January 29, 2006
In the past
weeks media reports have speculated that Washington is 'thinking the
unthinkable,’ namely, an aggressive, pre-emptive nuclear bombardment of
Iran, by either the United States or Israel, to destroy or render
useless the deep underground Iranian nuclear facilities.
The possibility of war against Iran presents a
geo-strategic and geopolitical problem of far more complexity than the
bombing and occupation of Iraq. And Iraq has proven complicated enough
for the United States. Below we try to identify some of the main
motives of the main actors in the new drama and the outlook for
The dramatis personae include the Bush
Administration, most especially the Cheney-led neo-conservative hawks
in control now of not only the Pentagon, but also the CIA, the UN
Ambassadorship and a growing part of the State Department planning
bureaucracy under Condi Rice. It includes Iran, under the new and
outspoken President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It includes Putin’s Russia, a
nuclear-armed veto member of the UN Security Council. It includes a
nuclear-armed Israel, whose acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert,
recently declared that Israel could 'under no circumstances’ allow
Iranian development of nuclear weapons 'that can threaten our
existence.’ It includes the EU, especially Security Council Permanent
Member, France and the weakening President Chirac. It includes China,
whose dependence on Iranian oil and potentially natural gas is large.
Each of these actors has differing agendas and
different goals, making the issue of Iran one of the most complex in
recent international politics. What’s going on here? Is a nuclear war,
with all that implies for the global financial and political stability,
imminent? What are the possible and even probable outcomes?
The basic facts
First the basic facts as can be verified. The latest
act by Iran’s President, Ahmadinejad, announcing the resumption of
suspended work on completing a nuclear fuel enrichment facility along
with two other facilities at Natanz, sounded louder alarm bells outside
Iran than his inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric earlier, understandably
so. Mohamed El Baradei, Nobel Peace prize winning head of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body, has said he is not
sure if that act implies a nuclear weapons program, or whether Iran is
merely determined not to be dependent on outside powers for its own
civilian nuclear fuel cycle. But, he added, the evidence for it is
stronger than that against Saddam Hussein, a rather strong statement by
the usually cautious El Baradei.
The result of the resumption of research at Natanz
appears to have jelled for the first time, a coalition between USA and
the EU, including Germany and France, with China and even Russia, now
joining in urging Iran to desist. Last August President George Bush
announced, in regard to Iran’s announced plans to resume enrichment
regardless of international opinion, that 'all options are on the
table.’ That implied in context a nuclear strike on Iranian nuclear
sites. That statement led to a sharp acceleration of EU diplomatic
efforts, led by Britain, Germany and France, the so-called EU-3, to
avoid a war. The three told Washington they were opposed to a military
solution. Since then we are told by Der Spiegel and others the EU view has changed to appear to come closer to the position of the Bush Administration.
It’s useful briefly to review the technology of
nuclear fuel enrichment. To prepare uranium for use in a nuclear
reactor, it undergoes the steps of mining and milling, conversion,
enrichment and fuel fabrication. These four steps make up the 'front
end' of the nuclear fuel cycle.
After uranium has been used in a reactor to produce
electricity it is known as 'spent fuel,' and may undergo further steps
including temporary storage, reprocessing, and recycling before
eventual disposal as waste. Collectively these steps are known as the
'back end' of the fuel cycle.
The Natanz facility is part of the 'front end’ or
fuel preparation cycle. Ore is first milled into Uranium Oxide (U³O8),
or 'yellowcake,’ then converted into Uranium Hexaflouride (UF6) gas.
The Uranium Hexaflouride then is sent to an enrichment facility, in
this case Natanz, to produce a mix containing 3-4% of fissile U235, a
non-weapons-grade nuclear fuel. So far, so good more or less in terms
of weapons danger.
Iran is especially positioned through geological
fortune to possess large quantities of uranium from mines in Yazd
Province, permitting Iran to be self-sufficient in fuel and not having
to rely on Russian fuel or any other foreign imports for that matter.
It also has a facility at Arak which produces heavy water, which is
used to moderate a research reactor whose construction began in 2004.
That reactor will use uranium dioxide and could enable Iran to produce
weapons grade plutonium which some nuclear scientists estimate could
produce an amount to build one to two nuclear devices per year. Iran
officially claims the plant is for peaceful medical research. The
peaceful argument here begins to look thinner.
Nuclear enrichment is no small item. You don’t build
such a facility in the backyard or the garage. France’s large Tricastin
enrichment facility provides fuel for the nuclear electricity grid of
EdF, as well as for the French nuclear weapons program. It needs four
large nuclear reactors, just to provide over 3000 MWe power for it.
Early US enrichment plants used gaseous diffusion. Enrichment plants in
EU and Russia use a more modern centrifuge process that uses far less
energy per unit of enrichment. The latter or centrifuge process is also
the Iranian type.
To make weapons grade Uranium requires more than conventional civilian electric power grade uranium fuel.
'Unmaking’ weapons grade uranium today is also a
geopolitically interesting process, not irrelevant to the current
dispute over Iran. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, under
agreements designed to insure that the Soviet nuclear arsenal would be
converted to peaceful uses, military weapons uranium came on to the
civilian market under a US-Russian agreement.
