Sunday, October 16, 2005

Neocons Setting Up Showdown With Iran

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By breaking the seals at Isfahan, the Iranian president has deliberately set up a showdown with the West

By Con Coughlin
(Filed: 14 August 2005)

They smuggle arms to kill our troops, they encourage Shi'ite Muslim clerics in Iraq to set up their own independent state, and now they want to build an atom bomb.

More than 25 years after the ayatollahs first seized power in Teheran, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to pose a grave threat to Western security.

Just as the West's impotence was exposed when Iran's Revolutionary Guards seized control of the American Embassy in Teheran in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, so Western diplomats have been deeply embarrassed to discover that they are rapidly running out of options to prevent Iran from pushing ahead with its plans to build its own nuclear weapons arsenal.

Certainly that is the calculation being made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president, after he authorised his nuclear scientists last week to unseal a key uranium conversion plant at Isfahan that had been mothballed by United Nations weapons inspectors at the end of last year over fears that it was being used as part of a bomb-making programme.

Uranium conversion is a key process in producing weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb. By ordering work to resume at Isfahan, Mr Ahmadinejad has deliberately set the scene for a showdown with the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The Iranians, of course, have always insisted that their "national nuclear industry", as they refer to it, is for purely peaceful purposes. This is despite the fact that, with known oil reserves in excess of 90 billion barrels, the country has more than enough energy reserves to last it until well into the next century.

Suspicions have been steadily growing about Iran's true intentions since the summer of 2002 when the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revealed the existence of a top-secret underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Teheran is obliged to disclose all aspects of its nuclear programme to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

Even though the Natanz complex covers 250,000 acres and employs 1,000 personnel, the Iranians somehow managed not to inform the IAEA about it. Only when the NCRI provided evidence did the Iranians own up to its existence.

When UN nuclear experts were eventually allowed to inspect the site, they were amazed to find a massive underground complex, including two large halls designed to carry out uranium enrichment sunk 25ft deep with an 8ft thick concrete shell to protect them from air strikes. Once inside the complex, officials found 1,000 gas centrifuges, used for enriching uranium, and components for the manufacture of up to another 50,000 centrifuges.

None of this had been disclosed to the UN inspectors. But the most damning discoveries were the traces of enriched uranium found in soil samples taken from the site. Enriched uranium is a key component of a nuclear bomb, and when questioned on its provenance Iranian officials came up with the somewhat lame excuse that the particles has been "inadvertently" imported into the country in equipment purchased from abroad.

That country is most likely to have been Pakistan, which managed to develop and test its own nuclear weapons arsenal without the outside world knowing about it until it was too late.

British intelligence suspects that A Q Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, sold key nuclear technology to Iran to fund his own research programme.

In return, the Iranians sold technology from their Shahab 3 ballistic missile to Islamabad, which might explain Pakistan's successful launch of its own cruise missile - the Hatf VII Batr - at the end of last week.

Nor was the Natanz complex the Iranians' only embarrassing omission. Questions were also asked about the development of a secret heavy water plant at Arak. If the sole purpose of Iran's nuclear research were to develop an alternative fuel supply, it would have no use for a facility to make heavy water, another key component in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Iran's controversial Busheyr nuclear power complex, which is nearing completion on the Gulf coast, is designed to run a light water nuclear reactor.

Faced with what, by any test, was pretty damning proof of Iran's duplicity with regard to its nuclear programme, the so-called EU3 - Britain, France and Germany - have spent the past two years in a wearisome game of diplomatic cat-and-mouse, trying to cajole Teheran into giving up the more sinister elements in its nuclear programme.

In return they have indicated that they would allow the Iranians to continue developing an indigenous nuclear power industry.

Teheran's unilateral decision to resume nuclear operations at Isfahan has finally shown what most Western intelligence experts have feared all along: namely that the Iranians have no intention of giving up their attempts to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal.

And having laid down such a direct challenge to the authority of the West, the key question now is how the West is likely to respond.

Certainly, given the bellicose attitude Mr Ahmadinejad has adopted since he was officially sworn into office last weekend, it now seems highly unlikely that the normal rules of diplomacy will apply.

Apart from reviving work on sensitive aspects of the nuclear programme, other evidence has recently emerged of Iran's direct involvement in acts that are decidedly hostile to Western interests.

Last week, for example, the British embassy in Teheran lodged a formal complaint with Iran's foreign ministry after British troops in southern Iraq uncovered incontrovertible evidence that deadly bomb-making equipment was being smuggled from Iran to Iraq.

Military intelligence officials believe that equipment similar to this has been used in recent attacks on British military convoys. In the most recent roadside bomb attack last month three British soldiers were killed and two others wounded. Coalition officials also suspect that Iran is helping to encourage Shi'ite Muslim clerics in southern Iraq to press for an autonomous state during current negotiations on a new constitution for Iraq.

It has not escaped the attention of British and American officials that many of the Shia leaders pressing for what would amount to an independent Shi'ite Muslim state in the south of Iraq have close ties to Teheran. Indeed, one of the main reasons that allied troops did not invade Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War was the fear that Saddam's overthrow might result in Iraq's Shia Muslims linking up with Iran.

Given the scale of Iran's persistent defiance of the international community, it is clear that tough action now needs to be taken if the threat posed to Western interests in the Gulf and elsewhere by Iran is to be curtailed.

Iran, as President Bush pointed out in his "axis of evil" speech in January 2002, is a rogue state, and when dealing with rogue states the normal rules do not apply. For nearly 12 years after the Gulf War Saddam Hussein took advantage of the West's lack of collective will to defy attempts by the UN to force him to disarm.

Until now the Iranians have pursued a similar tactic, trying to play off the more dovish diplomatic approach undertaken by the EU3 against the more hawkish stance of the Bush administration.

But the recent hardening of their attitude to the current diplomacy has put paid to that, as the unanimous resolution passed by the IAEA at the end of last week demonstrated. When even non-aligned countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, which were originally sympathetic to Iran's cause, back a strongly worded resolution expressing the IAEA's "serious concern" over recent developments, it is clear that President Ahmadinejad has seriously underestimated the strength of international resolve to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.

Diplomatic unity alone, however, is unlikely to persuade Iran to change its policy. And the problem for the West now is that its options are decidedly limited.

"It's not as if we can go and invade Iran," commented a senior Western intelligence officer. "Quite apart from the fact that the coalition will need to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, military action against Iran is simply not an option. The Iranians are far too well-defended for that."

Most intelligence experts are also sceptical about carrying out surgical air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities similar to the Israeli air raids that destroyed Saddam's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.

Saddam's crucial mistake was to have all nuclear bomb facilities in one place, making it a sitting target for the Israelis. Consequently the Iranians have dispersed their facilities - that is, the ones we know about - around the country, and placed them in specially constructed underground bunkers designed to withstand nuclear missile strikes.

That is not to say that the Israelis might not be tempted to undertake unilateral action of their own.

A senior member of the current Israeli government recently confided to me that Jerusalem had a "zero tolerance" policy so far as Iran's nuclear ambitions were concerned.

"If we genuinely believe that Iran is on the point of developing a nuclear bomb, then we will act," said the official.

"For us it is simply a question of our own survival. Any other country faced with a threat like this would do the same."


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