
Has Iran been supporting Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF)?
Not actively, but passively by closing its eyes to the infiltration of their terrorists into Iraq from Pakistan and Afghanistan through its territory. Immediately after 9/11, a large number of Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants sneaked into Pakistan and Iran and took up sanctuary there. While Pakistan did not act against them, Iran rounded them up, but has not handed them over to the US or other countries where they are wanted. Nor has it shared the information about them with the international community and allowed them to be interrogated by the countries where they are wanted. In his message of July 9, 2005, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2, cautions Zarqawi against over-doing the attacks on innocent Shias, keeping in view Iran's helpful attitude in respect of these detenus.
Zawahiri says: "And do the brothers forget that we have more than one hundred prisoners - many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries - in the custody of the Iranians? And even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take counter measures? And do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?"
Question # 12
What would be the impact of the US air strike on the Islamic world and the US-led war against international terrorism?
It would definitely excerbate the anti-US and anti-Israel anger in the Muslim community as a whole and particularly among the Shias. The international jihadi terrorist movement as carried out by Al Qaeda and the IIF till now has been largely a Sunni terrorist movement. We may see the emergence of a similar Shia terrorist movement acting in parallel with them, though not necessarily in tandem. There would be a further aggravation of the problem of suicide terrorism.
Question # 13
What would be the implications for India?
A nuclear Iran should be of serious concern to India too. It could upset our assessments relating to our minimum credible nuclear deterrence and the required delivery capabilities. In the days of the Shah of Iran, there was considerable strategic co-operation between Iran and Pakistan. If a regime well-disposed towards Pakistan emerges in Iran and revives the strategic ties with Pakistan, India's concerns would be further multiplied. At the same time, India cannot remain unaffected by the emergence and spread of international Shia terrorism, if that is one of the products of an American air strike. India lives right in the midst of the Islamic world. It has the second largest Muslim population in the world and the second largest Shia population. It has a present dependence on the Islamic world for its energy supplies. Flow of nuclear power, if the Indo-US agreement on civil nuclear co-operation materializes, is still years, if not decades, away. India's national interests demand that it should not be seen as conniving at US plans for a regime change in Iran or for the destruction of Iran's enrichment capability. It is a very ticklish task for Indian diplomacy.
Courtesy: SAAG.org with permission from the author.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com)