Today more than half of all the uranium used for
electricity in the USA nuclear power plants comes from Russian military
stockpiles. Currently 20% of all electricity produced in the US is
nuclear generated meaning that Russian uranium fuels some 10% of all US
In 1994 a $12 billion contract was signed between
the US Enrichment Corporation (now USEC Inc) and Russia's
Techsnabexport (Tenex) as agents for the US and Russian governments.
USEC agreed to buy a minimum of 500 tonnes of weapons-grade uranium
over 20 years, at a rate of up to 30 tonnes/year beginning 1999. The
uranium is blended down to 4.4% U-235 in Russia. The USEC then sells it
to its US power utility customers as fuel. In September 2005 this
program reached its halfway point of 250 tonnes or elimination of
10,000 nuclear warheads.
Worldwide, one sixth of the global market of
commercial enriched uranium is supplied by Russia from Russian and
other weapons-grade uranium stocks. Putin has many cards to play in the
showdown over Iran’s nuclear program.
The issue of whether Iran was secretly building a
nuclear weapon capability first surfaced from allegations by an Iranian
exile opposition group in 2002.
Natanz has been under IAEA agency purview since
suspicions about Iran’s activities surfaced. It was prompted by reports
from an Iranian opposition organization, National Council of Resistance
of Iran (NCRI), and led IAEA head Mohamed El Baradei to tour Iran’s
nuclear facilities in February 2002, including the incomplete plant in
that city of Natanz about 300 miles south of Tehran. The NCRI is the
political arm of the controversial People's Mujahedeen of Iran, which
both EU and US governments officially brand terrorist but unofficially
work with increasingly against the Teheran theocracy.
Possible Iranian strategy
It’s undeniably clear that Iran’s newly-elected
President Ahmadinejad has a more confrontational policy than his
predecessor. The Iranian Ambassador to Vienna, speaking at a conference
in Austria where this author was present in September 2005, shocked his
audience by stating essentially the same line of confrontational
rhetoric: 'If it comes to war, Iran is ready…’.
Let’s assume that the Western media is correctly
reporting the strident militant speeches of the President. We must also
assume that in that theocratic state, the ruling mullahs, as the most
powerful political institution in Iran, are behind the election of the
more fundamentalist Ahmadinejad. It has been speculated that the aim of
the militancy and defiance of the US and Israel is to revitalize the
role of Iran as the 'vanguard’ of an anti-Western theocratic Shi’ite
revolution at a time when the mullahs’ support internally, and in the
Islamic world, is fading.
Let’s also assume Ahmadinejad’s actions are quite
premeditated, with the intent to needle and provoke the west for some
reason. If pushed against the wall by growing western pressures,
Ahmadinejad’s regime has apparently calculated that Iran has little to
lose if it hit back.
He is also no rogue agent in opposition to the Iranian clergy. According to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn
of January 24, 2006, Ayatollah Jannati, Secretary of the Guardian
Council of the Constitution, stressed Iran's determination to assert
its 'inalienable' rights: 'We appreciate President Ahmadinejad because
he is following a more aggressive foreign policy on human rights and
nuclear issues than the former governments of Khatami and Rafsanjani,’
the Ayatollah reportedly said. 'President Ahmadinejad is asking, ''why
only you (western powers) should send inspectors for human rights or
nuclear issues to Iran - we also want to inspect you and report on your
activities,’ Jannati said. The paper’s Teheran correspondent added,
'the mood within the country's top leadership remains upbeat and the
general belief was that it would be possible to ride out international
sanctions - if it comes to that.’
In this situation, some exile Iranians feel it would
bolster Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs to be handed a new UN sanction
punishment. It could be used to whip up nationalism at home and tighten
their grip on power at a time of waning revolutionary spirit in the
Ahmadinejad has been taking very provocative, and
presumably calculated measures including breaking nuclear-facility
seals, to announcing a major conference that would question evidence
that the Nazis conducted a mass murder of European Jews during World
War II. Yet he also has stressed several times publicly that in accord
with strict Islam law, Iran would never deploy a nuclear device, a
weapon of mass destruction, and that it is only asserting its right as
a sovereign nation to an independent full-cycle civilian nuclear
The history of Iran’s nuclear efforts should be
noted. It began in 1957 when Reza Shah Pahlevi signed a civilian Atoms
for Peace agreement with Eisenhower’s administration. Iran received a
US research reactor in 1967. Then in 1974 after the first oil shock,
the Shah created the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, explicitly
tasked to develop civilian nuclear power to displace oil freeing more
oil for export, and for developing a nuclear weapon. The Bushehr
reactor complex of civilian power reactors was begun by West Germany in
the 1970’s under the Shah, the same time Iran began buying major shares
of key German companies such as Daimler and Krupp. After his 1979
ascent to power, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered all work on the nuclear
program halted, citing Islamic beliefs that weapons of mass destruction
In 1995, the Russian Foreign Ministry signed a
contract with the Iranian government to complete the stalled Bushehr
plant, and to supply it with Russian nuclear fuel, provided Iran agreed
to allow IAEA monitoring and safeguards. According to an article in the
March 2004 MERIA Journal, that 1995 Russia-Iran deal included
potentially dangerous transfers of Russian technology such as laser
enrichment from Yefremov Scientific Research Institute (NIIEFA). Iran's
initial deal with Russia in 1995 included a centrifuge plant that would
have provided Iran with fissile material. The plant deal was then
canceled at Washington’s insistence.
