If recent speeches by US officials on Iran's plans to become a nuclear power can be seen as part of a build-up to a possible US-evoked regime change in Iran, the intelligence behind it is at once scant and abundant. Whatever the real official US policy toward Iran is aiming for exactly is hard to get clear, but it is noteworthy that off late, US officials have stepped up their campaign of Iran criticism.
Cautious remarks made by Porter J. Goss, the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drives home the bleak truth to US policy makers that CIA intelligence on Iran is as yet rather insubstantial. They form a stark contrast to last week's torrent of factual information launched by a major figurehead of the UN anti-nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Despite the scant official intelligence about Iran's nuclear status, last week's revelation by the IAEA that the country lied about the date it ended plutonium experiments has been among the most damning information to transpire from the country so far. Apparently, the tests to create the nuclear weapon grade material, did not cease in 1993, as Iranians had told the inspectors, but only five years later on, in 1998. It was instantly taken as confirmation by the US Bush administration that Iran is aiming to become a nuclear weapon capability.
The event coincided with Iran's presidential elections, which the Bush administration condemned strongly the eve before. It said last Thursday that the exercise was illegitimate and tilted to favor the ruling Islamic mullahs in Tehran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was exceptionally condemning, saying Iran was choking off political freedom just as other Middle East countries were exploring greater openness. "I can't see how one considers that, quote, a legitimate election," Rice was quoted by Reuters. President Bush himself made similar remarks, calling the elections designed to keep power in the hands of a few rulers "through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy."
Oddly, the two have been praising Egypt's elections as a step toward greater democracy, which are the subject of similar criticism from many international and national observers. The comments are taken very seriously however by Iran's top politicians. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi called on US President George W Bush to apologize.
All the shouting sounds remarkably similar to the Iraq situation prior to 9/11. Should a pre-emptive strike on Iran be launched any time soon, you don't have to look hard to find out how the scenario might be unfolding even as of now. Matching the recent comments by the Bush administration and a February study by the Iran Policy Committee which recommends a regime change come what may, you'd start to believe that plans to this effect are well underway. The members of the Iran Policy Committee include former civilian and military officials and attracted around 80 members of congress when they presented their document (www.iranpolicycommittee.org). The aim of the game should be to -in the report's wording- 'recall the nuclear time clock that is ticking down as Iran drives to reach nuclear weapons capability'.
The policy committee cites three recommended strategies, the most controversial of which is to remove the former Mujahideen from the list of terrorist groups and give it back its arsenal of over 2,000 tanks and armored vehicles, which the US troops confiscated of it in Iraq, having first bombed the fighters to appease Iran. The second proposal is to carry out a precision bombardment in order to disable the country's nuclear facility. Lastly, to topple the Iranian clerics, the report cites continued negotiations to get Iran to abandon its program. "These options are neither mutually exclusive nor logically exhaustive; but they do reflect courses of action being considered in Washington", the writers say. None of the politicians themselves have admitted this much, but it's widely believed that the Iranian issue is seen as posing a direct threat to national security interests.
Over the last few months, Iran has been playing the international PR card cleverly. It even consented for a second time to demands by EU negotiators that it stop its developments of nuclear energy and enable more inspections by IAEA agents. And in contrast to the US-Iran relationship, the EU has booked significant progress in its Iranian negotiations. Having managed to get Iran to halt developments for another time span of six months, Brussels officials were quoted as saying they are "ready to continue looking into ways of further developing political and economic cooperation with Iran."
It will be interesting to see how the US will padd out its Iran policies around this. If Iran is playing the cat and mouse game that Saddam Hussein played, it employs way different tactics and it will likely be difficult for the US to engage in a full blown row over anything substantial. Even the recent discrepancies revealed by the IAEA were commented on by the pragmatic Akhbar Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, the tipped winner of the Presidential elections, as an issue his regime would be able to work on with the international community. Outsmarting the Iranian regime will likely prove more difficult than getting into hot water with Saddam, that's for sure.
