Iranian nuclear programme firmly under the international spotlight as voices of discontent grow in Israel
The US is keen to revitalize foreign relation ties in the Middle East. One of the historical key to achieving this is finding an elusive long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However a growingly influential Iran, who the US have insisted that they face “no greater challenge” than its emerging nuclear capabilities, has only served to complicate the interconnected web that is the Middle East. How the US deals with a defiant hard-line regime, who has stated they are only enjoying their natural rights to nuclear development, may go a long way to determining resolutions elsewhere in the Middle East.
Throughout history, the Middle East has proved a highly contentious stage for global instability and a crucial placard of colonial powers. However, although the initiatives of Western powers in recent years in addressing some of the shortfalls and historical trouble spots in the region have been bold, the Middle East continues to be platform for anxiety and future wars.
A vital icon of the modern Middle Eastern landscape is Israel, whose controversial creation in 1948 added more to fuel to the regional fire. In recent years, a growingly prominent and confident Iranian regime with its own fair share of infamy has come to the fore as a key regional power and as a threat to the delicate balance.
Iran has been pretty much in diplomatic isolation since the Islamist revolution of 1979 dramatically propelled Ayatollah Khomeini to power. The perception of Iran as a threat is nothing new, however the original threat of Shiite Islamist revolutionaries threatening the whole framework of the predominantly Sunni Arab region, took on significant meaning in recent years, with its much debated nuclear program coming to the international fore.
The current nuclear crisis dates back to 2003, when the IAEA reported that Iran had hidden a uranium enrichment programme for 18 years. Opposition to such an ideal grew fiercer with inception of a new hard-line regime in Tehran from 2005.
Nuclear technology is hardly a new concept, and many regimes posses such a capability, none more so than Israel itself, who remains the sole possessor of nukes in the Middle East. However, the danger in the case of Iran is clear, a nuclear Islamist regime that is alleged to support a number of radical groups in the region and accused of been a “supporter of terrorism” rings obvious sirens.
Stand-off with Israel
Iranian antagonism towards the Jewish state is not new, however with accession of ultra conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005, his brazen remarks towards the very existence of Israel as a country has ruffled many a feather in the international arena.
At a recent U.N conference on racism in Geneva, Ahmadinejad’s denunciation of the “totally racist government” of Israel founded on the “pretext of Jewish suffering” drew further condemnation and protests.
The Iranian nuclear programme has attracted growing attention in the international sphere. At the forefront of those opposed to any notion of a nuclear Iran is Israel. Whilst the Iranians have continuously insisted that their programme is strictly for peaceful purposes and based on their rightful civilian energy needs only, the mere idea that the same uranium enrichment process used for nuclear fuel can also be potentially utilized as a nuclear warhead, has sent the shivers down the region, particularly Israel.
For Israelis, nuclear technology for a country that has already pledged to “wipe them off the map” is a chilling notion, however theoretical such rhetoric in essence may be. Furthermore, a growingly influential Iran, in spite of the relative isolation that they still face, has a hand in many a Middle Eastern pie, especially the pies of most concern to Israel.
Iran has long been accused as major sponsors to Shiite Islamist Hezbollah stationed in South Lebanon, to Israel’s north. Hezbollah itself has become increasingly bold and determined in recent years, with increasingly capable technological arsenal said to be supplied by Iran, culminating in the deadly conflict with Israeli forces in 2006.
To the West of Israel in the Gaza Strip, Iran is also been accused of been major backers to Hamas, who only a few months ago were engaged in their own bloody confrontations with Israeli forces in the Gaza strip.
In 1981, a growingly powerful Baathist nationalist regime in Iraq with developing nuclear capabilities prompted Israel to undertake preemptive air strikes on its nuclear facilities. Now the growing question is whether an ever-weary Israeli government, could or for that matter should, deliver another preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and “neutralize” the source, as the new Israeli governments seems to have openly hinted.
With the accession of US president Barack Obama to power, it was hoped that the frequently stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians could receive a much-needed jumpstart.
However, growing mutterings from the new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has insisted that the Iranian nuclear issue must be dealt in tandem as an interconnected issue, has threatened the peace process. The general consensus in Israel is that it would be impossible to resolve any problem in the region, without finding a resolution to the Iranian nuclear headache in parallel.
However, for Iran where defiance in spite of broad international objections, a number of UN sanctions and growing threats against the regime, has become a symbol of nationalism, giving up its nuclear programme which it sees as a natural right in the face of pressure from their adversaries is most unlikely.
It remains to be seen where this leaves the standoff, especially with many Western powers keen on a “grand bargain” with Iran over it nuclear programme.
Has diplomacy reached an end?
While the former US administration under George W. Bush continuously emphasized that “all options were on the table” regarding Iran, at least for now, military strikes appear a less viable solution that could conversely further stoke Iranian sentiments and also undermine regional support.
The new Obama administration emphasized that diplomacy was possible with Iran if it could “unclench its fist”. However, such unclenching of the fist would almost certainly involve concessions that are unlikely to be stomached by Iran, such as the suspension of their much heralded uranium enrichment programme which would hurt national pride.