The monitoring of Bushehr continued until the
reports from NCRI of secret nuclear weapons facilities in 2002 led to
increased pressure on Iran, above all from President Bush, who labeled
Iran one of a three nation 'axis of evil’ in his January 2002 State of
the Union speech. That was when the Bush Administration was deeply in
preparation of regime change in Iraq however and Iran took a back seat,
not least as Washington neo-conservatives such as Ahmad Chalabi had
convinced the Pentagon his ties to Teheran could aid their Iraq agenda.
Since that time, relations between Washington and
Teheran have become less than cordial. Iran has been preparing for what
it sees as an inevitable war with the United States. Brig. Gen.
Mohammad-Ali Jaafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards' army, told
the official IRNA news agency on October 9 2005, 'As the likely enemy
is far more advanced technologically than we are, we have been using
what is called 'asymmetric warfare' methods. We have gone through the
necessary exercises and our forces are now well prepared for this.’
This presumably includes terrorist attacks and the use of weapons of
mass destruction and their means of delivery, ballistic missiles.
On January 20 2006 Iran announced it had decided to
withdraw investments from Europe. This was the same week UBS Bank in
Zurich announced it was closing all Iranian accounts. According to US
Treasury reports, Iran has an estimated $103 billion in
dollar-denominated assets alone. There is potential to cause short-term
financial distress, though likely little more should Iran sell all
dollar assets abruptly.
What seems clear is that Iran is defiantly going
ahead with completion of an independent nuclear capability and insists
it is abiding by all rules of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA.
Iran also apparently feels well prepared to sit out
any economic sanctions. The country is the second largest OPEC oil
producer (4.1 million barrels/day in 2005) next to Saudi Arabia (9.1
million bpd). It is fourth largest in the world just under the total
oil production of the USA (4.9 million bpd). Russia with 9.5million bpd
production in 2005 takes claim to being the world’s largest
Iran has also accumulated a strong cash position
from the recent high oil price, earning some $45 billion in oil revenue
in 2005, double the average for 2001-2003. This gives it a war chest
cushion against external sanctions and the possibility to live for
months with cutting its oil export all or partly. That is clearly one
of the implicit weapons Iran knows it holds and would clearly use in
event the situation escalated into UN Security Council economic
sanctions. In today’s ultra-tight oil supply market, with OPEC
producing at full capacity, there would be no margin to replace 4
million Iranian barrels a day. A price shock level of $130 to $150 is
quite likely in that event.
Iran now has decisive influence within the Shi’ite
dominated new Iraqi government. The most influential figure in Iraq
today is the Shi’ite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Mohammad
al-Sistani, the 75 year old cleric born in Iran. On January 16 2006,
after the new Iraqi government offered al-Sistani Iraqi citizenship, he
replied, 'I was born Iranian and I will die Iranian.’ That also gives
Teheran significant leverage over the political developments in Iraq.
The Israeli options
Israel has been thrown into a political crisis at
just this time of Iran’s strident moves, with the removal of the old
warrior, Ariel Sharon, from the scene. Israeli elections will come
March 28 for a new government. Contenders include the present acting
Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Israeli media reports that President
George W. Bush has decided to do what he can to try and ensure that
Olmert, standing in for an incapacitated Ariel Sharon, is elected to be
full-time prime minister when Israelis go to the polls on March 28.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has invited Olmert to visit
Washington DC, probably sometime next month.
Other reports are that the Vice President, we might
say, the 'spiritual leader’ of the US hawks, Dick Cheney, has been
covertly aiding the Benjamin Netanyahu candidacy as new head of the
right-wing Likud. Netanyahu is also directly tied to the indicted US
Republican money launderer, Jack Abramoff during the time Netanyahu was
Sharon’s Finance Minister. Washington journalists report that Vice
President Dick Cheney, and his advisers David Addington and John
Hannah, are working behind the scenes to ensure that former Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu succeeds acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
in March. Cheney is working to defeat the more moderate Kadima Party --
formed by Ariel Sharon and his more moderate ex-Likud allies-- in the
March 28 elections.
Bush has not come out with direct vocal support for
Olmert, but Olmert has stressed that he will continue to work with
America to realize a Palestinian state. Israeli press report the new
middle-of-road (Israeli middle) party of Olmert and Sharon—Kadima--will
probably win landslide elections to the dismay of Cheney’s and Karl
Rove’s Christian Right and neo-conservative base. According to the
Palestine newspaper, Al-Manar, the Bush Administration is conducting
secret contacts with the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries in an
effort to have them help strengthen Olmert's stature. The US reportedly
informed them that it is interested in having Olmert head Kadima and
"continue the process that Sharon began to solve the Palestinian-Israel
conflict." The paper further reports that Washington feels that Olmert
is a 'smart leader who will be able, with his advisors, to lead the
peace process and rebuff the political machinations against him.’
The Bush White House even informed Olmert, according
to the paper, that it would like him to keep Sharon's advisors on his
team, especially Dov Weisglass and Shimon Peres. Weisglass, Sharon’s
personal lawyer and broker of ties to Washington, recently said he was
in almost daily contact with Condi Rice.
