Stopping the Mullahs

The United States is contemplating a pre-emptive strike on Iran. But as Massoud A. Derhally reports, such a move should come as no surprise.

  • E-Mail
By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  May 21, 2006

|~||~||~|History has an eerie way of repeating itself. Three years on since the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime, there is talk among some in Washington and Tel Aviv of a pre-emptive strike against Tehran, to quell they say the insatiable appetite of the mullahs that run the country for nuclear weapons. There is certainly a precedent for such an attack. On June 7, 1981, fearing Iraq was close to attaining a nuclear bomb with the help of France and Italy to use against the Jewish state, Israel dispatched a squadron of F15 and F16 fighter jets and dropped 16 bombs on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. The attack was widely condemned and the UN Security Council passed a resolution criticising Tel Aviv for violating the UN Charter. At the time, the Iraqis were just at the start of their 8-year war with Iran, which had come under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini who overthrew the pro-Western Shah. The Iraqis did not have the military capability to retaliate, nor were they in a position to disrupt the production of oil and use their oil production capacity as leverage. While the world is concerned about Iran having nuclear weapons, Tehran has persistently argued its aims are purely to generate electricity, in line with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) that it is a signatory to. Under the NPT, specifically article 4, Iran is permitted to have a civilian nuclear energy programme and is building a massive nuclear power plant in Bushehr, which it claims will help its energy production become more efficient. There is also the matter of double standards where India, Pakistan and Israel were allowed to develop a nuclear arsenal and escaped reproach. For their part, the Americans and the Europeans have and continue to argue that a country that is rich with oil reserves is in no in need of a nuclear energy programme. More importantly, they contend that such a programme can serve two purposes, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Two years of back and forth discussions that have been fruitless. The coming of the defiant president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whose incendiary remarks and views have further radicalised the political landscape of Iran — are making some in Washington, London and Tel Aviv consider other options that go beyond sanctions. Dr. Trita Parsi, a Middle East specialist and author of “Treacherous Triangle - The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States” says “if talks between the US and Iran are not pursued, Washington risks trapping itself in a situation in which military action will be its only remaining option.” While that does not mean that war is inevitable and diplomacy can run still be allowed to run its course, Parsi points out “forsaking diplomacy is increasingly tantamount to choosing war.” The haste with which the Bush administrations dismissed the 18-page letter that Mr. Ahmadinejad sent to Washington certainly seems to anchor the view that America is inclined on beating the drums of war with respect to Iran, as it did with Iraq. “From the Iranian perspective, writing a letter to President Bush was a win-win situation. If Bush were not to respond, the Iranians would have scored a diplomatic point by making Washington look like the inflexible actor uninterested in negotiations. If Bush were to respond, then a key Iranian objective would have been attained – establishing some level of communication with the US,” explains Parsi. Israel has wholeheartedly been vociferous in its calls to neutralise Tehran through possible military action, and those calls have been welcome my many in the war rooms of the Pentagon. However, a number of European countries in addition to Russia and China are more inclined to engage Iran and offer it incentives to abandon it uranium enrichment programme in the hope of averting any kind of conflict. The European Union’s offer last week to provide a variety of incentives in exchange for Iran’s cooperation, including technology that would enable Iran to build nuclear power plants has not nudged Tehran into the fold of the international community. The Iranian foreign minister echoed the sentiments of the President Ahmadinejad saying any condition that requires Iran to suspend or abandon it enrichment programme would be ignored. Tehran’s continued intransigence, its unwillingness to embrace a Russian offer to carry out uranium enrichment at a facility in Russia under its supervision, in conjunction with remarks by Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map and never abandoning the country’s nuclear ambitions increase the likelihood of military action. “Pressure for a military solution will increase because Russia and China will not support a strong UN Security Council resolution that would place Iran under significant diplomatic and economic pressure,” explains Wayne White, the former deputy director of the US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of Analysis for the Near East. “A major blunder on the part of the Administration over the past few years—most recently involving the Cheney criticism of Russia in Lithuania—has been to distance itself from Moscow. This will make meaningful Russian cooperation in the Security Council less likely.” America would like to flex its muscles at the UN Security Council but cannot muster the support it needs to pass a resolution under Chapter 7 that would authorize the use of force like UN resolution 1441 did in the case of Iraq. The Russians and the Chinese have too much vested in Iran economically in the realm of trade and billion dollar projects. But even if such a resolution was tenable there are many variables that need to be accounted for. The dynamics on the ground today are patently different from Iraq in 1981 and there are varying dimensions and implications of the brewing conflict, that fundamentally make a military attack on Iran all the more difficult. In 1981, Israel was able to use 14 fighter jets to obliterate Iraq’s nuclear reactor. A mission that would destroy all of Iran’s alleged nuclear capabilities is more than arduous. Iran is bigger than Iraq and further away from Israel with several potential sites spread throughout the country that could potentially be used for nuclear activity (Bushehr, Natanz and Arak). That essentially means such an attack would require a much larger pool than the 14 fighter jets used in 1981 and also more fuel. And even if such an attack were in actual fact plausible it would still require