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U.S.: Experts Don't See Military Action Against Iran As Imminent

  • Andrew Tully --> Canisters containing uranium are displayed during a special ceremony in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, Iran, April 11 (Fars) On April 28 the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will delivers its report on Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council. It is widely believed that the document will accuse Tehran of defying the UN's demand that it stop processing uranium. Iran's leaders have repeatedly insisted that they won't change course, and insist their program is aimed only at peaceful nuclear power. U.S. President George W. Bush says he suspects Iran is working on a nuclear weapon and has vowed to prevent Iran from gaining the technology to do so. Bush says he hopes to resolve the issue diplomatically, although all options -- including military intervention -- remain open.

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The dispute over Iran's nuclear program has become an escalation of exaggeration, according to John Burroughs. He says Iran is exaggerating its progress, and everyone else is exaggerating its danger.

Burroughs, the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, a New York-based group that promotes disarmament, tells RFE/RL that Iran's exaggerations are based on pride. The exaggerations of everyone else, he says, are based on fear of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

According to Burroughs, what these other countries -- particularly the United States -- need to do is find a solution that avoids sanctions and encourages Iran to keep its nuclear program under the supervision of the IAEA.

What concerns Burroughs is that Bush is even remotely considering a military option. Some reports suggest the military option might include the use of low-level nuclear bombs strong enough to destroy nuclear laboratories buried deep below ground.

"That probably is going to require some gesture toward Iran regarding small-scale uranium-enrichment activities," he says. "That had been ruled out by the Bush administration. Much of the rest of the world would be willing to take that approach. We're in a much better position to prevent Iran at some point deciding it wanted to develop nuclear weapons if the International Atomic Energy Agency is there in Iran closely supervising Iran's nuclear program."

Many observers are concerned that the United States may be ready to take military action soon, but Burroughs sees no need for that. He says there is still the possibility of the UN Security Council imposing sanctions or otherwise punishing Iran.

Burroughs concedes that sanctions might not be imposed because that option is opposed by China and Russia, which, along with Britain, France, and the United States, are permanent members of the Security Council and so have veto power over any of its resolutions.

What concerns Burroughs is that the Bush administration is even remotely considering a military option. According to some reports, the military option might even include the use of low-level nuclear bombs strong enough to destroy nuclear laboratories buried deep below ground.

"The Bush administration needs to put aside this planning. It [military action] has zero support anywhere else in the world, and this sort of saber-rattling by the United States just prevents progress toward a diplomatic solution," he says. "And it's totally unacceptable that an option on the use of nuclear weapons by the United States remains on the table."

Next Up: Convincing Russia And China

Like Burroughs, Ted Galen Carpenter doesn't think U.S. military action is imminent. Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington.

Carpenter says Washington would use the military option only to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and points out that U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran isn't close to producing one.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivering a speech in Mashhad, Iran, on April 11 (epa)

"As long as the [Bush] administration believes the U.S. intelligence community's assessments that Iran is still five to 10 years away from having a nuclear weapons capability, there's some time before the administration would consider the military option," Carpenter says. "But of course some of the people pressing the administration argue that Iran is much closer to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. If the administration buys the arguments of those people, then we could be looking at military action conceivably before the end of the year."

Carpenter says the United States' next step will be to try to persuade China and Russia to agree to sanctions. If that doesn't work, he says, then Bush probably would bring pressure on Iran by making it clear that it would do everything in its power -- hinting at military force -- to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

After Iraq, Carpenter says, Iran would have to believe Bush is not bluffing.

U.S. Alone In The World

Iran's next step, according to Carpenter, would probably be to move ahead rapidly with its nuclear program and shift the onus of bad behavior to the United States.

After Iraq, he says, the United States would "stand alone in the international community." Its only support probably would come from Israel, and that would be further evidence in the Muslim world that Bush is on a crusade against Islam.

Carpenter proposes what he calls a "grand bargain," under which the United States would undertake direct bilateral negotiations with Iran, normalize diplomatic and economic relations with Tehran, and lift all economic sanctions. In exchange, Iran would permit unlimited international inspections of its nuclear program.

Under such a deal, Carpenter says, Iran would be able to have its nuclear power program, with adequate safeguards against the development of nuclear weapons. He believes Iran would accept such a bargain if it is truly interested only in peaceful nuclear power.

But Carpenter says he doubts the United States would even make such an offer. "The most difficult kind of diplomacy is with disagreeable regimes, and we [the United States] seem to have a policy that it is simply immoral to engage with disagreeable, repressive regimes," he says. "Unfortunately sometimes one has to, and I think this is one of those cases."

Carpenter says there's just too much bitter history between Iran and the United States, and that neither side is prepared to make enough of a compromise to avoid war.

What Would Sanctions Mean?

Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)

MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."


Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
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THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.