On January 22, Olmert addressed the issue of Iran.
According to Israeli State Radio, he said that Iran was trying to
engage Israel in the conflict surrounding Tehran’s ongoing nuclear
enrichment efforts, and that he concurs with Ariel Sharon’s position
that Israel would not lead the battle against Iran. He said that that
'responsibility falls first and foremost on the United States, Germany,
France and the Security Council. We do not have to be the leaders.’ By
contrast, his Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, stated Israel will not
tolerate Iran achieving nuclear independence, a statement that analysts
feel signals a military action by Jerusalem is possible, with or
without official US sanction.
This all would indicate that there is a definite
split within Israel between a future Olmert government not eager to
launch a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities
versus the ever-hawkish neo-conservative-tied Netanyahu. Notably,
prominent Washington neo-conservative, Kenneth Timmerman, told Israeli
radio in mid January that he expects an Israeli pre-emptive strike on
Iran 'within the next 60 days,’ i.e. just after Israeli elections or
just before. Timmermann is close to Richard Perle, the indicted Cheney
chief of staff, Lewis Libby, to Doug Feith and Michael Ledeen.
The question is whether ordinary Israelis are war
weary, whether with Palestine or with Iran, and seek a compromise
solution. Polls seem to indicate so. However, the very strong showing
of Hamas in the January 25 Palestine elections could change the Israeli
mood. The day after their vote success, Hamas leader Mahmoud A-Zahhar
claimed that his movement will not change its covenant calling for the
destruction of Israel, reported the Israeli online news portal Ynet.
Last week, a new element appeared in the chemistry
of the long-standing Israeli Likud-US Congress influence nexus. Larry
A. Franklin, a former Pentagon Iran analyst and close friend of leading
Pentagon neo-conservatives, was sentenced to 12 years and seven months
in jail for sharing classified Pentagon information with pro-Israel
lobbyists through an influential Washington-based lobby organization,
AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC has been at
the heart of ties between the Israeli right-wing Likud and members of
the US Congress for years. It is regarded as so powerful that it is
able to decide which Congressman is elected or re-elected. Previously
it had been considered 'untouchable.’ That is no longer true it seems.
Franklin pleaded guilty last October to sharing the
information with AIPAC lobbyists and Israeli diplomat Naor Gilon. Steve
Rosen and Keith Weissman, who were fired from AIPAC in 2004 in the
affair, are facing charges of disclosing confidential information to
Israel, apparently about Iran. The sentencing is causing major shock
waves throughout major US Jewish organizations including the
Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith. The conviction has hit a vital
lobbying tool of AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobby groups, namely,
expenses paid trips for US Congressmen to Israel. Hundreds of
politicians are taken to Israel every year by non-profit affiliates of
groups like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee — trips Jewish
leaders say are a vital tool in pro-Israel lobbying.
The Bush Administration had tried to bury the
Franklin case, unsuccessfully. They could only delay the trial until
after the November 2004 US elections. The Franklin scandal in the US as
well as the Jack Abramoff lobbying affair, have both hit severe blows
to the suspicious money network between Likud and the White House,
potentially fatally weakening the Israeli hawk faction of Netanyahu.
The Russian factor in Iran
The role of Putin’s Russia in the unfolding Iran
showdown is central. In geopolitical terms, one must not forget that
Russia is the ultimate 'prize’ or endgame in the more than decade long
US strategy of controlling Eurasia and preventing any possible rival
from emerging to challenge US hegemony.
Russian engineers and technical advisers are in Iran
constructing the Bushehr nuclear plant, at least 300 Russian
technicians. Iran has been a strategic cooperation partner of the Putin
government in terms of opposing US-UK designs for control of Caspian
oil. Iran has been a major purchaser of Russian military hardware since
the collapse of the Soviet Union, in addition to buying Russian nuclear
technology and expertise.
In March 2005 Iran-Russian relations took a
qualitative shift closer. That month Moscow agreed to the sale of a
'defensive’ missile system to Tehran, worth up to $7 billion-worth of
future defense contracts. In 2000 Putin had announced Russia would no
longer continue to abide by a secret US-Russia agreement to ban Russian
weapons sales to Iran that the government of Boris Yeltsin had
concluded. Since then, Russian-Iranian relations have become more
entwined to put it mildly.
Moscow currently says it is in talks with Iran to
build five to seven additional nuclear power reactors on the Bushehr
site after completion of the present reactor. Russia expects to get up
to $10 billion from the planned larger Bushehr reactors deal and
additional arms sales to Iran. It is currently building the reactor on
credit to be paid by Iran only after the completion of the project.
Sanctions and admonitions will not change Russia's relationship with
one of the most demonized states in America's 'axis of evil.’ Iran has
become a major counterweight for Moscow in the geopolitical game for
Washington’s total domination over Eurasia, and Putin is shrewdly aware
of that potential.
