Tuesday, January 31, 2006

'Of Course We Have the Right to the Bomb'

Dieter Bednarz, Hans Hoyng and Walter Mayr, Deutsche Welle Online:
Iran is determined in its effort to develop a nuclear bomb. If it succeeds it will become the major power in the Middle East. The last hope for a deal appears to be in the hands of Moscow, which is in the dubious position of negotiating with Tehran while at the same time building nuclear facilities for Iran and providing the weapons to defend them.

In Tehran, almost everyone who doesn't live there already would prefer to move to the city's northern districts. There, where this city of 12 million climbs into the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, giant plane trees tower over villas, providing shade and improving the air quality in Iran's otherwise chaotic and polluted capital.

The wealthy merchants who live up here have only grudgingly become accustomed to the fact that the mullahs who run the country moved into their affluent neighborhoods and decided to stay.

One of the first was revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who moved into a house just a few hundred meters from the Niavaran Palace, the place former Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi and his family hastily vacated when he and his family fled the country in January 1979. The Islamic republic's top brass soon followed in Khomeini's footsteps. Today Khomeini's heirs, following an example set by high-ranking members of the Shah's government, live in spacious villas surrounded by ample parks, carefully guarded and shielded against an increasingly grim reality in the theocracy.

The power structure in Iran is reflected in the area's residential makeup, with the arrival of moving vans a sure indication of a change in direction or a shift in the leadership of this Middle Eastern regional power. Indeed, one of its more prominent residents -- former President Mohammed Chatami, who left office in August -- recently moved his office from a neighborhood near the Sadabad palaces to a neighborhood farther south. It was a step down -- both physically and metaphorically -- for the failed reformer.

By contrast, new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has moved up. Despite his campaign rhetoric about his humble beginnings, his three-room apartment in eastern Tehran and his 30-year-old Peugeot, Ahmadinejad promptly made the trek up north and now lives almost exactly in the same spot cleared by his predecessor. Ahmadinejad, a poor boy from a poor neighborhood, has arrived. READ MORE

This president has shocked and alarmed the world with his threats to wipe Israel off the map and his insistence on Iran's right to uranium enrichment, generating fears of a new nuclear arms race. On the domestic front, he has thrown down the gauntlet to his own political establishment by embarking on a rigorous campaign to wipe out corruption and rampant government spending.

The road to regional dominance

And the country Ahmadinejad represents seems to have arrived along with its new president. Despite what its US rivals would like to believe, Iran has long since shaken its reputation as a "failed state." In fact, the Shiite-controlled theocracy seems well on its way to becoming the region's dominant power, not least because it could very well soon acquire the weapons of mass destruction the west once accused its former rival, Iraq, of having.

Now that the United States -- the "Great Satan" -- has toppled Iraq's megalomaniacal dictator, Saddam Hussein, the regime in Tehran makes no secret of its opinion of itself as the real winner in the Iraq war. Iran's clerics may have a fondness for complaining about being in the middle of a nuclear neighborhood, and they naturally see the Israeli bomb as a great injustice, but their position is generally stronger than they would have the rest of the world believe .

Iran has recently managed to gain considerable influence among its neighbors. In British-occupied southern Iraq, which is almost entirely Shiite, Tehran's agents already control the police and local government agencies.

Ahmadinejad has even signed a mutual defense pact with Syria, another Iraq rival and at the top of Washington's list of rogue states. After meeting in Damascus with his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar Assad, Ahmadinejad met with the heads of the terrorist organizations Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Through Hezbollah, the Lebanese "party of God" supported and funded by Tehran, the mullahs have expanded their influence to the shores of the Mediterranean. Their Hezbollah protégés hold many seats in the Lebanese parliament and even a cabinet position. But despite having terrorized northern Israel for decades, Iran's partisans have been holding back recently.

Last week, Tehran's foreign ministry had the opportunity to congratulate another like-minded group, Hamas, together with "all Palestinian fighters." By voting Hamas into power, spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on Thursday, the Palestinians "chose resistance and proved that they are devoted to it."

For Ahmadinejad and Iran's mullah regime, Hamas's victory at the polls is one of the fruits of years of investment. After some of its officials visited Tehran in December 1990, the resistance group founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin suddenly began receiving generous financial support. Although the new relationship is said to have cost Iran's clerics millions of dollars each year, Tehran now has allies who are separated from the hated Israelis by nothing but a wall.

Having the nuclear bomb would practically guarantee Tehran regional dominance. Indeed, it is already building the necessary components at nuclear facilities in Natanz, Isfahan and elsewhere. And the mullahs clearly feel confident in their belief that there is little the international community can do about it. As the seething West is forced to concede, the Iranians are skilled at their own game. One day they're breaking the seals the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) affixed to their reactor in Natanz, and the next day they're playing a conciliatory game. Alright, say the Iranians, we'll negotiate with the Russians over their proposal to enrich uranium in Russia instead of Iran -- why not, what do we have to lose?

