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US-IRAN: Moving Again Toward Confrontation

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Nov 30 2009 (IPS) - Iran’s announced intention to build 10 new nuclear enrichment plants has been deemed “unacceptable” by the administration of President Barack Obama, which warned Monday of increased pressure on Tehran if it does not soon accept Western proposals to curb its nuclear programme.

The contretemps, which came amid reports that Tehran had arrested five British nationals whose sailboat strayed into Iran’s territorial waters, was the latest indication that tensions between Iran and the United States and its Western European allies are escalating rapidly.

And although independent experts described Iran’s plans, announced Sunday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as wildly improbable, they also agreed that the announcement itself would bolster hardliners in Israel and the West who favour confrontation over diplomacy.

Indeed, the neo-conservative editorial board at the Wall Street Journal Monday jumped on Ahmadinejad’s announcement to argue for a much tougher line, even “military strikes”, against Iran.

“(U)ntil the President, his advisers and the Europeans realise that only punitive sanctions or military strikes will force (Iran) to reconsider its nuclear ambitions, an emboldened Islamic Republic will continue to march confidently toward a bomb over the wreck of …Barack Obama’s best intentions,” the Journal wrote.

Ahmadinejad’s announcement came in response to Friday’s approval by the 35 governors, including the representatives of Russia and China, of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna of a Western-sponsored resolution demanding a halt to all work on a yet-to-be-completed nuclear enrichment plant near Qom.

Iran reported the existence of the Qom plant to the IAEA in late September. But the Western powers claimed that Tehran should have given notice that it planned to build such a plant much earlier, pursuant to IAEA rules that Iran insists it was no longer bound by.

Iran’s initial report about the Qom plant came on the eve of the first and thus far only round of high-level talks between it and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

While all the parties reportedly agreed in principle on a plan to ship about 75 percent of Iran’s existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for reprocessing in Russia and France to levels that could be used for the production of medical isotopes, Iran has subsequently balked at the specific terms by which the accord would be carried out.

Tehran’s failure so far to offer a definitive yes or no – or even to schedule a follow-up meeting – is widely seen as a reflection of an intensifying power struggle between more moderate and hardline factions in the regime in the wake of last June’s contested elections.

Ahmadinejad’s announcement Sunday that Iran intends to build 10 more nuclear plants of the same scale as its Natanz facility is also seen as part of that struggle, particularly because he initially appeared to favour the accord.

“The announcement suggests that the hardliners hold the upper hand in the internal debate over whether to seek some kind of diplomatic accord with the international community over this,” said Wayne White, a top Middle East intelligence analyst at the State Department until his retirement in 2005.

“For a while, I thought they were playing hard to get, but now one has to wonder whether they are sending signals not only to [the West], but to others in the leadership, that there’s no way we’re going to do this,” he added.

Along with Ahmadinejad’s announcement, Iran’s parliament Sunday urged the government to reassess its cooperation with the IAEA, while hardline lawmakers called for Tehran to abandon the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) altogether.

“If any country really wants to obtain nuclear energy, they should not try and obtain it through the IAEA and the NPT, because they won’t do anything,” declared parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, a key hardliner and long-time adviser to Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The West is at a crossroads. Either they accept our nuclear programme, or Iran will use its own capabilities,” he warned.

Washington’s initial reaction to Ahmadinejad’s announcement was relatively restrained. In a statement issued by the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said Iran’s plans, if implemented, would be “yet another serious violation of Iran’s clear obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and another example of Iran choosing to isolate itself”.

But Washington’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, Monday seemed to harden the administration’s position, calling the announcement “completely inappropriate” and “frankly unacceptable”.

“As Iran makes choices that seem to indicate that it is not at this stage ready and willing to take up the offers on the engagement track, then we will put greater emphasis on the pressure track,” she added. “Time is short and we are serious about implementing to the fullest extent that dual-track policy.”

Obama has said he would pursue his “engagement” policy toward Iran through the end of the year before assessing whether to continue it or to seek broader sanctions to pressure the regime.

Washington’s West European allies also chimed in Monday with threats to impose new economic sanctions if Iran maintained its defiance.

China, however, maintained silence on the matter, while Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko insisted during a joint press conference with Iran’s foreign minister that there remained “good scope to continue negotiations”.

While both China and Russia supported Friday’s IAEA resolution demanding that Iran stop construction at the Qom facility, it remains unclear whether the two powers – who enjoy veto power in the Security Council – will support additional economic sanctions against Tehran.

Most experts here dismissed Ahmadinejad’s plans as folly from both a technical and an economic point of view. They also noted that such a decision would be taken by the Supreme National Security Council under Khamenei, rather than by Ahmadinejad and his cabinet.

“In my view, this is a classic Ahmadinejad blustery response to the recent IAEA resolution that criticized Iran,” wrote Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University on his widely read blog. “It is also the kind of ante-raising that one might expect in a negotiating game of ‘Chicken’.”

“I think it is premature, as our British friends might say, to get our knickers in a twist,” he added.

But White warned that the announcement itself “is bound to further inflame the already rather tense situation”.

“Although seasoned observers might be able to keep their knickers from getting into a twist over this,” he said, “powerful quarters are quite prepared to use whatever they can to achieve just that with respect to the Iranian nuclear impasse.”

Indeed, George W. Bush’s former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, indicated he took the announcement seriously. “One consequence of an Iran with ten new enrichment sites is that it dramatically increases the difficulty of countering with a military strike,” he told the National Review Online.

While he dismissed the possibility that Obama would take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Bolton, who is now at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the chances were “more likely” that Israel would take pre-emptive action on its own.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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