TCS Daily

Technology Defines Iran's Defiance

By Ariel Cohen - June 23, 2003 12:00 AM

While student demonstrations continue growing in Iran, Tehran is relentless in defiance of the Great Satan -- America. The mullahs are betting on a blend of nationalism and military technology that will secure the regime's survival. Nuclear weapons and missiles technology from Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan are supposed to shore up the 24 year old Shari'a rule and protect it from a U.S.-led regime-change operation. However, Tehran is coming under geopolitical pressure from the increased U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. As such, the hard-liners may be miscalculating: American technological superiority in military and intelligence fields, and the spread of global communications may be the trends that will overpower the Islamic regime in the near future.

In a recent conversation at an energy conference in Istanbul, Turkey, a senior Iranian official offered this author no excuses for the Iranian support of Hizbollah, the Lebanon-based radical Muslim movement. Moreover, the Iranian claimed that U.S. has supported Al Qaeda, and that Usama bin Laden is a tool of American intelligence services. "The U.S.", the Iranian official said, "went to war in Iraq for oil... America is run by a small, two percent minority of arms merchants and Zionists," the official claimed. Ironically, two representatives of TotalFinaElf, a French oil company, and a Russian journalist, also present, mostly agreed with the Iranian.

Despite this, the tone of official Iranian statements has been changing. U.S. technological superiority and proliferation of satellite TV and radio broadcasts beamed into Iran are scaring decision-makers in Tehran. In an interview to the national news agency IRNA on May 1, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi announced that Teheran wants to promote a regional defense system in the Caucasus, to include all three Caucasian countries, as well as Iran, Russia and Turkey. Kharrazi further declared that "the Caucasus is an integral part of Iran's national interests."

On Saturday, May 10, M. Javad Zarif, Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, in an op-ed in The New York Times ("A Neighbor's Vision of the New Iraq") revived the mid-1980s idea of a regional security and cooperation framework for the Gulf. The idea, later endorsed by the U.N. Security Council resolution brought the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war to the end, but the regional security provisions foundered. If implemented, Zarif argued, the region would be spared the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a decade of sanctions, and the second Gulf War.

What is this newly found Iranian penchant for regional security? It is a part of a new defensive strategy most comprehensively outlined in a recent interview by the Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani to the conservative Iranian newspaper Siaset-e Rouz.

The Iranian Defense Minister called the current period a "turning point" in the Middle East. After the 1979 victory of the Islamic revolution, Iran came under a broad spectrum of threats, including espionage, terrorism, low intensity conflict, and outright conventional attack by Iraq. Some threats, Shamkhani said, had domestic roots, such as left-wing movements which came to oppose the Islamic Republic, while others had "regional" causes, such as Iraqi and Saudi hostility. Iran views the U.S., which supported Saddam Hussein in his attack against Iran, as the main hostile superpower over the last two decades.

The strategic answer of Iran to this array of threats was to create a "deterrent defense", which does not mean Iran will take offensive measures, Shamkhani said, in a language eerily reminding of mutually assured destruction rhetoric of the 1950s Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. "We are in struggle to sustain the enemy's first strike. The first strike will not lead to surrender, but it should be seen as a warning... If there is the capability to sustain a first strike, there is a basis for Iranian second strike against the threats. Thus, Iran's objectives are of a defensive nature... Defensive deterrence causes the enemy to relinquish the threats. Because under such circumstances every country must take into consideration the risk it runs if it takes offensive measures against Iran," Shamkhani said. The Defense Minister's rhetoric indicates that Iran already possesses or is close to obtaining nuclear weapons and it is betting its future on building and maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

Shamkhani was proud of the Iranian policy of self-reliance, which boosted conventional military-industrial capabilities. Today Iran is manufacturing helicopters, submarines, warships and Shihab missiles. The Iranian Defense Minister, however, did not expand on the nuclear program the Bush administration believes Tehran is pursuing.

Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham stated in Moscow on August 1, 2002, that Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction. On February 9, 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced that Iran was mining its own uranium and would process its own spent fuel, raising concerns of a robust Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Last December 13, CNN published commercial satellite imagery of two secret Iranian uranium enrichment installations in Arak and Natanz. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated that "Iran is actively working to develop nuclear weapons capability" and declared, in the CNN interview on December 13, that Iran's energy needs do not justify these nuclear facilities. Moreover, Boucher said that Iran flares more natural gas annually than the equivalent energy its future reactor could produce. Thus, the alleged power-generation applications of the$800-million Bushehr nuclear plant and the two follow-up nuclear reactors seem neither economically justified nor truthful.

According to U.S. intelligence and defense officials quoted in The New York Times on December 16, Iran is actively working on a nuclear weapons program -- with Russian help -- and like North Korea, Iran seems to be pursuing both enriched uranium and plutonium options for its nuclear weapons.

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Chairman Mohammed ElBaradei said late last year that the alleged uranium enrichment plant could produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear bombs and the heavy water plant could be used in the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Most recently, ElBaradei said that Iran has violated the IAEA regime by hiding Chinese-supplied uranium. Moreover, Iranians paid for lessons from North Korean experts on how to hide from international inspectors, Korean newspapers reported.

Henry Sokolski, former Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy at the Department of Defense during the first Bush administration, suggested at an American Enterprise Institute panel that IAEA safety measures are not sufficient to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Iranian rhetoric about collective security while apparently building nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile arsenal indicates that the supreme leadership in Tehran has analyzed "correlation of forces" and understands futility of frontal confrontation with Washington. Tehran is also trying to split Europe and the United States by promising Europeans lucrative energy deals.

Unlike North Korea, which is escalating both rhetoric and posture, Iran is playing for time while keeping a low profile. Its trump card is operational nuclear weapons deployed on ballistic missiles. Washington, however, understands that a combination of military, intelligence and mass communication technological superiority may bring the Iranian regime down. If not, a nuclear-armed, terrorism-exporting Iran may drop collective security rhetoric overnight.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Hizb ut-Tahrir Threatens U.S. Interests in Central Asia (May 2003), and, with Gerald P. O'Driscoll of The Road for Economic Prosperity for Post-Saddam Iraq (2003). His expertise includes international energy security.

TCS Daily Archives