Thursday, December 29, 2005

Iran`s Dangerous Gamble

Roland Flamini, United Press International:
The really momentous question facing the world in 2006 is not whether any U.S. troops will still remain in Iraq by the end of the year, but whether Iran will become a nuclear power. If, as many fear, Tehran`s fundamentalist government does acquire military nuclear technology the balance of power in the Middle East will have changed radically -- and not for the better. READ MORE

Iran has said repeatedly that it wants to develop nuclear power for civilian use only. But the fact the Iranians tried to keep their uranium enrichment program secret, combined with the fanatical tone of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad`s recent anti-Israel rhetoric, calling for the destruction of the Jewish state and dismissing the Holocaust as 'a myth,' heightens the level of skepticism about Iran`s true intentions and with it the level of danger of a pre-emptive conflict.

In November there was a flicker of hope when Tehran agreed to return to negotiations with the European Union, represented by France, Britain, and Germany, over its nuclear plans. But Ahmadinejad is committed to continuing Iran`s nuclear program, and despite the threat of Security Council-imposed sanctions the talks remain stalled in a fog of contradictory statements and prevarications. On Thursday, for example, the New York Times reported that while one Iranian negotiator said a Russian proposal to break the impasse would be 'seriously and enthusiastically' examined, his superior rejected Moscow`s offer of some weeks ago to process Iran-produced uranium gas into fuel for civilian purposes and then return it to the Iranians, thus removing any temptation from the Iranians of making weapons grade nuclear material.

There is no deadline for the current talks, but the Europeans and the United States must eventually run out of patience and take up the Security Council option, despite the complicating factor that Russia and China are both reluctant to apply serious pressure on the Iranians. Both senior members of the Bush administration and top Israeli officials have ruled out military action against Iran to stop the ruling ayatollahs in Tehran from acquiring warheads. But if the Iranians continue to push their program unchecked, analysts expect a more intense debate in Washington on military intervention against Iran`s nuclear facilities.

A second Iranian threat is Tehran`s growing influence in neighboring Iraq. The results of the December parliamentary elections are not yet fully known, but there is no doubt that the Shiites will dominate the Iraqi National Assembly and the government. Besides sharing a common religion with the Iran`s ruling theocracy, at least two Iraqi Shiite political groups are beholden to Iran and have open lines of communication with Tehran. The leader of the politically dominant Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, was exiled in Iran during Saddam Hussein`s regime. Al-Hakim has good relations with the U.S. authorities in Baghdad, but SCIRI`s 10,000 strong Badr militia is still funded from Iran. Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery young cleric who is an emerging political power in Iraq also has close ties with Tehran.

Some seasoned observers maintain that the main center of foreign influence in Baghdad is not the huge U.S. embassy, but the Iranian one. The Iranian agenda, they say, is to push the new Iraqi government towards a Tehran-style fundamentalist theocracy.

But others maintain that even a Shiite government in Baghdad will not succumb to Iranian influence without question. For one thing, Iran has a long history of contentious relations with the Arab world. Arabs in turn regard Persians (Iranians) with a certain amount of suspicion. For another, the skeptics point out that many Iraqis still remember the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war -- and that Iranian appeals to Iraqi Shiites to desert to their side were not very successful.

All of which presupposes that Iran`s youthful population accepts without question the government`s priorities despite such practical concerns as double digit-inflation, unemployment, and such quirky decisions as Ahmadinejad`s recent edict banning Western pop music. Tehran`s mayor turned president may want to rekindle the long-extinguished revolutionary fires and reclaim Iran`s leadership of radical Islam in which the 'liberation' of Jerusalem becomes a compelling symbol.

But Iranian students have held large scale protests before, and Iran may be heading for another hot summer. In 2003, one popular slogan was 'Forget about Palestine, think about us.' This time it could be 'forget about Iraq' -- or nuclear bombs.