While Israel has played down talks of imminent strikes, rumors of grand military drills and alleged Israeli capability to undertake multiple strikes within days of been given the go ahead, clearly signals that all options remain on the table regarding dealing with Iran.
While the diplomatic channels may not have been exhausted, with Iran signaling its openness to negotiate with the US on its nuclear programme, something will clearly have to give sooner rather than later. Though the Obama administration have sounded many positive overtures in luring the Iranian regime, it has been equally keen to note that it is also ready to respond to the issue harshly by acting as a catalyst for major economic sanctions, or possibly worse, military strikes.
A persistent thorn in the US side
Nuclear issues aside, the real problem is the Islamist regime in Iran where US-Iranian ties have never recovered since the US embassy hostage crisis which propelled relations to the current lows and led to the severance of diplomatic ties.
After much sacrifice in Iraq, the US slowly and painfully realized that the intertwined web that is the Middle East needed to be approached in a much more holistic manner.
The last several years in the Middle East, particularly the case of Iraq has highlighted that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in resolving issues. As such, the US acknowledges that however controversial the Tehran regime may be deemed, they clearly need Iranian support if they are to achieve those goals.
As part of Obama’s strategy of reinvigorating tarnished US foreign policy in the region and in its reach out to the greater Muslim world, it has deployed a more cautious card in dealing with Iran. Whilst Israelis have linked the peace process with the Palestinians to resolving the Iranian nuclear standoff, the US have emphasized that to generate the needed political support, both issues must go hand-in-hand.
Issues such as the Israel-Palestinian peace process and Iraq can not be resolved without resolving associated interdependent components. Since Bush announced Iran as part of the “axis of evil” in 2002, it was clear that outright regime change in Iran remained the ultimate goal of Washington. Nuclear conspiracies that surfaced in 2003 only increased such desire.
Iranian have long held a historic belief that they have a rightful place as a key power in the region. Their distinct non-Arab identity is only compounded with the fact that they are Shiite Islamists, much to the contrast of the Arab Sunni dominated, and largely more pro-Western countries in the region.
Iran has remained regionally isolated since 1979 and many neighboring Muslim countries and not just Israel remain highly suspicious and anxious towards their eastern neighbors.
Ironically, Iran has at times reveled in its isolationism which has served well to stoke national sentiments and also increase the foothold of Islamist theocracy. While the clerics may halt their programme, it’s very unlikely that the US would halt its programme for regime change.
Iran en-route as a nuclear superpower?
While much of the Iranian threat lingers on would be nuclear scenarios in the future, Iran has clearly made huge strides towards its goal of becoming a nuclear superpower.
While for a time Iran briefly stopped its uranium enrichment programme in 2006, the mere capability of enriching uranium was greatly superseded with claims in 2007 that they had successfully enriched uranium to an industrial level.
Throughout the current standoff over it nuclear ambitions, Iran has continuously emphasized that its enrichment programs is only based on the “peaceful application of nuclear technology”.
Iranian persistence in following its nuclear goals has been met with frequent condemnation and intermittent economic sanctions. In July 31st 2006, resolution 1696 was passed by the United Nations Security Council, demanding that Iran stops its enrichment programme. Upon non compliance of this resolution, resolution 1737 was issued in December 26th 2006, which imposed a series of sanctions designed to prevent the transfer of nuclear and ballistic missile technologies. Sanctions were widened further in March 2007, when a growingly determined Iran continued to press ahead with its plans. Resolution 1803, a further UN Security Council Resolution in March 2008, was designed to extend sanctions to cover a number of additional areas do deter and punish Iranian non-compliance.
Iranian persistence not to succumb to what it sees as “bullying” tactics to end its nuclear programme is driven by international protocols that act as a guideline to nuclear development by any prospective government who are signatories to such pacts.
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT), which Iran is a party to, a country has the right to enrich uranium to fuel civilian power stations. The process to enrich uranium for civilian purposes is similar to that needed to arm nuclear warheads. However, the concentration required for a conventional weapon is much higher. Therefore NPT is designed to safeguard countries from producing more uranium than their civil needs dictate.
As an assurance to preserve the principles of the protocol, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) carries out inspections, where Iran is party to such inspections.
Put simply, Iran does have the right in principle to pursue uranium enrichment, which has only raised tensions in Iran that the series of UN sanctions and the mass objections against its programme are simply driven by political agendas.
As the nuclear battle has become a key cornerstone of the political landscape in the region and beyond, the idea of the Iranian regime succumbing to international pressure, and breaking its hard fought strides towards its current status is unlikely. Moreover, Israel, guarded by successive US administrations is controversially not a signatory to the NPT and thus is immune from scrutiny.
Orders from the UN council, however, supersede other rights and are fueled somewhat by the fact that Iran hid an enrichment programme for 18 years. The plea to stop uranium enrichment is based on the lack of international confidence on Iran’s intentions. Iran is unlikely to be allowed to diplomatically pursue its nuclear programme until the West is confident in the motives and shape of such a programme. Ironically, such confidence will not be reached until Iranian regime change is achieved.
