WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF
The International Atomic Energy Agency has given
end of this month to reveal the real state of its nuclear
programme. But is
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
when he denounced
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
immediately and unconditionally the additional protocol to
the non-proliferation treaty that allows for snap inspections
of nuclear sites.
A confrontation between the
possibility, in the next few months or after the forthcoming
presidential election, unless
how did we get to this situation (1)?
the construction of a nuclear weapon was taken under the
Shah. In the tough international climate of the last phase of
the cold war,
on the borders of the
facilitated, the start of the programme. The Islamic
revolution ended the programme, but reversed that decision in
1982. Arms sales to
weapons, especially from the
decision to resume the nuclear programme was also based on a
broader strategic analysis.
nuclear weapons in all its neighbouring countries: the
forces were deployed),
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
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
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
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
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
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).
weapons-grade fuel within a year. Speaking on CNN television
in March, the
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
Its leaders rightly believe that one of the reasons that the
the Gulf, on Iraqi territory, and even in the
The Iranian leadership was deeply marked by the experience of
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
total autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds may impact on Iranian
Kurdistan, and a new civil war in
destabilising the border regions.
Of all hypothetical conflicts, the Iranian leaders are most
concerned about a confrontation with
convinced that Ariel Sharon's government would not hesitate
favourable, just as Menachem Begin destroyed the Tamuz
reactor in 1981. By this reasoning,
be offset by making Israeli territory equally vulnerable and
only the possession of a nuclear deterrent can keep
The only other possible response to Israeli aggression would
be the use of forces already based in
Palestinian territories, or groups that
its cause, recruit, arm and equip in neighbouring states.
Since the Iranian leaders fear such a response would trigger
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
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
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
could respond simultaneously on a number of fronts. It could
change its policy on
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.
detriment of the political regime the
The inevitable confrontation between the
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
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
(5) Centre for Strategic and International Studies, "
search for weapons of mass destruction",
(Download the document in .pdf format).
(6) See Bernard Hourcade, op cit.
Translated by Barry Smerin
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