Nukes, the Talk of the Town in Tehran

By Charles Duelfer

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.
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Sitting in Tehran, the world must look pretty dodgy.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has set October 31 as the deadline for Iran to come clean about its nuclear programs and allow more intrusive inspections. ElBaradei’s report to the United Nations Security Council will be closely read by the European Union, which has been negotiating a trade agreement with Iran as part of a policy of constructive engagement. And then there’s the United States, which has already named Iran as part of the “axis of evil” and can be expected to push for a tough approach — including, at a minimum, international U.N. sanctions — if ElBaradei finds Tehran in noncompliance with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

Indeed, next week’s deadline must be generating some pitched arguments in Tehran. Will the Iranians opt to respond to ElBaradei and the Europeans, or to confront the United States in the Security Council? Or will they try to craft a partially compliant position that keeps the Europeans engaged and separated from the United States? How Iran responds will be a fascinating first indication of the broader implications of the American intervention in Iraq.

Tehran’s decision is made all the more difficult because the utility of weapons of mass destruction for Iran — especially nuclear weapons — may never have appeared greater. Bear in mind that having weapons of mass destruction is not a new idea for Iran. The Shah began the quest for nuclear weapons, and the Khomeini government evidently shelved the plans only temporarily. When Saddam Hussein pounded Iranian cities with Scuds and used more than 101,000 chemical munitions during the Iran-Iraq war — with little objection from the international community — Iran concluded it needed weapons of mass destruction.

Now the Saddam threat is gone, but thousands of American troops are right over the border, having just invaded and occupied Iran’s biggest neighborhood enemy. With President Bush having already gotten rid of one arm of the axis of evil, pro-nuclear weapon advocates in Tehran will say the immediate threat to the Islamic Republic just got worse.

Moreover, the object lesson of Saddam’s mistake is clear: If he hadn’t been so stupid as to invade Kuwait before he finished building a nuclear weapon, today he would be happily puffing on Cohibas with his sons Uday and Qusay in Baghdad. It’s safe to assume that the United States would not have invaded Iraq if Saddam could have nuked American forces as they assembled in Kuwait.

Tehran need look no further than North Korea, the third member of Bush’s axis of evil, for guidance on how the United States deals with acknowledged nuclear powers. Pyongyang did little more than proclaim it had the material to produce weapons of mass destruction before Washington softened its hard-line negotiating position.

In Tehran, those arguing for some sort of compliance with ElBaradei’s demands will no doubt be charged by hard-liners with appeasement. The economic carrots that the E.U. is offering are not sufficient in themselves, certainly not in the near term, to offset the implications for terminating the combined nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs.

The United Kingdom, Germany and France are upping the ante by trying to wean the Iranians away from their program to enrich uranium indigenously. The three European countries are offering to guarantee provision of enriched fuel to Iran, and thereby eliminate the rationale for Iran to produce its own.

Enriched uranium can feed both civilian reactors and nuclear weapons, and the logic in London, Berlin and Paris is that taking the processing out of the country will strip away some of the camouflage from Iran’s military nuclear program. Tehran gave a semi-positive response, saying it would “suspend” enrichment work. We’ll see if they do — and for how long.

The big unknown risk to compute for hard-liners in Iran is just how vigorously the United States will respond if Tehran blatantly stiffs Elbaradei and the Europeans.

On the one hand, Bush followed through on dealing with Iraq. On the other hand, the United States is pretty exposed in Iraq, and Tehran may judge the president to be weakened politically at home. Iran could opt to exploit such perceived vulnerabilities using its long-standing forces and influence in Iraq. This is a very powerful tool that Tehran can exercise, one that can compare to Iran’s proxy war against Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Furthermore, Saddam’s internal security forces were quite familiar with the Iranian-influenced groups and effectively kept them at bay through a mix of techniques. The United States, by contrast, is relatively ignorant in these matters.

During the next week, policymakers in Tehran can be expected to assess how extensively their allies can tie up American forces in Iraq — and what degree of risk Iran runs in fomenting trouble there, particularly in the southern Shiite regions, but also through facilitating direct attacks against Americans. It will be difficult for the United States to find clear Iranian fingerprints when there are so many suspects in the attacks taking place in Iraq.

Another key factor affecting the Iranian response will be the degree of maturity of the presumed nuclear weapons programs. If these programs can be brought to fruition fairly quickly, within the next year or two, then Tehran could bet that the United States may be too preoccupied with Iraq and domestic elections to risk another major military adventure.

Tehran could attempt a strategy that seeks to minimally satisfy the Europeans while allowing Iran to continue the programs. One could imagine some admission of past transgressions — “now terminated,” of course — and some accommodation of inspections that allow work to continue. In other words, they could plead guilty to a lesser charge, like failing to declare all nuclear activities, but not admit to weapons development. If it suits their goal, they might even turn the responsibility back on the international community by saying such evasions were forced upon them by current sanctions.

Tehran will also have to assess how much the United States and Europeans really know about their programs. But even if damning evidence is brought against Iran, there is no question that American credibility regarding intelligence assessments has been tarnished, even among Washington’s closest allies. Denials by Tehran may go down easier in some quarters given that biological and chemical weapons have yet to be found in Iraq.

However, it is not just the United States but also the IAEA expressing concern, and the E.U. and others clearly have their own suspicions. Therefore, Tehran will have to give something. But once they do, the U.N. and Europeans will have a strong incentive to declare success. The United States may have its own problems managing its Iraq commitment, and Tehran can make enormous trouble there with little effort.

Whatever Iran declares to ElBaradei about its nuclear activities, it will be one of the first major events directly affected and changed by the Americans’ presence in Iraq. For the next week at least, it’s certain to be the talk of the town in Tehran.

Charles Duelfer is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He served as the deputy executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1993 until its termination in 2000, and as acting chairman for the last several months that the weapons inspectors were allowed in Iraq.

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