Weighing the options

Meanwhile, the West is rethinking its options. Military strikes against Iran's nuclear plants seem less than promising, at least for now. Indeed, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has repeatedly stated that such an attack would be "inconceivable."

Only the United Nations Security Council could impose effective economic sanctions, but they would likely be vetoed by China, which has agreed to energy deals with Iran worth $100 billion.

Experts in the West aren't even sure how far Iran has come on the road to making the bomb. Despite the IAEA inspectors' attempts to unearth the true objectives and scope of Iran's nuclear research program, agency director Mohammed ElBaradei has admitted that he has had no effective way of dealing with the Iranians' decades-long attempts to conceal their program: "We are not God; we cannot read minds."

Nevertheless, the Nobel Peace Prize winner opposes the uncompromising approach against Iran western nations plan to advance at Thursday's meeting of the IAEA's Board of Governors. Now that talks between the so-called EU-3 -- Great Britain, France and Germany -- and Tehran over halting Iran's uranium enrichment efforts have failed and Iran has resumed enrichment for research purposes, the Europeans and their American allies want the UN's nuclear watchdog agency to refer the conflict to the UN Security Council. But what then?

The Iranians have already made clear what they will do if that happens. Not only would they begin enriching uranium on an "industrial scale," say the Iranians, but they would also expel the IAEA inspectors.

Given the current options, the best chances for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute seem to lie in Moscow's proposal, under which the Russians would supply Iran with fuel for its future nuclear power plants and take back spent fuel rods. In return, the mullah regime would be required to abandon its own industrial uranium enrichment program -- and the key raw material for an Iranian nuclear bomb along with it.

During a visit to Moscow last week, Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, was more amenable to the Russian idea than his regime had been in the past. Meanwhile, China has also welcomed the proposal as an attempt "to overcome the standstill." German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calls the plan "reasonable" and "realistic."

Moscow: Torn between Bush and Bushehr

The Americans have a more ambivalent take on the issue. They too are interested in a brokered solution, but are wary of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, US President George W. Bush has already accused the Russians of complicity with the Iranian leadership. The Bushehr nuclear reactor near the Persian Gulf is being built under Moscow's supervision and with the help of workers from the former Soviet Union. The Russians are also supplying Tehran with modern air defense systems that will be installed around Iranian nuclear complexes.

Russia, the former superpower, has shown great interest in playing the role of intermediary. On Jan. 1, the country assumed the chairmanship of the G-8 association of the world's leading industrialized nations. In the wake of the PR debacle it suffered as a result of its recent natural gas dispute with Ukraine, the Kremlin is seeking to rehabilitate itself with its western partners by cooperating on the Iran matter. This explains the Russians' keen interest in successfully negotiating the proposed uranium enrichment deal with Iran when top Russian and Iranian officials meet in Moscow on Feb. 16.

Commentators have derided Putin for being torn "between Bush and Bushehr" -- that is, between joining the Washington-led, international anti-Iran front in its efforts to avert the Iranian nuclear bomb and Russia's implicit economic interests in the land between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

It comes as no surprise that the populous mullah-dominated state holds a special place on Putin's geopolitical map. After all, business -- in oil, natural gas and military hardware -- is booming between Moscow and Tehran, so much so that the two countries expect annual trade volume to increase to $20 billion in the future.

The Iran crisis has placed the Kremlin in a comfortable situation. On the one hand, the West needs Moscow's help to resolve the situation. On the other hand, a continuation of the crisis would destabilize global markets and increase the price of oil, benefiting Russia, the world's second-largest oil exporting nation.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad seems to have taken a breather in his recent series of tirades against Israel and the United States. A planned Iranian conference at which guests from many countries were to discuss the issue of whether the Holocaust truly existed hasn't been scheduled yet.

The new Iranian president is making himself comfortable in his new surroundings in northern Tehran. But Ahmadinejad, the upstart, really has virtually nothing in common with his affluent, pro-Western neighbors. "What have we come to?" asks the wife of a wealthy carpet dealer. "No one in the world is sympathetic to Iran anymore. Some laugh at us, while others are afraid of us."

But the privileged residents of north Tehran -- be it a young IT manager, a doctor, an art gallery owner, a senior executive at state-owned Iran Air or their plain but radical president -- do have one thing in common. They insist it is their national right to use nuclear power for civilian purposes. In fact, many of Ahmadinejad's new neighbors see nothing wrong with the country acquiring nuclear weapons.

"What's all the fuss about?" asks the owner of a popular Tehran club. "Of course we have the right to the bomb. Three of our neighbors have it, so why shouldn't we? It's probably the only thing Ahmadinejad is right about."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan