Taj M Khattak Thursday, June 21, 2012
At the heart of the decade-long standoff is Iran’s insistence on the right to enrich uranium and lifting of sanctions before it shelves activities leading to nuclear weapons capability. In the last round in Baghdad, Western powers insisted that Iran halt higher grade enrichment, shipping out stockpiles of 20 percent of its uranium and stop operations at underground the enrichment facility at Fordo near Qom, which Israel thinks could soon become impregnable to airstrikes. These were taken as surrender terms by Iran and flatly refused. In Moscow, Iran has again rejected this “3S” demand (“Stop, Shut and Ship”) from the E3+3 countries.
Iran and the West had been polarised over the Iranian nuclear programme for years but in 2004 suspicions grew stronger about secret experiments with high explosive charges with an inert core of depleted uranium to test the characteristics of an implosion-type nuclear device. That is probably when Iran discontinued efforts to make the bomb but has remained reluctant for the IAEA’s inspection of the Parchin Military Complex near Tehran. Recently, international inspectors found traces of higher enrichment levels which led to imposition of tougher sanctions on Iran by the US and the West.
Israel’s increasing belligerence towards Iran and Iran’s threat to close the Straits of Hormuz has further vitiated the regional environments. The West is perplexed by Iran’s abstract theologian language. For example, the fatwa of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declaring nuclear weapons forbidden in Islam does not spell out how.
The West also rejects Iran’s statements that it wants to produce electricity from nuclear reactors for industry in order to sell more oil for additional revenue. In sum, a nuclear Iran is not acceptable; or, put another way, subjugation of a non-nuclear Iran through an overwhelming conventional Western military force will be an easier proposition than a nuclear Iran.
To exert more pressure, the EU has threatened an oil embargo from July 1, which will prohibit firms from insuring tankers destined for India, South Korea and Japan, all major buyers of Iranian oil. And lately the US has hinted at imposing embargo on any tanker or aircraft entering the US or the EU if it has a recent history of visiting Iran. Iran has expressed its determination not to give up its “absolute right to uranium enrichment.” But the sanctions, with lower oil prices, have been hurting and there are signs that Ayatollah Khamenei may have given a free hand to his negotiators to reach a deal, if it is only halting the uranium enrichment that the West is after, and not control of Iranian oil.
Iran is a signatory to the NPT, which does not explicitly prohibit uranium enrichment anywhere in its 11 clauses or in any of its five yearly reviews, unless one stretches the interpretation too far. It is also true that if a country can enrich uranium, the bomb is only some distance away. On the other hand, after Iraq the credibility of Western inspectors in presenting any evidence is in tatters. The lies of George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to their people in leading them to war in Iraq have also been all too well exposed.
The crisis is deteriorating with steady divergence of US and Russia in their perceptions on Iran. President Obama’s national security advisor Thomas Donilon recently warned President Putin that “the world may be about to end,” after which the Russian leader declined to participate in last month’s G-8 and Chicago summits in the US. In a tit-for-tat retaliation, Obama then announced his inability to attend a major annual Asia-Pacific summit in Vladivostok in September. China’s obsession with commerce is comprehensive and is largely seen in the background in international efforts to diffuse the Iran crisis.
The veneer of the United States’ championing the cause of human rights and democracy is badly scratched, and its global aims to capture every drop of the world’s remaining energy supplies is now obvious. Disclosures by a former Nato commander, Gen Wesley Clark, about a US master plan to invade seven countries (including Iran) is chilling, as is his remark that the US goes to wars just because it has a military which is great at occupying other nations. The US knows that Iran is not the same as Iraq and has accordingly plans to use its military war machine more than combined military might for its past two wars against Iraq.
Clandestinely, Iran’s nuclear programme is already under attack as reported by New York Times correspondent David Sanger in his book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars released recently. In the most interesting chapter, about Iran, the author describes how, after failure to install faulty parts in German-manufactured computers and power supplies, Gen James Cartwright of the US Strategic Command prevailed upon President Bush in 2006 to try cyber penetration since this stratagem couldn’t be worse than the faulty parts attempt.
The plan, code-named “Olympic Games,” envisaged a way of gaining access to Iran’s Natanz plant’s industrial computer controls by innocent introduction via thumb drive of a small bit of ‘sleeper’ code called a ‘beacon’. After entry, the beacon surreptitiously mapped the complete operation of the facility’s master control system and report back results to NSA.
It worked successfully leading to US-Israeli collaboration in the development of the “Stuxnet” bug which infiltrated a target, fouling up its operations, without tipping its presence (control panel gauges reading normally), and instructed centrifuges to self-destruct.
According to the author, in one attack it affected nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges at Natanz, putting them out of operation. They took a year to replace. But an Iranian scientist accidently downloaded the Stuxnet bug onto his private laptop and unwittingly disseminated it across the internet. “Flame,” a new generation bug, has also been launched at Iran which does not destroy but secretly collects information from a variety of sources. These cyber attacks on Iran run parallel to a series of mysterious explosions and assassinations of nuclear scientists, which strengthens the feeling in Iran that it is increasingly being targeted covertly by the US and Israel. There are lessons in this for Pakistan’s security establishment too.
The collapse of diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear programme will raise tensions in Pakistan’s neighbourhood as tough new Western sanctions take effect in the next few weeks and Israel considers its strike options afresh to set back Iran’s nuclear programme, which it insists is weapons- orientated. The sanctions imposed by Obama have been the most stringent ever imposed by the US Congress so far. The Iranian leadership might have only fractured domestic support in its standoff with the West, as the educated youth does appreciate Obama’s fair gesture of unconditionally engaging Iran in negotiations.
The stakes are getting higher as Iran gambles on its ability to close the Strait’s of Hormuz which will push oil prices sufficiently high to bring the global financial structure down along with its own destruction. But this is a gamble too far. For the controversial Noble Peace Prize winner in the White House, it is a lot different from sending two dozens Seals into Pakistan under cover of deceit. As the Chinese say: “One moment of patience may ward off greater disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life.” To our Iranian friends one might whisper in Farsi: ‘Daste pish mijjire, ke pas nay ofteh’ (extend your hand forward so you may not fall on your hind).
The writer is a former vice-admiral and vice-chief of the naval staff. Email: taj email@example.com