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Iran: Panel Finds Tehran In Precarious Situation Over Nuclear Program

As the International Atomic Energy Agency is readying to resume tomorrow its discussion on Iran�s nuclear program, experts point to the immense complexity of the issue. During a recent panel discussion at the Asia Society in New York, participants noted Tehran finds itself in a precarious situation. On one hand, instability in the Gulf region drives Iran to look for strategic weapons. On the other hand, the possession of such weapons may further isolate Iran and force the Gulf states into new security arrangements with the United States.

New York, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Robert Malley, the director of the International Crisis Group�s Middle East Program, says Iran and the U.S. have a long history of mistrust and tension.

Speaking at a 18 November panel discussion on Iran at New York�s Asia Society, Malley said this underlying mistrust makes it hard for both sides to interpret each other�s motives and reach agreement.

He says if one wants to understand why Iran might be interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, one must look to history -- to the period before the 1979 Islamic revolution. He says it�s a mixture of national pride and desire to be a key regional player. He says this desire has been compounded in recent years, in Tehran�s view, by a deteriorating regional environment, including the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops in both neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.

�[Iran] feels it has no true allies in the region, but many potential foes. It finds itself surrounded by countries that are either pro-U.S. or have U.S. [military] bases, or both. It finds itself with a military capacity that is insufficient to deter attack from its two most dangerous enemies, potentially the U.S. and Israel, and at the same time with enough of a military arsenal to both intimidate and to worry lesser neighbors,� Malley said.

Malley says, however, that facts -- �more than anything else� -- have caused Tehran to question its desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction either as a deterrent or a bargaining chip. One fact, he says, is the conviction among different factions in Iran on the need for some kind of re-rapprochement with the U.S. and the internal rivalry within Iran for who will be the first to deliver this re-rapprochement.

Ray Takeyh, a professor of national security studies at Washington�s National Defense University and another participant on the panel, said that despite the dire predictions, it is not inevitable that Iran will become the next member of the world�s nuclear club.

Takeyh says three factors will determine the future direction of Iran�s nuclear program. One is the type of relationship Iran has with the U.S. The second is the security architecture that emerges in the post-Iraq war Persian Gulf; and the third is the nature of domestic power struggle within Iran. Takeyh says in spite of a commonly held view that Iran is seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction in order to protect itself against regional instability, it�s hard to see how such weapons could guard against regional or local instability.

�These may be important factors for Iran�s defense planners, but nuclear weapons are unlikely to be the appropriate response to those particular [regional] crises. I would suggest that Iran�s nuclear calculations are derived from a narrower and more existential set of threats, and of those sets of threats the most important being Iraq and the United States. Those two countries more than any other two, I would suggest, have actuated Iran�s nuclear weapons program,� Takeyh said.

Takeyh says there is an ongoing debate within Iran over whether it is in the country�s strategic interest to have nuclear weapons. You see these voices, he says, not just in the Foreign Ministry or in the reformers� camp, but elsewhere too.

�And the suggestion is: �should Iran actually possess such weapons or kind of straddle the line that closely?� That [would not reassure the leadership] but [would] actually intensify [the country�s] strategic vulnerability. It is in a sense that once Iran has that sort of �North Korean status� of sort of a nuclear weapons state, the Gulf states are likely to further gravitate under American security umbrella,� Takeyh said.

Moreover, he says, the possession of such weapons is likely to generate multilateral economic sanctions from the Europeans, the Japanese, and others. This is coming at a time when the Iranian economy is already in distress.