Iran and the Crash of 2006

January 07, 2006
The Chicago Tribune
Marvin Zonis

Since the election of new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, Iran's leaders have taken to making unusually frank statements committing their country to mastering the entire nuclear fuel cycle, thus giving them the potential to divert enriched uranium or plutonium for constructing nuclear weapons. Here is a sampling:

"We want the fuel cycle. It is the right of all countries, including Iran."

President Ahmadinejad, Sept. 18, 2005

"The Iranian nation does not accept that achieving nuclear science could be permitted for one country and prohibited for another on baseless grounds."

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Oct. 21, 2005

While the Iranian government's commitment to an independent nuclear fuel cycle has become all too evident, so too has their deep rooted anti-Zionism and anti-Judaism.

"Israel must be wiped off the map."

President Ahmadinejad at the "World Without Zionism" conference, Oct. 26, 2005

"Some European countries insist on saying that Hitler killed millions of innocent Jews in gas chambers, although we don't accept this claim. If the Europeans are honest, they should give some of their provinces in Europe--like in Germany, Austria or other countries--to the Zionists and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe."

President Ahmadinejad at the Islamic Conference Organization, Mecca, Dec. 8, 2005

What is going on here?

Two conclusions seem warranted.

The Iranians are pursuing mastery of an independent nuclear fuel cycle so they can "go" nuclear when they want to go nuclear. Iran, under the Shah, began acquiring nuclear expertise in the 1960s and the country has been committed ever since to mastering the nuclear process.

Hatred of Israel and a deep disdain for Judaism is a bedrock of the Iranian revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini made no secret of his hatred and Iran is the leading advocate of traditional anti-Semitism. ("The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a 100-year-old book that asserts the Jewish cabal's plot to rule the world, is still published in Iran and even exhibited in international book fairs.) Despite being a "people of the Book," as the Koran has it, many Iranians see the Jews and Israel as a living rebuke and offense to Islam. The failure of Islamic states of the Middle East to eliminate Israel has served as a powerful psychological blow to the Iranians.

What is so menacing is the merging of these two Iranian commitments--a nuclear-armed Iran committed to the elimination of the state of Israel. While it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty if this is what the Iranians are up to, it would be folly to ignore the president's remarks and not take them with the utmost seriousness. Many, including many German Jews, made the fatal mistake of not taking a past leader's anti-Semitism seriously.

U.S. policy

American interests both collide and coincide with Iranian interests. Most important, the U.S. wishes to see Iran shorn of any nuclear capability. (But U.S. credibility as the world's leader of anti-proliferation efforts has been damaged by its decision to transfer nuclear technology to India, which also is being allowed to buy some $5 billion of U.S. weaponry--all apparently done to build up India as a counterweight to growing Chinese power.)

The U.S. sees Iran as "sheltering and supporting" Islamic radicals. President Bush has made the point that the "United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor terrorists, because they are equally guilty of murder."

Iranian and U.S. goals also collide in Iraq, where Iran seeks an Iranian-dominated Shiite government.

In some ways, U.S. and Iranian goals have coincided--both governments hated the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both governments hated Saddam Hussein. The U.S. ousted both.

President Bush has referred to Iran as an "outlaw regime." That is clear. What is not clear is what to do about that "outlaw regime."

The Israelis and their chief lobbying ally in the U.S., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have recently complained about U.S. inaction. The Israeli chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, warns that the world has until March to seek a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iranian nukes, after which "other means" would need to be pursued. Not long after, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon added that "Iran's enemies have `the capability' to use military force to disrupt Iran's bid for nuclear arms, adding that `before exercising it, every attempt should be made to pressure Iran into stopping its activity.'"

But the Israelis complain that despite these warnings, the U.S. failed to insist that the International Atomic Energy Agency refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible political and economic sanctions. The U.S., according to the Israelis, also failed to protest Russia's selling Iran anti-aircraft missiles, which Iran would use to protect its nuclear sites. The Israelis also worry over the permission the U.S. has given its ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to talk directly to the Iranians about Iraq. They fear that the U.S. needs Iranian cooperation to stabilize Iraq to allow significant U.S. troop withdrawals in 2006. In return, the U.S. has lessened its pressure on Iran.

All this has led AIPAC to issue an unusual criticism of Bush administration policies, warning that further delay in dealing with Iran's nuclear program "poses a severe danger to the United States and our allies, and puts America and our interests at risk."

President Bush has repeatedly refused to rule out the use of force against Iran's nuclear program. "As I say," the president said on Israeli TV in October, "all options are on the table. The use of force is the last option for any president and, you know, we've used force in the recent past to secure our country." The U.S. has no good options in Iran. Neither do the Israelis. But what seems certain is that those countries will have to choose among those bad alternatives and act in 2006. It won't be pretty.

* By Marvin Zonis, a professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Business of the University of Chicago and the author of "Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah."

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