Vol. 5 Num 263 Tue. February 22, 2005  

Is an American showdown with Iran inevitable?

President George Bush's state of the Union speech early this month makes it abundantly clear that with the Republican hawks in power in the US the world is yet not a safe place and the distant drum of war is distinctly becoming louder. Indeed, the bellicose presidential speech aimed at Syria and Iran makes the future of entire Middle-East, one of the earliest cradle of civilisation, look anything but grim and seems designed to prepare the world for possible military action against the two countries. Both came under Bush's ire -- Iran was accused for its nuclear programme and Syria for sponsoring terrorism. The good conduct for their being spared was also prescribed. The president apparently in tantrum and breathing fire again asked Tehran to give up its uranium enrichment while seemingly inciting the Iranians to rebel when he said: 'America stands with you.' For Damascus the prescription was to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Also in a recent interview with NBC News Bush again chillingly reminded that the US could take military action against Iran if the country was not forthcoming about its suspected nuclear programme.

On all of these issues what lies at the heart of US policies are, of course, Israeli interests. The Jewish state is Middle East's only nuclear power which has been armed to the teeth by the US -- a position the US is determined to perpetuate. Although with a US backing it repeatedly committed acts of aggression against all its neighbours, the international community seemed to look the other way. It has also been in illegal occupation of Gaza Strip and West Bank including Al-Quds for 31 years. It also occupied a strip of Lebanon for 22 years and annexed Syria's Golan Heights. Israel grudges Syria's special position in Lebanon from where she was driven out by Hizbollah. Israel has always been looking for an excuse to invade Syria for all those reasons. But for Iran both Tel Aviv and Washington haven't ever ruled out the use of force to destroy Tehran's nuclear installation.

This is the scenario at a time when Iran is engaged with the European Union on its nuclearisation. The European troika of Britain, France and Germany already finalised agreement with Iran last November aimed at getting Iran to abandon the manufacture of nuclear fuel that can be further refined to bomb grade. Now at the heart of the dispute are 'objective guarantees' about Iran's nuclear intentions. The Europeans are of the view that once Iran masters making low enriched uranium needed for power reactors it will be in a position to make the highly enriched uranium needed for bomb making. So they want Iran entirely out of nuclear fuel business. In return they would offer Iran attractive trade relations and normalisation of political relationship. Also the Europeans will meet Iran's other nuclear technology needs.

It is believed that a combination of threats and lucrative offers -- the carrot and stick of sorts -- would deflect Iran from its nuclear path. But that would require a concerted pressure not only from European troika but also from America including Russia and China. If that happens, Iran's nuclear violations can be reported to the UNSC -- paving the way for imposing sanctions in case of non-compliance by Iran. But in an attempt to dilute the solidarity of powers likely to pressurise Iran the latter already offered gas and oil contracts to Russia, China and others to pursue them to break ranks with the Europeans and Americans.

The danger, however, is that if Iran blocks the consensus on sanction in the UNSC the Americans may be obliged to debate the option of war. Yet the Iranians emboldened by the high prices of oil and continuing US predicaments in Iraq feel confident that they can withstand the US threats. There is no evidence as yet that Bush's new foreign policy team will be more proficient at dealing with Iran than with the crisis in Iraq. Iran presents far more complex challenge than what Iraq did. Iran has already mastered key military technologies and has long range missiles that may eventually carry warheads including nuclear ones if it has already developed them.

However, the perception of the US and that of Europe with regards to Iran situation vary substantially. Washington views Iran as outright enemy as well as hostile and terror-sponsoring state which is meddling in Iraq and on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons with which it could target Israel, Iran's long standing enemy. On the otherhand, Europeans view Iran rather charitably. Their perception of Iran is subtle and closer to reality. They have already negotiated a nuclear freeze with Iran. The only hitch that remains is: For how long? The Europeans attach importance to Iran's competitive polity hoping that with the coming up of a younger generation Iran will be an open society. Unlike the Americans they ascribe Iran's nuclear policy to a measure of national pride and certainly not to a hostile action. If the European assessment of Iran is valid -- it is obvious -- the harder the Americans push the Iranians, the defiant will they become.

Not that the Americans do not understand it. But their concern centre round Israel's security. The Israeli Knesset was presented in July last an annual intelligent assessment according to which Iran, after Iraq, was the greatest threat to the Jewish state. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Simon Peres recently warned that the world must mobilise against Iran's military potentials. The Mossad chief also told the Knesset's foreign affairs and defence committee that Iran was on the brink of uranium enrichment capability end by the year's and it would be a point of no return.

In view of the above revelations an Israeli factor cannot be ignored in case of Iran. The analysts tend to believe that Tel Aviv may not wait for a US green signal and repeat what it did in 1981 to Iraq's Osirik reactor rear Baghdad. Such action will, of course, be followed by an acceptance of the fait accompli by an ever obliging US when it comes to the question of Israel's security.

Brig ( retd) Hafiz is former DG of BIISS.