The vicious stand-off in the nuclear affair is obvious. Europeans in particular have called for a “grand bargain” with Iran. However, Iran has been cool toward any notion that firstly takes away its inalienable rights.
Though the IAEA has highlighted Iranian non-compliances and has stated that Iran has accumulated more low-enriched uranium than first thought, this is not “enriched” to the levels needed to make a nuclear device and has also indicated that it has found no evidence that it has diverted such materials for the pursuance of a nuclear weapon.
Can Iran be appeased?
Recent European incentives have been based on the premise of a suspension to uranium enrichment. Strictly speaking, Iran can build civilian nuclear energy without enriching its own uranium and could import the civilian levels needed under inspection. Under the plan, Iranian right to peaceful enrichment of uranium would be recognized and Iran would receive help with the building of nuclear power stations, as well as receiving trade concessions.
Iran’s response has been simple, it would contest any offer other than any that firstly demanded the suspension of its enrichment programme.
As IAEA inspections and recently National Intelligence Estimate have played down the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons capability in the short-term, the current nuclear stand-off for the time been is purely political with both sides of the debate unlikely to back down.
Although Israel is not part of the NPT and thus is not subject to inspection or has to make official declarations on its nuclear capability, it is widely acknowledged to have a large stockpile of nuclear weapons. Close scrutiny of Israeli nuclear programmes have been closely guarded by successive US administration, thus affording a level of immunity that has obviously stirred sentiments in Tehran.
As far as Iran is concerned and has proudly proclaimed in public, it has already joined the nuclear elite. Perhaps it is not quite there in terms of possessing nuclear weapons, but it has undoubtedly broken the greatest challenges associated with the process to do so. Nuclear technology is a political message and a symbol of dominance and power, Iranians need nuclear capability to be recognized and respected as a regional super power.
Critics of the NPT have pointed to breaks in parts of the treaty by nuclear powers and that they have not truly moved towards nuclear disarmament that the treaty intends.
The practice of double standards?
Somewhat ironically, the idea of expansion of nuclear capability in the Middle East is not new. Egypt has announced plans to build a number of nuclear power stations to generate electricity. Egyptian plans have received backing from the US, who has stated that there is no comparison to the controversial nuclear projects of Tehran.
Saudi Arabia, even with the largest oil reserves in the world, is developing a civilian nuclear power supply, seemingly in response to its Iranian neighbors. States part of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) have also signaled their desire to develop joint nuclear technology. Jordan has also signaled its desire to build its first nuclear power plant.
Clearly, with the nuclear capability of Israel and Western-allies been allowed to develop nuclear technology, Iranian gripe is easy to see.
Even more ironic perhaps is the frequent notion that Iranian nuclear ambition is a new phenomenon. In fact, the birth of its nuclear programme can be traced back to the onset of the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi after 1953. A predominantly pro-Western state before 1979, much of the West scrambled to do business with Iran in that time including in the sphere of nuclear technology.
The Bushehr power plant, although never complete after 1979, was built under European stewardship. The Bushehr reactor was only largely destroyed between 1984 and 1987 by a number of Iraqi air strikes.
This shows that the nuclear crisis is evidently linked to politics or more specifically the regime in question, thus the argument of double standards is obvious. However, for the US which has already suffered a great Iraqi nightmare no thanks to the help of the Iranian government, the idea of a controversial power who makes frequent brazen remarks on the international stage, and supports the likes of radicals such as Hamas and Hezbollah with such technology, the warnings bells can be heard from many a mile away.
By the end of 2009, Iranians hope to have the Bushehr nuclear power plant, built with the help of the Russian in spite of strong US objections, in full swing. This is in addition to two nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak
Iranian military arsenal
Iran clearly has a thirst for power and will continue to pursue advances to its military and technological arsenal. While Iranians in theory may be appeased to stop nuclear ambitions, the threat of Iran as a military force will continue.
Iran ballistic technology is increasingly reaching greater distances to the worry of Israel, while earlier this year to coincide with the symbolic importance of the 30th anniversary of the Islamist revolution, it stroke another public victory with the successful launch of an Iranian satellite by its own rocket. This only increased Western apprehension that the ground-breaking missile technology could be used in tandem with the delivery of nuclear warheads.
If the US and its allies are intent on resolving the most pertinent Middle Eastern issues, then they must show that they are ready to deploy a level of dialogue and diplomacy to find a long-term solution to such issues.
Such long-term solutions will not be easy when the interconnected components are so delicately placed. Peace between the Palestinians and Israel has been talked about for so long, yet has frequently stalled for decades. Inflicting greater changes in the Middle East and imposing your values and ideals will not be easy without one side getting hurt.
If nuclear proliferation is currently determined on the pro-Western views of a country, what happens when that same country is taken over by extremists? Or conversely, will Iran be allowed to develop nuclear capabilities if the upcoming presidential elections result in a new reformist and moderate government?
Furthermore, if US is serious about dealing minimizing nuclear weapons in general, then they must ensure every country regardless of political status is signatory to the NPT, including Israel.
Either way, one sided resolutions will simply no longer work in the Middle East.