Friday, 16 May 2014

Iran out-manoeuvres the West

            Vienna and Jeddah are the twin theatres in which Iran's  growing self-assurance and its ability to out-manoeuvre the West have recently been on display.

   Vienna was the setting for the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Those talks are nominally a diplomatic means of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. The negotiations have a July deadline by which to hammer out a final deal aimed at limiting Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons. In exchange, the crippling economic sanctions it faces would be lifted.

It is, however, becoming increasingly obvious that the deal being negotiated will not only enable Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but will allow it to develop systems to deliver them. In fact, if the testimony of James Clapper, the director of US national intelligence before a Senate Select Committee in January is to be credited, there is reason to believe that Iran is already a nuclear breakout state.

Just ahead of the Vienna meeting the UN Panel of Experts, the body which monitors compliance with the Security Council's sanctions régime on Iran, produced a confidential report which said Iran “has developed methods of concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities."  The report added that Iran had "also demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously".  Over the years Iran has pursued and procured from abroad, among other sensitive dual-use items ─ ie items which could be used in its nuclear programme ─ aluminium, carbon fibre and special valves.

"Iran continues to make extensive use of front companies to procure items for prohibited activities,” says the report. Some companies may be established solely for the purpose of prohibited procurement; others may also be engaged in legitimate business. Sometimes Iran uses legitimate enterprises to acquire key technology. The report cited an example of how Iran used its petrochemical industry as a facade to procure crucial items for its heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak.

The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) is also concerned.  In their own recent report they assert that Iran is not revealing information about possible military applications of its nuclear programme, or allowing the IAEA unfettered access to all nuclear sites.

Meanwhile Iran’s so-called “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani, recently said that he wanted Iran to do a better job of explaining its nuclear programme, so as to prevent "evil-minded'' people misleading world opinion.  He immediately followed this by declaring that Iran would never accept "nuclear apartheid" and "scientific segregation" by giving up its contested programme.

No wonder former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who claims to have been the prime mover in getting Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, has been expressing caution about whether a comprehensive deal can be clinched,

“I personally am sceptical that the Iranians will follow through and deliver,”  said Clinton on May 14. “The progress of Iran’s nuclear programme may be halted, but it is not dismantled.”

On May 12, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to attend a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) defence ministers, the first for an American defence chief in six years.  Inevitably the discussion turned very largely on the threat that Iran poses to the region, and the need to counter it.

Hegel emphasised that “the most pressing security challenges” - in other words, Iran’s perceived intention to acquire nuclear weapons -  threaten the whole region and demand a collective response. He urged the Gulf states to strengthen the GCC.  That would be the way, he said, for member nations to ensure that their collective defence was more than the sum of its parts.

The negotiations in Vienna, said Hagel, “will under no circumstances trade away regional security for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.”  US commitment to Gulf security and stability was unwavering, and “the United States will remain postured and prepared to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and that Iran abides by the terms of any potential agreement.  No one nation can address these threats alone,” added Hagel. “Our efforts must be coordinated and complementary.”

If the GCC meeting reveals anything, it is that the shadow of Iran looms menacingly over the Gulf states. The meeting specifically addressed defence issues, but was not competent to consider the fact that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are simply the outward manifestation of its wider religio-political aims.  For regional hegemony appears its long-term aspiration.

Iran’s influence extends over a wide range of regional issues. These include the ongoing crisis in Syria ─ both its direct involvement by arming President Bashar Assad, and its indirect involvement on the ground via Hezbollah; its subversive activities in the Gulf States, particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; and, to cast the net wider, its efforts to reshape Iraq and Afghanistan in its own image.

The intense antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia exemplifies the age-old fault line that runs through Islam ─ the conflict between the Sunni and the Shi’ite interpretations of the religion.  Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization, which is under its control, together with that part of Syria still governed by Assad, form the bulk of the key Shi’ite grouping ─ an entity dedicated to opposing the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi royals have spent vast amounts funding the spread of the Sunni Wahabi school, an ultra-conservative, literal interpretation of Islam, which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, is dedicated to its own version of political Islam. The founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a passionate advocate of government by strict Sharia law, condemned the Saudi monarchy as a tyrannical, illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, rather than God.  The current Iranian dictator, Ayatollah Khamenei, regards himself as the repository of true Islam, and regards the ultimate role of Iran as ensuring that Shia Islam eventually triumphs over the Sunni interpretation and over those misguided Muslim states that espouse it. 

To achieve this apocalyptic end it is legitimate to use every means to undermine and destabilize those governments. Above all, one essential step is to transform Iran into a world nuclear power.  Nothing – and certainly not a little dissimulation, deceit and double-dealing ­­─ must be allowed to stand in the way.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 May 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 May 2014:

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