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Irans Nuclear Time Bomb

Iran's uranium enrichment complex, Natanz. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Amir Oveissi, UPI Outside View Commentator
Washington (UPI) May 01, 2006
In the 1980s it was Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime vying to fill a power vacuum left by the demise of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. Today the roles have reversed, as we witness the Islamic Republic of Iran trying to exert its influence in post-Saddam Iraq and beyond. Tehran's efforts to subvert progress next door betray an over-arching scheme to dominate the Middle East.

And a nuclear weapon is the linchpin.

Despite what it claims, Iran is clearly seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Amid sheepish cries of protest from the United Nations, radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently touted the country's membership to the international "nuclear club" and declared its ambitions to be "irreversible."

Iran's successful April 11 enrichment of uranium using 164 centrifuges is a mere prelude to "industrial scale" enrichment by the end of 2006, according to deputy nuclear chief Mohammad Saaedi.

Nuclear technologies that could lead to weapons in the hands of Ahmadinejad and his ilk would undoubtedly render the entire Middle East hostage. Repeated calls by the firebrand leader that Israel be "wiped off the map" cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Ahmadinejad and a vanguard of influential mullahs are religious literalists convinced Shiite Islam's 12th Imam will soon return to herald a new era of Shiite Islamic supremacy.

They also believe this must be preceded by an apocalyptic conflagration that will reduce enemies to ashes. Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, there is a case to be made that Iran is not bound by the invisible cuffs of mutually assured destruction. Connect the dots and a nuclear Iran becomes more than just a geopolitical pest.

The delay of the world's attention to Iran is a testament to the clerics' prescience. Ahmadinejad's fire-and-brimstone remarks echo those of previous Iranian leaders since the revolution of 1979. Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the patriarch of the Shiite revolution, labeled Israel a "cancerous tumor;" former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani carried the banner, saying that if the "Islamic world is also equipped with (nuclear) weapons ... the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill;" and even self-styled reformer, ex-President Mohammad Khatami, deemed Israel "a parasite in the heart of the Islamic world."

While the tone of rhetoric has fluctuated -- hot under Khomeini, lukewarm after the setbacks of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and a tactful cool during the Khatami years -- work has moved forward underground to put bite behind the bark. The International Atomic Energy Agency discovered in 2003 that Iran had carried out secret nuclear activities for 18 years in breach of its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty.

And just this week, Iran threatened to halt all cooperation with the U.N.'s atomic energy agency if the Security Council imposes sanctions, warning that it might hide its nuclear program if any other "harsh measures" are taken by the West.

Meanwhile, intelligence sources in Washington believe hundreds of Iranian intelligence agents have infiltrated Iraq to undermine U.S.-led efforts at democracy building. There are reports that Iran has smuggled sophisticated weaponry to give Shiite militants a boost in case of a full-blown conflict.

Military officials further allege that Hassan Kazemi Ghomi, the charge d'affaires of the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, is working in secret with local forces and militias. According to the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Intelligence Service, Ghomi is a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force -- a special forces outfit much like the Green Berets -- with specialized skills and experience in the support of militia activity.

As for soft power, mullahs in Tehran have cultivated ties with powerful Iraqi Shiite leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ex-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi (out of favor in Washington after charges that he passed U.S. intelligence to Iran).

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's most powerful political party, was formed by Khomeini's intelligence services. Even more troubling is firebrand leader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose 10,000-strong Mahdi Army has already fought U.S. troops. Sadr has vowed to defend Iran if necessary, and intelligence estimates indicate he commands the support of 1-1.5 million Iraqis.

Clearly Iran poses a formidable challenge to U.S. policy in the region: A state sponsor of terrorism, increasingly aggressive, on its way to developing nuclear weapons and tilting the balance of power in the Middle East favorably in its direction. With the brunt of its forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan as oil prices hover around $75 a barrel, how should United States respond to such a threat?

To the delight of the mullahs, fevered head-scratching is the order of the day among White House and Pentagon officials. But while there is no easy solution to the "Persian puzzle," inaction as Iran's nuclear program advances is tantamount to giving up the game. A comprehensive inside-out approach would at worst stall Tehran's nuclear drive, and at best, spark internal convulsions to scuttle the regime.

First, Security Council sanctions need to be imposed on Iran post-haste. With Russia and China running interference, the United States and allies must look for alternative means of delivering economic penalties. Wednesday's House vote to penalize foreign groups investing more than $20 million in Iran's energy sector is a first step. A possible arrangement with the EU3 (Britain, France, Germany) to impose a separate set of sanctions, free of Security Council restraints, could have leverage comparable to a Council decree and need not be ruled out.

Second, Congress needs to shotgun the approval of the $75 million dollar request by the Bush administration to increase support for opposition groups working in and outside of Iran. The House has already signed off on the initiative, though reports funding has been slashed to $56 million are troubling. Consider that a majority of this money would be used to finance television and radio broadcasts, which beam programs that reinforce the repressed but far from toothless student democratic movement in Iran.

And third, the administration needs to continually show -- in word and deed -- its support for Iranians and their plight for democracy in Iran. This will give a moral boost to opposition groups simmering within Iran. Modern Iranian history has shown that moral support from a U.S. administration can go a long way in fostering revolutionary movements.

The distancing of Jimmy Carter's administration from the Shah, and his vocal support of dissident groups that toppled the Pahlavi throne, expedited Iran's undoing, whose aftershocks are still felt today throughout the Middle East. The lesson learnt from Carter's administration is that bold, symbolic gestures of solidarity drastically help dissident groups.

The last option on the table is military strikes. There's only one worse scenario, rightfully stated by Sen. John McCain, and that's a nuclear-armed Iran.

Amir Oveissi is a Mideast analyst at the Institute for International Law and Politics at Georgetown University. He is currently working as a contributing author on a book titled "Lifecycles of Terrorist Movements," to be published by the IILP. He can be reached at United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International

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Escalation of the U.S. conflict with Iran directly affects the interests of its neighbors. A military solution may generate serious problems for Iraq, where it took the political forces several months to agree on the distribution of government positions.

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