A look at the map (see below), will reveal how
geo-politically strategic Iran is for Russia, as well as for Israel and
the USA. Iran controls the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the choke point
for oil from the Persian Gulf to Japan and the rest of the world. Iran
borders the oil-rich Caspian Sea as it does NATO member
Significantly, on January 23, the Russian daily, Kommersant
reported that Armenia, sandwiched between Iran and Georgia, had agreed
to sell 45% control of its Iran-Armenia gas pipeline to Russia’s
Gazprom. The Russian daily added, 'If Russia takes over this
[Iran-Armenia] pipeline, Russia will be able to control transit of
Iranian gas to Georgia, Ukraine and Europe.’ That would be a major blow
to the series of Washington operations to insert US-friendly pro-NATO
governments in Georgia as well as Ukraine. It would also bind Iran and
Russian energy relations. While the Armenian government denies they
have agreed, negotiations continue with Gazprom holding out the
prospect of demanding double the price or $110 per 1000 cubic meters
rather than the present $54 unless Armenia agree to sell the stake to
Russia is pursuing a complex strategy regarding its
cooperation with Iran. Minatom, the Russian nuclear energy group
announced some time back that Russia was in discussion with Teheran to
increase Iran's nuclear capacity by 6000 megawatts by 2020. The Russian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed a year ago that Moscow would
supply Iran with fuel for the Bushehr reactor even if it did not sign
the IAEA Additional Protocols. While Putin has assured the world that
Iran must demonstrate full NPT compliance before the Russian nuclear
transfers occur, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated previously that
the IAEA's failure to condemn Iran opened the door for Russia to help
build future reactors in that country. Putin has managed to put Russia
square in the middle of the present global showdown over Iran, a
position which clearly tells some in Moscow that Russia is indeed again
a 'global player. Undoubtedly more.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, in a January 18 discussion with the daily, Nezavisimaya gazeta,
stated, 'It is not profitable for Russia to impose sanctions on Iran,
since we just recently signed an agreement to sell them nearly $1
billion worth of medium-range anti-aircraft weapons. These modern
weapons are capable of hitting targets up to 25 kilometers away and
will probably be used to defend various testing sites in Iran.
Therefore, if some attempt is made to strike at the country and the
deliveries from Russia are made quickly enough, we can expect a strong
response. In other words, Iran will be able to defend itself.’
Ivanov added a significant caveat: 'However, if
ballistic missiles are used, then nuclear sites can be targeted
effectively. We must not forget that Russia has its experts working on
some of these sites, and is not interested in a military scenario, if
only to protect them.’
Russia’s current strategy is to renew its earlier
offer, rejected initially by Teheran, to take the uranium fuel from
Iran to Russia for reprocessing, thus defusing the crisis
significantly. On January 25, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali
Larijani, said that Tehran views Moscow’s offer to have Iran’s uranium
enriched in Russia as a 'positive development,’ but no agreement has
been reached between the countries, according to an AP report.
repeated Iran’s threat to renew enrichment activities if it is referred
to the UN Security Council. Moscow has proposed having Iran’s uranium
enriched in Russia, then returned to Iran for use in the country’s
reactors — a compromise that could provide more oversight and ease
tensions, at least in theory, with the United States and European Union
over Iran’s nuclear program. Talks have continued over the specifics,
including Tehran’s proposal to have China involved in the Russian
Following his meeting with Russian Security Council
chief Igor Ivanov, Larijani told press, 'Our view of this offer is
positive, and we are trying to bring the positions of the sides
closer.’ Further talks come in February, after the planned emergency
IAEA meeting of February 2. Iran opposition groups claim the Russian
talks are merely a ploy to divide the West and buy more time. Larijani
and Ivanov said in a joint statement that Tehran’s nuclear standoff
must be resolved by diplomatic efforts in the U.N. atomic watchdog
The China factor in Iran
China, in its increasingly urgent search for secure
long-term energy supplies, especially oil and gas, has developed major
economic ties with Iran. It began in 2000, when Beijing invited Iranian
President Khatami for a literal red carpet reception and discussion of
areas of energy and economic cooperation. Then in November 2004,
curiously at the occasion of the second Bush election victory, the
relation took a major shift as China signed huge oil and gas deals with
The two countries signed a preliminary agreement
worth potentially $70 billion to $100 billion. Under the terms, China
will purchase Iranian oil and gas and help develop Iran's Yadavaran oil
field, near the Iraqi border. That same year, China agreed to buy $20
billion in liquefied natural gas from Iran over a quarter-century.
Iran’s Oil Minister stated at the time, 'Japan is
our number one energy importer for historical reasons…but we would like
to give preference to exports to China.’ In return China has become a
major exporter of manufactured goods to Iran, including computer
systems, household appliances and cars.
In addition to selling Iran its computers and home
appliances, Beijing has been one of the largest suppliers of military
technology to Teheran since the 1980’s. Chinese arms trade has involved
conventional, missile, nuclear, and chemical weapons. Outside Pakistan
and North Korea, China's arms trade with Iran has been more
comprehensive and sustained than that with any other country.
China has sold thousands of tanks, armored personnel
vehicles, and artillery pieces, several hundred surface-to-air,
air-to-air, cruise, and ballistic missiles as well as thousands of
antitank missiles, more than a hundred fighter aircraft, and dozens of
small warships. In addition, it is widely believed that China has
assisted Iran in the development of its ballistic and cruise missile
production capability, and has provided Iran with technologies and
assistance in the development of its clandestine chemical and nuclear
weapons programs. In addition, China has supplied Iran scientific
expertise, technical cooperation, technology transfers, production
technologies, blueprints, and dual-use transfers.
