Le Monde diplomatique


   October 2003


Iran: the nuclear quest

   The International Atomic Energy Agency has given
Iraq until the
      end of this month to reveal the real state of its nuclear
           programme. But is
Iran really a threat? To whom?

                                        By Paul-Marie de La Gorce *

     PRESIDENT George Bush said unequivocally in June that the
     United States "will not tolerate the construction of a
     nuclear weapon" by
Iran. This was the most serious warning to
Tehran since his State of the Union address in January 2002,
     when he denounced
Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as
     the axis of evil. The International Atomic Energy Agency
     (IAEA) has since publicly accused the Iranian authorities of
     concealing part of their nuclear programme, and the European
Union has joined the
US in demanding that Iran sign
     immediately and unconditionally the additional protocol to
     the non-proliferation treaty that allows for snap inspections
     of nuclear sites.

     A confrontation between the
US and Iran is a definite
     possibility, in the next few months or after the forthcoming
     presidential election, unless
Washington changes its tune. So
     how did we get to this situation (1)?

Iran's decision to embark on a research programme leading to
     the construction of a nuclear weapon was taken under the
     Shah. In the tough international climate of the last phase of
     the cold war,
Iran was the main strategic partner of the US
     on the borders of the
Soviet Union, so it is not surprising
     that the
US authorities did not object to, and probably
     facilitated, the start of the programme. The Islamic
     revolution ended the programme, but reversed that decision in
     1982. Arms sales to
Iran were embargoed, but Iraq, which
Iran, was able to procure a full range of modern
     weapons, especially from the
Soviet Union and France. The
     decision to resume the nuclear programme was also based on a
     broader strategic analysis.

Iran was faced with the existence or likely development of
     nuclear weapons in all its neighbouring countries: the
, Pakistan, the Gulf states (where American air and sea
     forces were deployed),
Iraq and Israel. The Iranian
     authorities felt they had no option but to react to this, and
it remains the most important factor governing their policy
     choices. There is every reason to believe that a military
     nuclear programme separate from civil research facilities was
     launched then. It was kept secret and does not appear to have
     led to the construction of weapons.

     Meanwhile, like all other states in the region apart from
Israel, Iran signed the non-proliferation treaties banning
     weapons of mass destruction.

     When Mohammed Khatami and the reformers came to power in 1997
     they reorganised all nuclear programmes, mainly for economic
     reasons. After the departure of the foreign oil companies
     because of the 1979 revolution, and the oil embargo decreed
     by the
US (which only the French company Total defied),
     Iranian oil production took almost 10 years to rise above 4m
     barrels a day. A booming economy and rapid population growth
     has since considerably increased domestic consumption, so
Iran now exports only 2m barrels a day. The huge
     increase in gas production will probably eventually release
     much more oil for export, but the development of nuclear
     power might seem rational when considering the country's
     foreign trade balance.

     Although the Iranian leadership can say that it has not built
     nuclear weapons, it may well have decided that
Iran has to be
     capable of manufacturing them. American accusations to that
     effect are backed by an imposing file of information and
     suspicions compiled by the IAEA in a report dated 6 June (2).
     While the IAEA's director-general, Mohamed El Baradei,
     criticises the Iranian authorities for concealing some of
     their nuclear activities, he has resisted
US pressure to
Iran in breach of the non-proliferation treaty. A
     top-level exchange of intelligence on the Iranian programme,
     however, contains information, mainly of French origin, about
     work on a military programme. According to this source, the
     Iranians are developing centrifugal processes designed to
     boost uranium enrichment to the level needed for weapons
     production. They are also suspected of working on the use of
     plutonium, since the production of heavy water appears to
     have increased far beyond the requirements of a civil nuclear
     programme or the chemical industry (3).

US government considers that Iran is capable of producing
     weapons-grade fuel within a year. Speaking on CNN television
     in March, the
US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said: "It
     shows you how a determined nation that has the intent to
     develop a nuclear weapon can keep that development process
     secret from inspectors and outsiders, if they really are
     determined to do it" (4).

