Taking a page out of North Korea’s book, Iranian leaders are embarking on a new nuclear strategy in response to a decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board of directors to order Tehran to cease all uranium enrichment by November 25. The directive, watered down after European pressure, stopped short of threatening Iran with immediate UN Security Council action that could lead to sanctions. But the IAEA made it clear that the Security Council would be invoked if Iran missed the November deadline.
The Iranian leadership left it up to Mohammad Khatami, the Islamic Republic’s powerless and seemingly moderate president, to give voice to the new game plan.
He told reporters Iran would press ahead with uranium enrichment whatever the consequences.
“We've made our choice: Yes, to peaceful nuclear technology, no to atomic weapons. We will continue along our path even if it leads to an end to international supervision.”
Khatami said the international community must recognize Iran’s “legal right” to enrichment for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. “If it does so, it will open the way for greater cooperation,” he said.
Iran is basing its new line on the assumption that it will be able to pull the wool over the eyes of the world and fool it into believing that its ambitious uranium enrichment project is really part of a plan to build six to seven nuclear reactors over the next two decades to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity. The Iranians argue that they are facing difficulties in persuading Russia to supply nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor and have every right to seek self-sufficiency.
Iran’s religious, political and military leaders decided at top-level discussions in Teheran chaired by Khatami to announce a sincere desire for full transparency in its nuclear program and to accept IAEA monitoring of its uranium enrichment and other projects in the cities of Isfahan and Arak.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources, Tehran is even willing to promise to abide by an IAEA directive to dismantle its heavy water plant at Arak. Iran has no doubt it can continue its pursuit of nuclear power status while at the same time calming international fears, lowering IAEA pressure and crossing the issue off the world’s agenda.
Once the pressure is off, Iran can secretly go back to its program for building an atomic bomb using enriched uranium smuggled out of its internationally monitored plants. After all, isn’t that exactly what North Korea did?
Iranian leaders believe that once all the components are in place for assembling a bomb, or at least a prototype, the United States and the rest of the world will be forced to handle their regime with kid gloves and the Islamic Republic will be in a position to dictate terms.
Tehran also finds advantages in the American presidential election in November, both for buying extra time and for the possibility of Democratic challenger gaining the White House. A new president is likely, they think, to wave a carrot rather than a stick in Iran’s face. Kerry, in particular they judge as tending more to engagement than sanctions or military action, as recommended by a panel of 22 pro-Democrat political analysts.
Hoping to drive a wedge between Atlantic partners
The present situation is seen by the hard-liners of Tehran as a bad scene. Since Europe adopted the hard American line, Iran feels as if the world is ganging up on it. Although Europe is still opposed to a Security Council crunch, the hammer could drop any time soon.
Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, warned Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi in talks Tuesday, September 21, in New York the EU would look at other options – code for transferring the nuclear issue to the Security Council – unless Iran bowed to the European ultimatum to cease uranium enrichment by November 25.
Tehran still lives in hope of driving a wedge between Europe and the United States. Hamid-Reza Haji-Babai, a member of the Iranian parliament’s presidency, said Wednesday: “We are determined to continue the dialogue with Europe because Europe’s international relations are guided by its national interests.”
However, in nearly two years of negotiations on expanding its trade ties with Iran, Europe has never given made any concessions on two key issues – Tehran’s nuclear program and human rights. But Haji-Babai is right to assume the price Iran would have to pay for any accommodation with the EU would be far lower than the political cost of a deal with the United States.
Meanwhile, Iranian leaders have drawn up the modalities for bringing the new policy to the world’s attention. While the so-called reformists led by Khatami declare Iran is prepared to accept international supervision as long as it can continue to implement its plans to become self-sufficient in nuclear fuel, the radical camp will voice its usual threats. It will warn the international community that Iran is prepared to declare the NPT dead and cease its cooperation with the IAEA if Iran’s nuclear program is referred to the Security Council. Members of the Iranian parliament, state institutions and other organizations linked to the government have also joined in with their own declarations and leaflets.
Iran believes its announcement that it will begin converting 37 tons of uranium into Hexzafloride, or Yellowcake, a prerequisite for the material’s transfer to centrifuges at the Natanz facility, has been effective in getting its warnings across, especially when backed up by three medium-range missile tests in the past month.
In shaping its new nuclear strategy, Iran has taken three key points into consideration:
Subversion as a two-edged sword
A. The Americans made sure to leak to the Iranians that US special forces had begun training members of the Iranian opposition at a base in Tampa, Florida. The new units are learning tactics for waging a guerrilla war inside Iran to topple the government. The United States is well aware that unlike Afghanistan, there is no need for direct US military intervention to overthrow the ayatollahs regime in Tehran. With enough help, Iranian opposition groups can do the job on their own and expect many ordinary Iranians to flock to an insurrection.
The veteran Mojaheddin-e Khalqh, the best-organized Iranian opposition group, had thousands of fighters in Iraq before the US-led invasion last year. More than 4,500 of its combatants are now in the Ashraf military base northeast of Baghdad under tight US supervision. The division-size force has fully stocked weapons depots, maintained by American crews, at its disposal near the Iranian-Iraqi border.
B. Washington also leaked to Tehran information about an operations center set up in the Iraqi Shiite shrine town of Najef as a facility for Iranian clerics in opposition to the Iranian regime. They include Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Ayatollah Jalal Eddin Taheri and even the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan, who fled abroad last year and even reached the United States before turning his back on the alien West and returning home. The Americans are taking pains to ensure that Najaf can become a safe base of operations for Iranian clerics prepared to move to the city. Khomeini himself spent many years of his exile in Najef, whence he waged his successful struggle against the Shah.
If the US plan is implemented, Najef could become a particularly effective center of subversion against the religious leadership in Iran and be able to challenge the religious supremacy of Qom, the Iranian holy city and spiritual base for senior Shiite clerics.
C. The Americans have deployed forces in western Afghanistan, near the border with Iran, and established a military base at Shinada after deposing Ismail Khan as governor of the city of Herat. Iranian intelligence is convinced, and has passed on its assessment to the leadership in Tehran, that US agents arranged the murder of Khan’s son and incited local tribesmen to attack the governor’s militia. Afterward, US units and troops loyal to the central government in Kabul moved into the area on the pretext of protecting Khan. At the same time, they offered the governor the post of industry minister in the Afghan government, effectively persuading him to order his men to lay down their arms. As a result, US forces are out in strength on the Afghan-Iranian border, ready to go into action at short notice.