In sum, Iran is more than a strategic partner for
China. In the wake of the US unilateral decision to go to war against
Iraq, reports from Chinese media indicated that the leadership in
Beijing privately realized its own long-term energy security was
fundamentally at risk under the aggressive new pre-emptive war strategy
of Washington. China began taking major steps to outflank or negate
total US domination of the world’s major oil and gas resources. Iran
has become a central part of that strategy.
This underscores the Chinese demand that the Iran
nuclear issue be settled in the halls of the IAEA and not at the UN
Security Council as Washington wishes. China would clearly threaten its
veto were Iran to be brought before the UN for sanctions.
EU relations with Iran
The EU is Iran’s main trading partner concerning
both imports and exports. Clearly, they want to avoid a war with Iran
and all that would imply for the EU. The EU’s Balance of Trade
(BoT) with Iran is negative due to large imports of oil. Germany’s new
CDU-led government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a clear
point of trying to reaffirm close ties with Washington following the
tense relations under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who openly
opposed the Iraq war along with France’s Chirac in 2002 and 2003.
Chirac for his part is the subject of major
controversy since he held a speech January 19 in which he overturned
the traditional French nuclear doctrine of 'no first strike’ to say,
were a terrorist nation to attack France, he would consider even
nuclear retaliation as appropriate. The mere declaration by a French
President has triggered an international uproar. Whether it was French
psychological warfare designed to pressure Iran, or the reflection of a
fundamental change in French nuclear doctrine to one of pre-emptive
strike or something similar, is so far not clear. What is clear is that
the Chirac government will not stand in the way of a US decision to
impose UN sanctions on Iran. Whether that also holds for a
US-sanctioned nuclear strike is not clear.
The EU-3, whose negotiations diplomatically have so
far produced no results, are now moving towards some form of more
effective action against Iran’s decision to proceed with reprocessing.
The only problem is that other than nuclear sabre rattling, the EU has
few cards to play. It needs Iranian energy. It is also aware of what it
would mean to have a war in Iran in terms of potential terror
retaliations. The EU to put it mildly is highly nervous and alarmed at
the potential of a US-Iran or Israel-US vs Iran military showdown.
The Bush Administration role in Iran
Unlike the Iraq war buildup where it became clear to
a shocked world that the Bush Administration was going to war
regardless, with Iran Washington has so far been willing to let the EU
states take a diplomatic lead, only stepping up pressure publicly on
Iran in recent weeks. On January 19 the US repeated that neither it nor
its European partners want to return to the negotiating table with
Iran. 'The international community is united in mistrusting Tehran with
nuclear technology,’ said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. '…The
time has come for a referral of Iran to the [UN] Security Council,’ she
added. Rice's choice of the word 'referral’ was deliberate. If Iran is
only 'reported’ to the Security Council, debate would lack legal
weight. A formal 'referral’ is necessary if the Council is to impose
any penalty, such as economic sanctions.
The neo-conservatives, although slightly lower
profile in the second Bush Administration, are every bit as active,
especially through Cheney’s office. They want a pre-emptive bombing
strike on Iran’s nuclear sites.
But whatever Cheney’s office may be doing,
officially, the Bush administration is pursuing a markedly different
approach than it did in 2003, when its diplomacy was aimed at lining up
allies for a war. This time, U.S. diplomats are seeking an
international consensus on how to proceed, or at least, cultivating the
impression of that.
Iraq and the deepening US disaster there has
severely constrained possible US options in Iran. Back in 2003 in the
wake of the Iraqi 'victory,’ leading Washington neo-conservative hawks
were vocally calling on Bush to 'Move on to Tehran’ after Saddam
Hussein. Now, because of the ``bloody quagmire'' in Iraq, the US is
severely constrained from moving unilaterally.
With 140,000 troops tied down in Iraq, the US
military physically cannot support another invasion and occupation in
yet another country, let alone Iran.
Because of Iran's size, a ground invasion may
require twice as many troops as in Iraq, says Richard Russell, a Middle
East specialist at the National Defense University in Washington. While
an air campaign could take out Iran's air defenses, it could also
trigger terrorism and oil disruptions. Washington is internally split
over the issue of a successful nuclear strike against Iran,
AIPAC and Abramoff impact Washington
Another little-appreciated new element in the US
political chemistry around the Bush White House are two devastating
legal prosecutions which have hit the heart of the black and grey money
network between Washington Republicans and the Israeli right-wing
Jack Abramoff, the financial patron of several
prominent Republicans, including ex-House Majority Leader, Tom Delay,
and Steve Rosen, the key force behind AIPAC, were two of the most
influential Jewish lobbyists in Washington before legal scandals
effectively ended their careers and sent them scrambling to stay out of
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion
and conspiracy arising out of his work lobbying for Indian gambling
casino interests. That scandal could implicate far more Congressmen and
even some in the White House.
Rosen is fighting allegations that as chief
strategist at AIPAC, he received and passed classified national
security information, received from Larry Franklin, to unauthorized
parties. Perhaps it is coincidence that two such high-profile damaging
cases to the lobbying power of right-wing Israeli hawk elements surface
at the same time, at just this time when war drums are pounding on Iran.