     But what would Iranian military nuclear capability mean for
     strategic relations?
Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers.
     Its leaders rightly believe that one of the reasons that the
US went to war in Iraq was to complete the encirclement of
Iran by US forces, which are now present in the former Soviet
     republics of
Central Asia, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in
     the Gulf, on Iraqi territory, and even in the

     The Iranian leadership was deeply marked by the experience of
     war with
Iraq in 1980-88. Saddam Hussein's army, then an ally
     of the West, used chemical weapons and was already superior
     in a full range of modern weaponry. This meant that the
     Iranian high command had to use huge contingents of infantry
     in hammer blows to crack the Iraqi lines - extraordinarily
     costly in lives. The memory of that slaughter is so vivid
     that the Iranian authorities are determined to avoid a
     repetition at all costs. They believe that the
US occupation
Iraq has not ended the risk of conflict, and the post-war
     crisis in
Iraq may have direct repercussions for Iran. The
     total autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds may impact on Iranian
     Kurdistan, and a new civil war in
Afghanistan is
     destabilising the border regions.
Israel publicly describes
Iran as its most dangerous enemy and now the US is making
     specific threats.

     Of all hypothetical conflicts, the Iranian leaders are most
     concerned about a confrontation with
Israel. They are
     convinced that Ariel Sharon's government would not hesitate
     to attack
Iran's nuclear plants if circumstances were
     favourable, just as Menachem Begin destroyed the Tamuz
     reactor in 1981. By this reasoning,
Iran's vulnerability must
     be offset by making Israeli territory equally vulnerable and
     only the possession of a nuclear deterrent can keep
Iran safe
     from attack.

     The only other possible response to Israeli aggression would
     be the use of forces already based in
Lebanon or the
     Palestinian territories, or groups that
Iran could rally to
     its cause, recruit, arm and equip in neighbouring states.
     Since the Iranian leaders fear such a response would trigger
US intervention in favour of Israel, they see a nuclear
     deterrent as their only real option. It has to be powerful
     enough to prevent nuclear attacks by states in the region but
     require only medium-range missiles, such as the Shehab-3,
     which has a range of 1,300km and is capable of reaching
     Israeli territory. It is operational and under the control of
     the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (5).

     What form would a confrontation between
Iran and the US take?
Washington is unlikely to attempt a repeat performance of the
     war against
Iraq. Iran is on a completely different scale,
     with much larger area, population and resources, and
     occupying it would require much larger forces.

     True, the Iranian forces are reportedly ill-equipped and
     split between the traditional army (which was decapitated by
     the Islamic revolution but stayed loyal throughout the war
Iraq) and the Pasdaran, or Islamic Revolutionary Guards,
     with fewer than 100,000 men but its own navy, air force and
     arms factories (6).

     But the ancient nationalism of Iranians would ensure that an
     invasion was fought by all possible means, except perhaps in
     the Kurdish region in the northwest and the Baluchi region in
     the southeast. Even democratic movements opposed to the
     mullahs would defend Iranian independence and not be
     compromised by US support.

     So the likely hypothesis would be the targeted destruction of
     nuclear research centres and heavy military infrastructure by
US air force. But the conflict would not end there. Iran
     could respond simultaneously on a number of fronts. It could
     change its policy on
Iraq and use all its influence to incite
     the Shia community to armed resistance, which would then
     become much stronger. The Iranian leaders could also modify
     their intransigent opposition to fundamentalist groups
     involved in terrorism.

     The resulting attacks would focus on the Gulf region, with
     its many Shia communities, directly threatening US positions.
Tehran government could pressure the Hazra community in
Afghanistan, disrupting the balance of forces to the
     detriment of the political regime the
US has installed in

     The inevitable confrontation between the
US and Iran will
     have many and wide consequences.

     * Paul-Marie de La Gorce is a journalist and author of Le
     dernier empire : le XXIe siècle sera-t-il américain?

     (1) See Paul-Marie de La Gorce, "Iran: encircled and under
Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition,
     July 2003, and Bernard Hourcade, Iran: nouvelles identités
     d'une république, Belin, Paris, 2002.

(2) "Implementation of the NPT safeguards agreement in the
     Islamic Republic of Iran, Report by the Director-General"
     (Download the document in .pdf format).

     (3) "Latest Developments in the Nuclear Program of
Iran: on
Plutonium Way: Presentation by France", May 2003.

     (4) "
Iran Closes In on Ability to Build a Nuclear Bomb", Los
Times, 4 August 2003.

     (5) Centre for Strategic and International Studies, "
     search for weapons of mass destruction",
7 August 2003.
     (Download the document in .pdf format).

     (6) See Bernard Hourcade, op cit.


                                        Translated by Barry Smerin


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