Dispatches from the Edge: Iran Nukes? Taliban’s Gauntlet

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:16:00 AM

Iranian nukes 

Are they or aren’t they? That depends on whom you ask. 

According to Associated Press, “senior officials” at the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) say Iran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and has worked on a missile to carry it. The document—entitled “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Program”—has yet to be formally released. The study is based on the intelligence provided by UN member states, not the UN itself. 

However, an IAEA official says the organization “has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon program in Iran.” 

Some of the “evidence” against Iran is based on documents that purport to show Iran was working on a program from 2001 to 2003. But the fact that none of the documents have security markings and that letters from Iranian defense officials lack government seals make them suspect. The Iranians claim the documents and letters are forged. 

According to historian Gareth Porter, the IAEA used the absence of security markings and government seals to determine that the Niger uranium documents, which the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq, were false. Porter says in this case, however, the IAEA seems to think the documents are genuine. 

Does the revelation that Iran has built a secret enrichment facility change things? That depends on what the facility—which is not yet functioning—is designed to do. To be a backup in case of an attack on Iran’s other enrichment facility, or a facility to produce weapons grade material? Only IAEA inspections will settle that issue. 

The Israelis claim Iran is within months of producing weapons grade uranium, an assessment the U.S. intelligence community disputes. According to Newsweek, U.S. intelligence agencies say they are confident that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of Iran’s nuclear capacity correctly concluded that as of 2003 Iran had “halted its nuclear weapons program,” and not resumed it. 

That has not stopped the Netanyahu government’s full court press on the Obama administration to stiffen sanctions against Iran and to consider a military strike if those fail. A report by the pro-Israeli Bipartisan Policy Center, signed by Republican Dan Coats, Democrat Chuck Robb and Air Force Gen. Charles Ward (ret.), charged that Iran would be able to produce “a weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium…in less that two months,” and that the Obama administration should “begin preparations for the use of military options.” 

On Sept. 10 the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) poured lobbyists into Washington to press for “crippling” sanctions against Iran, which included support for U.S. Rep. Howard Berman’s (D-Ca) Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act to cut off gasoline supplies to Iran. Iran has lots of gas and oil, but not much refinery capacity and must import gasoline. 

United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group founded by State Department heavyweights Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke, recently launched a TV blitz to “isolate Iran economically” to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons. 

Tougher sanctions might pass the U.S. Congress, but it is running into stiff opposition abroad. 

Russia and China recently agreed to consider new sanctions-a quid pro quo for the U.S. scrapping its missiles in Eastern Europe? But whether they would go along with “crippling” sanctions is another matter. China, for instance, provides Iran with about one-third of its gasoline needs. 

Germany will only support tougher sanctions if they have the backing of the entire European Union (EU). French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also expressed doubts, saying that a gas embargo was a “bit dangerous” and would hurt “mainly poor people.”  

Since the EU works by consensus, and since many EU members will not go along with an embargo without United Nations authorization—an authorization that might draw a Russian or Chinese veto—sanctions like a gasoline embargo look doubtful. 

The Berman bill would punish countries that traded gasoline to Iran, but that could put the United States at loggerheads with Russia, China, and the EU. Brazil has also made it clear that it will have nothing to do with sanctions. “I think there are a lot of sanctions and not enough conversations with Iran,” Brazilian President Lula da Silva told Le Monde. 

If the sanctions collapse, might Israel be tempted to go for a military strike? Again, that depends on whom you ask. 

Tel Aviv has talked quite openly about attacking Iran, although even the Netanyahu administration seems to be of multiple minds about the military option. While the Prime Minister calls Iran an “existential threat,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the press Sept. 17, “Iran does not pose an existential threat against Israel.” And according to Russian President Dmitry Mediedev, Israeli President Shimon Peres assured him that Israel did not intend to attack Iran. 

The Israeli military say they can pull off an attack, but other observers are no so confident. Even the Israelis admit that such an attack would only delay, not derail, an Iranian nuclear program. 