AIPAC's drama began August 2004, when on the eve of
the Republican National Convention, the FBI raided the organization's
offices, looking for incriminating documents. A year later, in August
2005, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia indicted
Rosen, by then AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues, and Keith
Weissman, who had been an AIPAC Iran analyst. The government disclosed
it had had the men under surveillance for more than four years and
alleged that they had received and passed along classified information.
The indictment named a Pentagon aide, Lawrence Franklin, as their
co-conspirator. Franklin, who has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors,
pleaded guilty in October 2005 to passing classified documents to
unauthorized persons and improperly storing such documents in his home.
He was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison last week.
Bush, as de facto head of his party, faces a
potentially devastating November Congressional election. With the
quagmire of Iraq continuing and more Americans asking what in fact they
are dying for in Iraq if not oil, Bush’s popularity has continued to
plunge. He has now only 46 per cent of popular support. More than 53
per cent of people have expressed unfavorable opinion of Bush. The
Hurricane Kartina debacle of bungled response by the White House, the
growing perception that Bush has 'lied’ to the public, all are working
to seriously undermine Republican chances in November.
The stench of insider deals, not only with Cheney’s
Halliburton is growing stronger and getting major media coverage, which
is new. Conservative traditional Republicans are outraged at the
unprecedented Federal spending binge Bush Republicans have indulged to
protect their own special interests. In a recent article, Michael
Reagan, conservative son of the late President, wrote, 'Republican
congressional leaders promised individual members of Congress up to $14
million 'in free earmarks,’ (i.e. special spending allocations) if they
would support, which they did, the massive $286.5 billion Bush
transportation bill.’ According to Reagan, 'The bill came to a total of
6,300 earmarked projects costing the taxpayers $24 billion, a clear
case of bribery. The people being bribed were members of Congress. The
people making the bribes were members of Congress. Congressmen bribing
A recent Fox News poll indicated that Americans saw
the Republican congressional majority as materially more corrupt and
more responsible for the current spate of scandals than the Democrats
by a wide margin.
In January 2003 President Bush signed a classified
Presidential Directive, CONPLAN 8022-02. Conplan 8022 is a war plan
different from all prior in that it posits 'no ground troops.’ It was
specifically drafted to deal with 'imminent’ threats from states such
as North Korea or Iran.
Unlike the warplan for Iraq, a conventional one,
which required coordinated preparation of air, ground and sea forces
before it could be launched, a process of months even years, Conplan
8022 called for a highly concentrated strike combining bombing with
electronic warfare and cyberattacks to cripple an opponent’s
response—cutting electricity in the country, jamming communications,
hacking computer networks.
Conplan 8022 explicitly includes a nuclear option,
specially configured earth-penetrating 'mini’ nukes to hit underground
sites such as Iran’s. In summer 2005 Defense Secretary Rumsfeld
approved a top secret 'Interim Global Strike Alert Order’ directing
round-the-clock military readiness, to be directed by the Omaha-based
Strategic Command (Stratcom), according to a report in the May 15, 2005
Washington Post. Previously, ominously enough, Stratcom oversaw only
the US nuclear forces. In January 2003 Bush signed on to a definition
of 'full spectrum global strike’ which included precision nuclear as
well as conventional bombs, and space warfare. This was a follow-up to
the President’s September 2002 National Security Strategy which laid
out as US strategic doctrine a policy of 'pre-emptive’ wars.
The burning question is whether, with plunging
popularity polls, a coming national election, scandals and loss of
influence, the Bush White House might 'think the unthinkable’ and order
a nuclear pre-emptive global strike on Iran before the November
elections, perhaps early after the March 28 Israeli elections.
Some Pentagon analysts have suggested that the
entire US strategy towards Iran, unlike with Iraq, is rather a
carefully orchestrated escalation of psychological pressure and bluff
to force Iran to back down. It seems clear, especially in light of the
strategic threat Iran faces from US or Israeli forces on its borders
after 2003 that Iran is not likely to back down from its clear plans to
develop the full nuclear fuel cycle capacities and with it, the option
of developing an Iranian nuclear capability.
The question then is what will Washington do? The
fundamental change in US defense doctrine since 2001, from a posture of
defense to offense has significantly lowered the threshold of nuclear
war, perhaps even of a global nuclear conflagration.
Geopolitical risks of nuclear war
While the latest Iranian agreement to reopen talks
with Moscow on Russian spent fuel reprocessing have taken some of the
edge off of the crisis for the moment. On January 27 President Bush
announced publicly that he backed the Russian compromise, along with
China and El Baradei of the IAEA. Bush signalled a significant
backdown, at least for the moment, stating, 'The Russians came up with
the idea and I support it…I do believe people ought to be allowed to
have civilian nuclear power.’ At the same time Rice’s State Department
expressed concern the Russian-Iran talks were a stalling ploy by
Bush added 'However, I don’t believe that
non-transparent (sic) regimes that threaten the security of the world
should be allowed to gain the technologies necessary to make a weapon.’
The same day at Davos, Secretary Rice told the World Economic Forum
that Iran’s nuclear program posed 'significant danger’ and that Iran
must be brought before the UN Security Council. In short, Washington is
trying to appear 'diplomatic’ while keeping all options open.
