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US continues threats over Iran's nuclear ambitions
TENSIONS BETWEEN the US and Iran became feverish as the United Nations (UN) security council resolution (insisted upon by the US) instructing Iran to suspend its nuclear programme, passed its 21 February deadline. UN council members are now discussing imposing further sanctions on Iran.
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that since the resolution, Iran has expanded its nuclear industry. Tehran claims it is for domestic use and is entitled to do so as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But with neighbouring hostile nuclear powers, including the US in Iraq that has talked openly of Iranian 'regime change', and having aspirations as a regional power, Iran may well intend to develop nuclear weapons.
Recently, some commentators have predicted an imminent airforce strike on Iran's nuclear installations by the US or its proxy force Israel. They have cited US president George Bush's military build up in the region and his ratcheting up of anti-Iran rhetoric, playing up the idea of Iran being a nuclear threat and recently accusing it of orchestrating attacks on the US military in Iraq.
Last year US vice president Dick Cheney said: "We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon" and Bush said "the possibility that Israel would carry out a strike against Iran's nuclear installations could not be ruled out." Israel was reported as carrying out preparations for an attack.
But the Iranian nuclear programme is embryonic, frequently breaks down and is at least 5-10 years away from producing functioning weapons, especially after the break up of the nuclear smuggling network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Russia halted its supply of materials two days before the UN resolution deadline, claiming late payments from Iran.
Bush rejected the recent US Iraq Study Group's advice to enter into talks with Iran and Syria, instead sending a 21,500 troop 'surge' to Iraq aimed against the Iraqi Shi'ite Mahdi army and other militias. But much of the US ruling class and military opposes Bush's reckless policy. General Pace, chair of the US joint chiefs, publicly questioned Iran's involvement in supplying weapons to Iraqi militias.
As a result of this growing pressure on Bush and his fellow neo-cons to alter their stance, the US reluctantly entered into a deal with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and toned down their provocative language in relation to Iran. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even welcomed the invitation of Iran and Syria to a conference to discuss the situation in Iraq.
However the US is still pressing for further sanctions aimed at isolating Iran, insisting it suspends its uranium enrichment programme. Iran has indicated it is open for talks as long as the enrichment condition is dropped.
Bush is now the most isolated US president since Richard Nixon at the end of the Vietnam War. His neo-conservative agenda lies in tatters. The overstretched US military is trapped in a quagmire in Iraq and 80% of Americans opposed the troop surge. Defeated in the mid-term elections, Bush's foreign policy strategy of 'democratisation' of the Middle East is over.
A US attack on Iran would have catastrophic consequences. The US and NATO military in Iraq and Afghanistan would face fierce retaliation from forces sympathetic to Iran. Iran is the fourth biggest oil producer in the world and so could easily disrupt supplies.
It could move to block oil tankers from the Arab Gulf states passing through the Strait of Hormuz or launch missile attacks on US oil suppliers in the Gulf area, so pushing up oil prices and possibly triggering a global economic downturn.
Iran has developed close ties with Russia, China and Venezuela, so the US would face a reaction from these countries. It is also the case that massive popular reaction would explode across the Arab and Muslim world, threatening pro-western regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has long held aspirations to be the dominant regional power, sponsoring parties such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Before 11 September 2001 it was virtually surrounded by Sunni controlled states, but the removal of Saddam in Iraq and the initial rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan, its most powerful adversaries, enormously strengthened its position.
The key to Iran's ambitions lies in Iraq. An editor of the Iranian newspaper Shargh puts it this way: "Iran and Iraq's national interests are intertwined". Not only are Shias now in power in Iraq, but their main leader, Ayatollah Sistani, is close to the Iranian regime.
There is a vying for power between the US and Iran in the region. Tehran is not only engaged in nuclear development but has also increased defence spending by almost $2 billion in two years.
Iranian president Ahmadinejad swept to power in 2005 on a populist programme of redistributing oil revenues to the poor. Despite increasing social spending by 25% his popularity has fallen since then. Unemployment is 11% and inflation between 12% and 24%.
Tomatoes for instance cost an enormous 30,000 rial (£1.65) per kilo while the average wage is just £225 a month. A Tehran grocer explained his situation: "The most I make a day is $13, imagine how much I have to make in order to eat and not die." (Al Jazeera 26/2/07)
Parliament is now in open revolt and Ahmadinejad's allies were routed in municipal elections late last year.
In response to his domestic woes the Iranian president took a belligerent attitude towards foreign policy, goading the US over Iran's nuclear ambitions and making inflammatory anti-Semitic gestures, in particular by organising a conference questioning the Holocaust. He hopes to rally nationalist and religious sentiment in the face of American threats.
But some of the mullahs have moved in a more pragmatic direction and made attempts to rein in Ahmadinejad. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuked the president for refusing to take sanctions seriously, worried about the effect they are having on the economy.
The authorities have initiated a repressive clampdown after student protests in November last year, with arrests of opposition journalists. Recently, Vahed bus workers protested outside the Revolutionary Court at the trial of their trade union leader accused of undisclosed activities against the state.
With the economy a mess and 80% of exports oil-based, the mullahs worry about more unrest being sparked. So chief foreign advisor Ali Akbar Velayati was ordered to say that suspending uranium enrichment is not a red line for the regime and former president Rafsanjani has echoed his words.
Any military action against Iran by the US hawks is likely to only help Ahmadinejad and the repressive Iranian regime. It would serve as a rallying point for the Iranian masses, and the mullahs may feel a change of leader at such a time would be interpreted as a sign of division and weakness.
But a dangerous game of bluff and counter-bluff is being played and given the stupidity of the Bush government, air strikes or an accidentally sparked confrontation are still possible. The masses of Iran and the Middle East would suffer severe consequences.