Sunday, April 16, 2006

Iran's reckless rhetoric provocative, alarming

Toronto Star:

Apr. 14, 2006

RICHARD GWYN

The good news about Iran's declaration that it has "successfully mastered nuclear technology" is that it is, almost certainly, a lie. The bad news is that even though the claim can quite easily be exposed as either a lie or, at best, a wild exaggeration, spokesmen in Tehran nevertheless made it.

There is in Iran's behaviour a quality of extremism, of recklessness, of illogicality — something close to a suicidal call: "Bomb us"— that mocks all the policies of diplomacy, moderation and patience, that are always being urged on the outside world, most especially on the U.S., as the best way to deal with Tehran.

Iran, of course, has a perfect right to develop a nuclear power program. Whether it really needs nuclear power given its huge oil and gas reserves is questionable but that it no way diminishes its right to spend money on nuclear power research.

But there's no requirement for secrecy in nuclear power research, and no justification whatever for lying about what it was doing, especially in progress toward enriching uranium, a vital step on the road to making a bomb. This is what Iran did, to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In a deal offered by Russia, Iran could have had all the enriched uranium it needed for nuclear power development, but in a safe, internationally controlled way. Iran rejected this offer.

This week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted that "uranium with the desired enrichment for nuclear power" had been achieved. A day later, a senior Iranian atomic energy official declared that mass production of enriched uranium (by 54,000 centrifuges rather than the mere 164 supposedly already operating) would start soon.

No expert believes a word of this. Iran does have able scientists. But its technology and engineering capabilities are crude. Its oil industry is exceptionally inefficient. Its civil airplanes constantly break down. Nuclear analysts believe it will take Iran at least five years, and quite possibly 15, to develop a single, crude bomb.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington dismisses the latest claims as "little more than vacuous political posturing."

The end objective of all of this may be nothing more than domestic politics. International criticism, most especially by the U.S., of Iran's nuclear program, has inspired an upsurge of patriotism that has made the mullah-led regime more popular than it has been in decades.

The scary alternative explanation is that Iran's end objective in being so provocative is to provoke.

In the current New Yorker magazine, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh claims that "intensified planning" is underway in Washington for a major air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

President George W. Bush has flatly denied this. He would do this no matter what was actually going on. In practical fact, contingency planning has to be underway.

An actual American air attack would severely delay Iran's nuclear program.

Iran would suffer terrible damage. But the U.S. would also be damaged. Its last shreds of support in the Arab world would vanish. Terrorist attacks, as on American troops in Iraq, would multiply. Iran might be able to choke off oil shipments from Saudi Arabia through the Straits of Hormuz or, at the very least, reduce them sharply. A global recession would become a real possibility.

Iran's behaviour is reckless, almost suicidal, much in the way it sent tens of thousands of its soldiers to certain deaths in World War I-type mass attacks during its war with Iraq in the 1980s.

But not entirely this time. The Cold War was governed by the doctrine of MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction. For each side, the cost of "victory" was too high. So neither moved against the other.

Iran today may be conducting a sort of pre-nuclear version of MAD.

Which isn't to say that what's now happening isn't pure madness. On both sides.

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