the Risk of War in Iran
F. William Engdahl
30 January, 2006
In the past weeks media reports
have speculated that Washington is 'thinking the unthinkable,'
namely, an aggressive, pre-emptive nuclear bombardment of Iran,
by either the United States or Israel, to destroy or render useless
the deep underground Iranian nuclear facilities.
The possibility of war against Iran presents a geo-strategic
and geopolitical problem of far more complexity than the bombing
and occupation of Iraq. And Iraq has proven complicated enough
for the United States. Below we try to identify some of the main
motives of the main actors in the new drama and the outlook for
The dramatis personae include the Bush Administration, most especially
the Cheney-led neo-conservative hawks in control now of not only
the Pentagon, but also the CIA, the UN Ambassadorship and a growing
part of the State Department planning bureaucracy under Condi
Rice. It includes Iran, under the new and outspoken President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It includes Putin's Russia, a nuclear-armed
veto member of the UN Security Council. It includes a nuclear-armed
Israel, whose acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, recently declared
that Israel could 'under no circumstances' allow Iranian development
of nuclear weapons 'that can threaten our existence.' It includes
the EU, especially Security Council Permanent Member, France
and the weakening President Chirac. It includes China, whose
dependence on Iranian oil and potentially natural gas is large.
Each of these actors has differing agendas and different goals,
making the issue of Iran one of the most complex in recent international
politics. What's going on here? Is a nuclear war, with all that
implies for the global financial and political stability, imminent?
What are the possible and even probable outcomes?
The basic facts
First the basic facts as can be verified. The latest act by Iran's
President, Ahmadinejad, announcing the resumption of suspended
work on completing a nuclear fuel enrichment facility along with
two other facilities at Natanz, sounded louder alarm bells outside
Iran than his inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric earlier, understandably
so. Mohamed El Baradei, Nobel Peace prize winning head of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body, has said he
is not sure if that act implies a nuclear weapons program, or
whether Iran is merely determined not to be dependent on outside
powers for its own civilian nuclear fuel cycle. But, he added,
the evidence for it is stronger than that against Saddam Hussein,
a rather strong statement by the usually cautious El Baradei.
The result of the resumption of research at Natanz appears to
have jelled for the first time, a coalition between USA and the
EU, including Germany and France, with China and even Russia,
now joining in urging Iran to desist. Last August President George
Bush announced, in regard to Iran's announced plans to resume
enrichment regardless of international opinion, that 'all options
are on the table.' That implied in context a nuclear strike on
Iranian nuclear sites. That statement led to a sharp acceleration
of EU diplomatic efforts, led by Britain, Germany and France,
the so-called EU-3, to avoid a war. The three told Washington
they were opposed to a military solution. Since then we are told
by Der Spiegel and others the EU view has changed to appear
to come closer to the position of the Bush Administration.
It's useful briefly to review the technology of nuclear fuel
enrichment. To prepare uranium for use in a nuclear reactor,
it undergoes the steps of mining and milling, conversion, enrichment
and fuel fabrication. These four steps make up the 'front end'
of the nuclear fuel cycle.
After uranium has been used in a reactor to produce electricity
it is known as 'spent fuel,' and may undergo further steps including
temporary storage, reprocessing, and recycling before eventual
disposal as waste. Collectively these steps are known as the
'back end' of the fuel cycle.
The Natanz facility is part of the 'front end' or fuel preparation
cycle. Ore is first milled into Uranium Oxide (U3O8), or 'yellowcake,'
then converted into Uranium Hexaflouride (UF6) gas. The Uranium
Hexaflouride then is sent to an enrichment facility, in this
case Natanz, to produce a mix containing 3-4% of fissile U235,
a non-weapons-grade nuclear fuel. So far, so good more or less
in terms of weapons danger.
Iran is especially positioned through geological fortune to possess
large quantities of uranium from mines in Yazd Province, permitting
Iran to be self-sufficient in fuel and not having to rely on
Russian fuel or any other foreign imports for that matter. It
also has a facility at Arak which produces heavy water, which
is used to moderate a research reactor whose construction began
in 2004. That reactor will use uranium dioxide and could enable
Iran to produce weapons grade plutonium which some nuclear scientists
estimate could produce an amount to build one to two nuclear
devices per year. Iran officially claims the plant is for peaceful
medical research. The peaceful argument here begins to look thinner.
Nuclear enrichment is no small item. You don't build such a facility
in the backyard or the garage. France's large Tricastin enrichment
facility provides fuel for the nuclear electricity grid of EdF,
as well as for the French nuclear weapons program. It needs four
large nuclear reactors, just to provide over 3000 MWe power for
it. Early US enrichment plants used gaseous diffusion. Enrichment
plants in EU and Russia use a more modern centrifuge process
that uses far less energy per unit of enrichment. The latter
or centrifuge process is also the Iranian type.
