Friday, August 13, 2004

United Press International: Analysis: Iran's nuclear desires and perils

United Press International: Analysis: Iran's nuclear desires and perils: "Analysis: Iran's nuclear desires and perils
By Claude Salhani
UPI International Editor
Published 8/12/2004 8:44 AM


WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- Sometime in the not too distant future the Islamic Republic of Iran will reach the point of no return in its drive toward becoming a military nuclear power -- the second in the Middle East after Israel.

A nuclear-armed Iran would present a perilous change in the region's precarious balance of power, setting the stage for greater incertitude and arms proliferation in the region. This sort of change is the last thing the volatile Middle East needs at this time.

A number of analysts believe that once Iran becomes a nuclear power, it will encourage other countries in the region such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who will feel threatened, and compelled, to re-evaluate their policies on acquiring nuclear weapons. Arab-Persian rivalry -- and mistrust -- dates back centuries. The introduction of nuclear weaponry will only serve to raise the stakes.

To date, no firm intelligence indicates that Egypt has shown any concrete interest in obtaining nuclear weapons. Egypt maintains a considerably sized army of more than 320,000 soldiers, not counting other services, such as the air force, navy, paramilitary forces, or reservists. Additionally, Egypt is believed to stockpile a significant amount of chemical and biological weapons.

On the other hand, the other Arab powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, finds itself in a far more vulnerable position. The desert kingdom is geographically closer to Iran, which it has always regarded as a potential threat, particularly once Tehran goes nuclear. Saudi Arabia's armed forces are far inferior to Iran's, both numerically and qualitatively. Already in a conventional war Saudi Arabia could never face Iran, and much less so a nuclear-armed Iran.

Unable to develop its own nuclear program, (one rumor has it because of tacit threats from Israel), Saudi Arabia, according to some recent reports, is believed to have partially financed Pakistan's program in return for a possible "lease" of Pakistan's nukes. In exchange for millions of dollars and barrels of oil offered by the Saudis, Pakistan was believed to have returned the favor by offering the use of some of its nukes, should the need ever arise.

Iran has long hoped to reach the threshold of regional superpower, and nuclear weapons will certainly give the Islamic republic that much sought-after status and the deterrence that comes with it.

If the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has taught any lessons to countries America regards as potential threats and/or enemies, it is this: countries that are better armed -- particularly with nuclear deterrence -- will force the United States to think twice before acting.

If invading Iraq was meant to remove the country's alleged weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, as the Bush administration insists was the case, the argument could as easily be made that it might have had a reverse effect -- encouraging other nations in the region to move ahead and accelerate their nuclear programs. Iran falls nicely into that category.

If, or rather when, Iran becomes a nuclear power there is little doubt it will force neighboring Arab countries to follow suite. There is then the risk of whatever actions Israel might take to prevent Iran from attaining military-level nuclear capability. Israel is closely following developments and looking at its options.

Israel has acted in the past to ensure it remains the sole Middle Eastern nuclear power. In 1981 Israeli war jets bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor facility at Osirak, ending Saddam Hussein's dream of becoming the first Arab nuclear power.

Alluding to the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Maj. Gen. Yehya Rahim Safawi warned on Thursday that Iran would strike at Israel painfully if it attempts to hit Iranian interests. "The Islamic Republic will strike with force at the Zionist entity (Israel) if it commits the stupidity of hitting the interests of the Iranian people," Safawi was quoted as saying by the Iranian News Agency, IRNA.

While this is not a subject Israeli officials like to discuss, there is little doubt that Israel is taking Iran's nuclear ambitions very seriously and developing contingency plans, no doubt preparing for Osirak-like scenarios.

Except this time the stakes are higher, more complicated and the consequences could be graver. An Israeli strike on Iran would endanger the lives of the 138,000 American troops currently deployed in Iraq, who could fall prey to Iran's vengeance. Iran is unlikely to take the bombing of its nuclear facilities lying down. Iran would never buy into the belief that an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities was not carried out with the approval, or at least an inferred green light, from Washington.

The fierce fighting between American troops and supporters of the young firebrand Shiite religious leader, Moqtada Sadr, now in its second week in the holy city of Najaf, could serve as a brief apercu of what could be in store if Iran activated its supporters inside Iraq.

A better deterrence would be to engage the Iranians in dialogue rather than to allow the crisis to develop into a conflict. Refusal to open negotiations with Tehran and placing them in the "Axis of Evil" is not going to help defuse the situation. The cold shoulder policy is the wrong policy. It will only encourage Iran to pursue its nuclear dreams, pushing the Middle East into the danger-red zone and into greater nuclear proliferation."

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