This likely drives frustration levels high and this might just be something that the US officials won't take for too long. "[...] diplomacy pursued by the Europeans and several U.S.administrations has produced little tangible result over the past quarter century. And unless the potential for UN Security Council sanctions is on the table, diplomacy is likely to yield few results in the future", according to the Iran policy committee report writers.
Intelligence gathering is full swing underway from many sides. The National Intelligence Council, which produces the estimates and reports to the CIA's Goss, is expected this spring to circulate a classified update that will focus on Iran and its weapons. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also begun its own review into the quality of intelligence on Iran in an effort to prevent similar mistakes as the ones made in Iraq.
"If the regime continues to prove intransigent with respect to fulfilling its obligations under the NPT, the international community may not have the luxury of pursuing only a regime change policy", the IPC report states as the rationale for any sane policy toward Iran. This is what sold the war on Iraq partially. Yet the intelligence that's gathered on the country needs to be highly specific if the government is not to make the same mistake. The statement that 'The theocratic leadership in Tehran must know that they will not be permitted to achieve a nuclear bomb status' which follows on from the urge that the nuclear time clock ought to be removed, is simply hardly going to do much for the US population.
The military action the committee proposes is not as full blown as the invasion into Iraq, but is recommended to involve a limited number of high precision military strikes, aimed at destabilising confidence in the nation's rulers and destroying its nuclear sites. "The moderate action option that includes limited military strikes would at best buy time while leaving intact or even enhancing the overall threat of the regime in areas like terrorism, opposition to the Arab-Israel peace process, and involvement in Iraq. Nevertheless, limited, precision military strikes, executed according to high quality targeting information with minimal collateral damage and casualties might not only set back Iran's nuclear program to a significant degree but likely would also help destabilize the regime", according to the report. President Bush has on repeated occasions said it would be ridiculous to assume the US government is planning to attack Iran, yet he's also not excluded it, saying 'all options are on the table'.
Last week's report by the IAEA revealed the status of some key items of contention between Iran and the inspectors. In short, the report has been highly damaging to the Iranian position internationally. In it, proof was shown of Iran not only admitting to misleading IAEA inspectors over the end date of its experiments with plutonium, but the speech by the IAEA's deputy director Pierre Goldschmidt to the agency's board of governors revealed also that Iran had acquired sensitive technology that could be used to make nuclear weapons earlier than it originally stated.
In an immediate reaction to the report, US Ambassador to the IAEA, Jackie Sanders, issued a written statement to the same board about Iran's failure to provide information on certain key points. She said that it was "evident that Iran has not 'come clean' about its past or present nuclear activities, and that it continues to deny requested IAEA access to people, places and information."
Sanders represents the US State Department, calling for strict treatment of Iran, also on the basis of the last two decades' worth of breaches of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. Most of the basis for any action by the US or the UN Security Council against Iraq will have to come from the report by the agency's inspectors. Aside from the erroneous plutonium enrichment dating, the report mentions these faults:
- Iran has only provided the inspectors with a one page document on the clandestine international network that reportedly sold it enrichment-related technology. It says it cannot provide the original documentation purporting to this deal. The inspectors believe that the offer that the network made to Iran in 1987 was inclusive of some very sensitive technology, including uranium re-conversion and casting, which could be used to convert HEU [highly enriched uranium] into metal.
- Apparently, the clandestine procurement network delivered the country the same documentation, known as P-1, to the sensitive technologies once again in 1994. There has been no real answer as to why this happened twice and the suspicion is that -given an absence of information on the dealings between Iran and the network during the years 1987 to 1993- that the information was needed for a second site somewhere in Iran. "Only the provision by Iran of further documentation and access to the IAEA can answer these questions", according to Goldschmidt.
- The information information to the IAEA, this time with regard to the dates of shipment of centrifuge bellows to Iran was also erroneously dated. These bellows were shipped in 1994 and 1995, but originally Iran claimed they were shipped in 1997. The centrifuge issue has been an issue of misleading information before, according to the inspectors, who are now saying that Iran might be hiding something.
- Iran refuses to hand over documentation regarding its what's termed 'unusual' management of the previously-secret Gchine uranium mine and mill. The IAEA has raised the interesting question of why the AEOI suspended its work at Gchine between 1994 and 2000 to focus on the much less promising Saghand mine. Was any other Iranian entity working the Gchine mine during that period, the inspectors wonder.
- The status of Iran's efforts to construct deep underground storage tunnels at Esfahan for future storage of nuclear materials is also not been declared in a timely manner, as required by its Subsidiary Arrangements.
- The inspectors were not allowed access to the Parchin high-explosive facility. "If the IAEA continues to have suspicions about that facility related either to Iran's safeguards obligations or its suspension commitments, we believe Iran must -- to be in compliance with its obligations -- provide it", according to Goldschmidt.
- Iran has continued to defy the Board's request to cease its efforts to build the heavy water research reactor. Such a reactor is unnecessary from a technical standpoint, given that Iran's existing research reactor is reportedly under-utilized. A heavy water research reactor, once completed and operating, would give Iran a dangerous "break-out capability" to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Iranian officials in reactions to the news media denied not being collaborative with the international inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. "It's possible that at times, Iran has not reported its activities," Mr Rafsanjani was heard saying on a BBC's Newsnight television programme last week. He also retorted to attempts by President Bush to speak directly to the Iranian population, saying that Iranians who were dissatisfied with the political process in the country should be free to speak their minds. "If they have reasonable points, we should accept them," he told the BBC. "If not, we should persuade them of our case."
For the time being, this might redress the disbalance that the IAEA's findings have caused. There are no direct talks between the US and Iran, but this does not mean that the US is not involved in the diplomatic efforts from countries like the EU to try to dissuade the country from its atomic path. The US is backing the EU-Iranian tri-partite talks and this way has been offering Iran on a diplomatic level better chances of access to the WTO. Iran, which has admitted it feels encircled by Western (US) forces and is mostly disturbed by the presence of troops in its neighboring Iraq, has not made it a secret it wishes to see Iraqis lead their own lives without US troops in the country. The rhetoric of course a brilliantly close copy of the US leader's words spoken to the Iranian population a few months hence. The official US line was transcribed by Sanders in her document in strict terms however. Citing a "confidence deficit" created by Iran's lack of full cooperation she says this has not been restored. "This [..] deficit stands in stark contrast to the growing international consensus that, in light of two decades of Iranian safeguards breaches relating to the most sensitive aspects of the fuel cycle, two decades of systematic effort by Iran to conceal those violations, and continuing denial by Iran of full information and cooperation to the IAEA, the only acceptable outcome is for Iran to cease and dismantle all nuclear fuel cycle activities."
Whether the whole situation is going to come to blows of course is to a big extent dependent on the US interpretation of the events in Iran, the Iranian collaboration to the IAEA and the role the EU plays in the near future. The chances the US faces if it succeeds to get the Iranians referred to the Security Council, the most logical next step if it gets support from other countries, are not altogether good. Even if other countries support the move, there is the option that China or Russia might block action against the country. Russia has agreed to supply the Iranians with uranium that it can enrich in a matter of six months, cutting significantly short the time span of seven years that the Iranians were estimated to need to get the material needed also in weapons.
Chances the US spin doctoring stand to whet the Iranian populace's appetite for regime change by altogether pieceful means are even more remote. Domestic Iranians are said to be more staunchly united than the Iraqis in their dissent for American values. They believe that if their nuclear capacity becomes a tangible item of contention on the international scene, what is likely to happen is that yet again the divide between the developing world and the Western world is highlighted. And they are right. This pretty much leaves open the military strike option and support for insurgencies by means of (open or secret) support for the Mujahideen. Which the US policy makers will likely not opt for either simply because it will likely not work out all that much immediately, despite the no doubt viciousness of the warfare that would emerge against the regime in Tehran. The Mujahideen fought side by side with the incumbent mullahs to overthrow the Shah in 1979 and then was ousted, a move that went accompanied by the killing of over 1,000 of these fighters.
Angelique van Engelen is a writer based in Amsterdam. She writes political articles and takes on research & writing assignments.