Should Iran be brought before the UN Security
Council for violations of the NPT and charges of developing weapons of
mass destruction, it seems quite probable that Russia and China would
veto imposing sanctions such as economic embargo on Iran for reasons
stated above. The timetable for that is likely sometime around
March-May, that is, after a new Israeli government is in place.
At that point there are several possible outcomes.
* The IAEA refers Iran to the UN Security Council
which proposes increased monitoring of the reprocessing facilities for
weapons producing while avoiding sanctions. In essence Iran would be
allowed to develop its full fuel cycle nuclear program and its
sovereignty is respected, so long as it respects NPT and IAEA
conditions. This is unlikely for the reasons stated above.
* Iran like India and Pakistan, is permitted to
develop a small arsenal of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the
growing military threat in its area posed by the United States from
Afghanistan to Iraq to the Emirates, as well as by Israel’s nuclear
force. The West extends new offers of economic cooperation in the
development of Iran’s oil and gas infrastructure and Iran is slowly
welcomed into the community of the WTO and cooperation with the West. A
new government in Israel pursues a peace policy in Palestine and with
Syria, and a new regional relaxation of tensions opens the way for huge
new economic development in the entire Middle East region, Iran
included. The Mullahs in Iran slowly loose influence. This scenario,
desirable as it is, is extremely unlikely in the present circumstances.
* President Bush, on the urging of Cheney, Rumsfeld
and the neo-conservative hawks, decide to activate CONPLAN 8022, an air
attack bombing Iran’s presumed nuclear sites, including for the first
time since 1945, with deployment of nuclear weapons. No ground troops
are used and it is proclaimed a swift surgical 'success’ by the
formidable Pentagon propaganda machine. Iran, prepared for such a
possibility, launches a calculated counter-strike using techniques of
guerrilla war or 'asymmetrical warfare’ against US and NATO targets
around the world.
The Iran response includes activating trained cells
within Lebanon’s Hezbollah; it includes activating considerable Iranian
assets within Iraq, potentially in de facto alliance with the Sunni
resistance there targeting the 135,000 remaining US troops and civilian
personnel. Iran’s asymmetrical response also includes stepping up
informal ties to the powerful Hamas within Palestine to win them to a
Holy War against the US-Israel 'Great Satan.’ Alliance. Israel faces
unprecedented terror and sabotage attacks from every side and from
within its territory from sleeper cells of Arab Israelis. Iran
activates trained sleeper terror cells in the Ras Tanura center of
Saudi oil refining and shipping. The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia
around Ras Tanura contains a disenfranchised Shi’ite minority which
have historically been denied the fruits of the immense Saudi oil
wealth. There are some 2 million Shi’ia Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Shias
do most of the manual work in the Saudi oilfields, making up 40 percent
of Aramco's workforce.
Iran declares an immediate embargo of deliveries of
its 4 million barrels of oil a day. It threatens to sink a large VLCC
oil super-tanker in the narrows of the Strait of Hormuz, chocking off
40% of all world oil flows, if the world does not join it against the
US-Israeli action. The strait has two 1 mile wide channels for marine
traffic, separated by a 2 mile wide buffer zone, and is the only sea
passage to the open ocean for much of OPEC oil. It is Saudi Arabia’s
main export route.
Iran a vast, strategically central expanse of land,
more than double the land area of France and Germany combined, with
well over 70 million people, and one of the fastest population growth
rates in the world, is well prepared for a new Holy War. Its
mountainous terrain makes any thought of a US ground occupation
inconceivable at a time the Pentagon is having problems retaining its
present force to maintain the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. World
War III begins in a series of miscalculations and disruptions. The
pentagon’s awesome war machine, 'total spectrum dominance’ is powerless
against the growing 'assymetrical war’assaults around the globe.
Clear from a reading of their public statements and
their press, the Iranian government knows well what cards they hold and
what not in this global game of thermo-nuclear chicken.
Were the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis to risk launching
a nuclear strike on Iran, given the geopolitical context, it would mark
a point of no return in international relations. Even with sagging
popularity, the White House knows this. The danger of the initial
strategy of pre-emptive wars is that, as now, when someone like Iran
calls the US bluff with a formidable response potential, the US is left
with little option but to launch the unthinkable-nuclear strike.
There are saner voices within the US political
establishment, such as former NSC heads, Brent Scowcroft or even
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who clearly understand the deadly logic of Bush’s
and the Pentagon hawks’ pre-emptive posture. The question is whether
their faction within the US power establishment today is powerful
enough to do to Bush and Cheney what was done to Richard Nixon when his
exercise of Presidential power got out of hand.
It is useful to keep in mind that even were Iran to
possess nuclear missiles, the strike range would not reach the
territory of the United States. Israel would be the closest potential
target. A US pre-emptive nuclear strike to defend Israel would raise
the issue of what the military agreements between Tel Aviv and
Washington actually encompass, a subject which neither the Bush
Administration nor its predecessors have seen fit to inform the
American public about.
Global Research Contributing Editor F. William
Engdahl, author of 'A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and
the New World Order,’ Pluto Press, is an Associate Editor of Global
Research. He can be contacted via his website, www.engdahl.oilgeopolitics.net.