Some Americans are pushing for a military response. “No one should believe that tighter sanctions will, in the foreseeable future, have any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” says former UN ambassador John Bolton. “Adopting tougher economic sanctions is simply another detour away from hard decisions on whether to accept a nuclear Iran or support using force to prevent it.” 

In the meantime, Iran has accepted an invitation to talk with the Obama administration, although it says its right to enrich nuclear fuel for civilian power plants is not on the table. However, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council says that Iran’s initial position is “most likely an opening bid, not a red line.” Iran, for instance, might agree to rigorous and intrusive inspections of its enrichment program. 

Playing hardball may backfire. “Pointing a gun at their heads merely reinforces their desire for a reliable deterrent, and probably strengthens the hand of an Iranian official who think they ought to get a bomb as soon as possible,” writes Harvard University professor of international relations Stephen Walt. 

Another question is whether the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in any shape to carry out negotiations. Last month’s rigged elections has Ahmadinejad relying increasingly on the military and the most rightwing forces in Iran, and such an alliance may constrain the government’s ability to compromise.  

Iran’s internal turmoil has certainly animated Ahmadinejad’s most provocative tendencies, including his recent questioning of the Holocaust as a “real event,” a denial the late, great Palestinian intellectual and revolutionary, Edward Said, had little patience with: 

“We must recognize the realities of the holocaust not as a blank check for the Israelis to abuse us, but as a sign of our humanity, our ability to understand history, our requirement that our suffering be mutually acknowledged. The real issue is intellectual truth and the need to combat any sort of apartheid and racial discrimination, no matter who does it. There is now a creeping, nasty wave of anti-Semitism and hypocritical righteousness insinuating itself into our political thought and rhetoric. One thing must be clear in my firm opinion: we are not fighting the injustices of Zionism in order to replace them with an invidious nationalism, religious or civil, that decrees that Arabs in Palestine are more equal than others. The history of the modern Arab world—with all its political failures, its human rights abuses, its stunning military incompetences, its decreasing production, the fact that alone of all the modern peoples we have receded in democratic and technological and scientific development—is disfigured by a whole series of out-moded and discredited ideas, of which the notion that the Jews never suffered and that the holocaust is an obfuscatory confection created by the Elders of Zion is one that is acquiring too much, far too much currency.” 


Taliban’s Challenge  

Readers might want to go to, the Taliban’s website, and click on the English version of Mullah Omar’s “Message of Felicitation” to the Obama administration. There is lots of religion in it-the man is a Mullah-but what should give the White House pause is the strong current of nationalism.  

“With the passage of time, the resistance and the Jihadic movement, as a robust Islamic and nationalist movement, assumed the shape of a popular movement and is approaching the edge of victory…the policy which they [the U.S. and NATO] have adopted will only prolong the current crisis but will never solve it. This is because the existence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and the invasion is in itself an issue, not a solution.” 

He blasts the “rampart corruption” of the “Kabul administration” and its “…embezzlement, drug trafficking… mafia networks,” and “the tyranny and high-handedness of the warlords…” that “has driven the people to face poverty, starvation and unemployment…” 

Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality in the world and for every person who dies in the war, 20 die of treatable diseases and malnutrition. 

His own program is vague: “…rehabilitation of social and economic infrastructure, advancement and development of the education sector, industrializations of the country and the development of agriculture.” Omar challenges the idea that the Taliban are “against education and women’s rights,” but gives no details. 

He pledges that Afghanistan will be a “responsible force” and “will not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others,” adding, “The West does not have to fight this war.” 

He calls on the resistance to “abandon internal differences” and, while demanding that foreign troops leave, keeps the door open for negotiations: “Our goal is to gain independence of the country and establish a just Islamic system. We can consider any option that could lead to the achievement of this goal.” 

If the war in Afghanistan becomes one for national liberation, not religion, all the foreign troops in the world don’t stand a chance.