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catallaxy in technical exile

Iran and the US: tough talk

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This week Iranian President Ahmadinejad announced that his country had enriched uranium to a sufficient degree to allow it to be used to produce energy. We’ve also had Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker article telling us that senior US military officials (as always, unnamed) are threatening to resign over the Bush administration’s threats to use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy those parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that are suspected to lie deep underground. I’ll present my impressions of what seems to be going on.
1. Rhetoric on tap
You may remember Ahmadinejad’s comments about Israel needing to be wiped off the map late last year. Since the Palestinian election, in which his Hamas mates, to their own surprise, did a little better than they themselves expected, the trash talk has stopped. Someone, either Ahmadinejad himself or those higher up in the theocracy, likely saw that the political strategy had worked, and so could be put back on the shelf.
The point is, as students of Hamlet will know: appearing to be crazy, and actually being crazy, are two different things, and the former can be quite useful for little powers with many enemies and only the ‘possible nuke’ ploy left in the locker. The timing and intensity of the regime’s statements suggests that they are rational, that they are working to a plan, and that they are using their threats and statements as a means to an end.
2. Iran has sound geopolitical reasons for pursuing nuclear weapons
Find your atlas and put your finger on Iran. You’ll see that, not too far to the north is Russia, which has deep feelings of insecurity and wounded pride, a neurosis about Islamic fundamentalism, and many nuclear weapons. To Iran’s east its neighbour is nuclear-armed Pakistan, itself neighboured by nuclear-armed India. To Iran’s north-west is Turkey, a member of nuclear-armed NATO. And the seas around Iran are controlled by the nuclear-armed Americans, whom the Iranian regime have been taunting as the Great Satan for near thirty years now.
Add to that fresh memories of a bloody war with neighbour Iraq, and clear evidence of the different ways in which the US has treated self-declared nuclear state North Korea and nukeless Iraq, and you have a country that would gain some peace of mind from having access to the ultimate deterrent.
3. It’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war
Since the Iranian revolution, the US and Iran have not been speaking to each other at an official level. But they have been talking. The Iran-Contra weapons deal didn’t happen spontaneously. And you can be sure that they have been constantly cutting and recutting deals over the place of the Shia in Iraq and the composition of the new Iraqi government. So it is reasonable to think that, far away from the headlines, deals are being brokered – and broken – over Iran’s nuclear programme.
The reason is, neither country wants to go to war. President Bush’s Iraq expedition isn’t going well, either at home or in Iraq. He’s not very popular with the Congress or the people. And taking action against Iran would likely cause more problems for the Americans and their allies in Iraq, making the administration’s position even more uncomfortable.
The Iranians would be well aware that few regimes over the last two-hundred years have taken on the Anglo-Saxons and come away alive. The case of Iraq would also have told them that, once angered, the US is unstoppable. No matter the problems that they could create for the US, in the event of military action regime members would likely either be dead or out of power – possibilities that tend to focus the mind.
In public, it’s a different story. Talk is used to stake claims, declare positions and draw red-lines. Of course, we don’t know if Iran actually has enriched uranium, either recently or some years ago. Nor do we know if the US generals really do want to resign in outrage, or if the administration would use nukes on Iranian installations.
What we do know is that the Iranians are declaring: we have the technology, we have made it work, we have not used it to make weapons-grade uranium yet. Likewise, the US is declaring: we can hurt you, we are serious to the point of using nukes, and we cannot be stopped. These positions declared, the negotiations – wherever and by whatever means they are being conducted – will now begin again on a new level.
4. How far can the rubber band stretch?
Currently, military action against Iran seems unlikely. The recent blather has so worried the Chinese that they have sent a diplomat to Tehran to talk the Iranians down. None of the permanent security council members wants to see a nuclear Iran.
The regime seems to be pushing the issue as far as it can before all five can agree to call ‘time’ on the matter and the Ayatollahs are obliged to back down and accept a deal. Until then, we should expect to hear more tough talk.


Written by Admin

April 14, 2006 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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