the sanctioning from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries as their airspace would be used. “People must understand that military action to take out much of Iran’s nuclear sector will resemble not mere air strikes…but rather more like war. The strike package would be huge—perhaps as many as 500 aerial sorties and several hundred cruise missiles,” explains White. But an attack on Iran whatever form it comes in, is unwelcome by Tehran’s neighbours—as much as they dislike the ominous conundrum of having nuclear weapons on their doorstep. Officials from the GCC have made public their displeasure with the proximity of the Iran’s Bushehr reactor and warned of a potential fall out should a Chernobyl like catastrophe take place. But though they would prefer to see a weaker Iran, without nuclear weapons, a military strike or against Tehran or another armed conflict in the region is highly unpalatable. Why? Because an attack on Iran, small or wide scale would have a multiplying effect throughout the region. For one, no one can predict with accuracy how Iran would respond. But there is a catalogue of scenarios. Iran could lash out against the Arab Gulf states, including the U.S. military complexes in countries like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and sites in Iraq using its Shehab-1 and Shehab-2 missiles that have a range of 100-300 kilometres and can carry more than a 900-kilogram warhead. Tehran for instance can also employ Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon to unleash thousands of its missiles at Israel, in retaliation for such an attack. In a May 25 2005 speech marking the anniversary of Israel’s troop withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said, “Some people think we have 12,000 rockets. I tell you we have more than 12,000. All of the north of occupied Palestine, its settlements, airports, seaports, fields, factories and farms, is under the feet and hands of the Islamic Resistance.” There have been reports that in Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets are Zelzal-2 Short Range Ballistic Missiles that are 8.3 meters long, with a 200 kilometre range, a 600 kilogram warhead, and possibly capable of carrying chemical and biological payloads. When asked what Hezbollah’s position would be of such an attack, Nawaf Al-Mussawi, Hezbollah politburo member in charge of international relations tells Arabian Business, “No one doubts that an action of this nature is only carried out by crazy people, who are insane. Without going into details, no one doubts for a moment that there would be a tragic catastrophe. This is a tragedy that no one will escape, that will affect everyone and as a result you cannot really envision the reality of the situation.” He adds, “Without confirming or denying [what actions Hezbollah would take] you are talking about a tremendous change of events depending on what the Israelis do…the environment of the entire region would change and it would not be constrained by the conventional standards that you know…You are talking about a catastrophe and when you do a tsunami, you cannot say the tsunami will hit this area but not that area.” Jamal Khashoggi, media adviser to Prince Turki Al Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, acknowledges the Saudis are very concerned at such an outcome. “If it was America or Israel that attacks Iran, Saudi Arabia cannot do anything about it. What worries Saud Arabia are the results of this attack… Saudi Arabia will be one of the countries that will receive the bad end result of an attack,” says Khashoggi. “Hezbollah attacking Israel means Israel attacking Lebanon and all of these are the results of the attack on Iran. There is no communication between Saudi Arabia and Israel. But there are communications between Saudi Arabia and the US over the issue of Iran and of course Saudi Arabia repeatedly refuses resorting to military means in solving the crisis,” he adds. The Hezbollah scenario aside, Tehran could also extend support in various forms to the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, making all the more difficult for America’s thinly spread army. The supply of oil can be disrupted and the price of oil could skyrocket to as high as $100 a barrel either by the Iranians scaling back their production or by blocking the Strait of Hormuz. Dr. Herman Franssen, president of the US-based International Energy Associates says a steep rise in oil prices is feasible given that Iran exports 2.5 million barrels of oil a day and accounts for 10% of the production of the OPEC cartel. “The market would believe that Iran would retaliate either by possible attacks on shipping in the Straits of Hormuz (would raise insurance rates at the very least) or using surrogates to attacks the oil (and gas) interests of the US and its allies in the Gulf,” explains Franssen. The fact that the oil market is very tight with a spare capacity of 1.5 million barrels a days also impacts the price of oil. “The problem with the oil market in general at the moment is that there’s been many years of under investment in spare capacity at every stage in the industry and that situation has been brought to a head by rapid growth in demand driven partly by Asia and robust demand in industrialised states and effective loss of capacity in key oil producing companies. In a situation where there is very little excess capacity left in the market there is heightened sensitivity to adverse geopolitical events whether it is hurricanes or a confrontation with Iran,” explains Kevin Rosser, Senior Consultant at Control Risks. Such circumstances are hardly ideal for an America entrenched in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a deficit swelling in the billions, a depreciating dollar. Just as Iran cannot remain defiant of the entire world so too the US will need to pursue the path of diplomacy and make overtures to the Iranians particularly as American opinion is all for getting out of Iraq and not for opening a new front and especially because there Iran does not pose a clear present and imminent danger at this point in time. The stakes are much higher today if Iran was to be attacked than they were in the spring of 2003 with Iraq. Dr. Patrick Seale, an eminent writer on the Middle East believes the chance of Iran being attacked is slim. “I don’t think its very plausible unless there are some very crazy people in Washington. It would put the whole region on fire. No one believes that the Iranians are about to get the bomb. It would be in the next two years…rather than immediately now,” he says. “Iran is a proud country and a proud leader and they are not going to crumble under that sort of intimidation. There has to be a change of tone.” ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code