To make weapons grade Uranium requires more than conventional
civilian electric power grade uranium fuel.
'Unmaking' weapons grade uranium today is also a geopolitically
interesting process, not irrelevant to the current dispute over
Iran. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, under agreements
designed to insure that the Soviet nuclear arsenal would be converted
to peaceful uses, military weapons uranium came on to the civilian
market under a US-Russian agreement.
Today more than half of all the uranium used for electricity
in the USA nuclear power plants comes from Russian military stockpiles.
Currently 20% of all electricity produced in the US is nuclear
generated meaning that Russian uranium fuels some 10% of all
In 1994 a $12 billion contract was signed between the US Enrichment
Corporation (now USEC Inc) and Russia's Techsnabexport (Tenex)
as agents for the US and Russian governments. USEC agreed to
buy a minimum of 500 tonnes of weapons-grade uranium over 20
years, at a rate of up to 30 tonnes/year beginning 1999. The
uranium is blended down to 4.4% U-235 in Russia. The USEC then
sells it to its US power utility customers as fuel. In September
2005 this program reached its halfway point of 250 tonnes or
elimination of 10,000 nuclear warheads.
Worldwide, one sixth of the global market of commercial enriched
uranium is supplied by Russia from Russian and other weapons-grade
uranium stocks. Putin has many cards to play in the showdown
over Iran's nuclear program.
The issue of whether Iran was secretly building a nuclear weapon
capability first surfaced from allegations by an Iranian exile
opposition group in 2002.
Natanz has been under IAEA agency purview since suspicions about
Iran's activities surfaced. It was prompted by reports from an
Iranian opposition organization, National Council of Resistance
of Iran (NCRI), and led IAEA head Mohamed El Baradei to tour
Iran's nuclear facilities in February 2002, including the incomplete
plant in that city of Natanz about 300 miles south of Tehran.
The NCRI is the political arm of the controversial People's Mujahedeen
of Iran, which both EU and US governments officially brand terrorist
but unofficially work with increasingly against the Teheran theocracy.
Possible Iranian strategy
It's undeniably clear that Iran's newly-elected President
Ahmadinejad has a more confrontational policy than his predecessor.
The Iranian Ambassador to Vienna, speaking at a conference in
Austria where this author was present in September 2005, shocked
his audience by stating essentially the same line of confrontational
rhetoric: 'If it comes to war, Iran is ready'.
Let's assume that the Western media is correctly reporting the
strident militant speeches of the President. We must also assume
that in that theocratic state, the ruling mullahs, as the most
powerful political institution in Iran, are behind the election
of the more fundamentalist Ahmadinejad. It has been speculated
that the aim of the militancy and defiance of the US and Israel
is to revitalize the role of Iran as the 'vanguard' of an anti-Western
theocratic Shi'ite revolution at a time when the mullahs' support
internally, and in the Islamic world, is fading.
Let's also assume Ahmadinejad's actions are quite premeditated,
with the intent to needle and provoke the west for some reason.
If pushed against the wall by growing western pressures, Ahmadinejad's
regime has apparently calculated that Iran has little to lose
if it hit back.
He is also no rogue agent in opposition to the Iranian clergy.
According to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn of January
24, 2006, Ayatollah Jannati, Secretary of the Guardian Council
of the Constitution, stressed Iran's determination to assert
its 'inalienable' rights: 'We appreciate President Ahmadinejad
because he is following a more aggressive foreign policy on human
rights and nuclear issues than the former governments of Khatami
and Rafsanjani,' the Ayatollah reportedly said. 'President Ahmadinejad
is asking, ''why only you (western powers) should send inspectors
for human rights or nuclear issues to Iran - we also want to
inspect you and report on your activities,' Jannati said. The
paper's Teheran correspondent added, 'the mood within the country's
top leadership remains upbeat and the general belief was that
it would be possible to ride out international sanctions - if
it comes to that.'
In this situation, some exile Iranians feel it would bolster
Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs to be handed a new UN sanction
punishment. It could be used to whip up nationalism at home and
tighten their grip on power at a time of waning revolutionary
spirit in the country.
Ahmadinejad has been taking very provocative, and presumably
calculated measures including breaking nuclear-facility seals,
to announcing a major conference that would question evidence
that the Nazis conducted a mass murder of European Jews during
World War II. Yet he also has stressed several times publicly
that in accord with strict Islam law, Iran would never deploy
a nuclear device, a weapon of mass destruction, and that it is
only asserting its right as a sovereign nation to an independent
full-cycle civilian nuclear program.
The history of Iran's nuclear efforts should be noted. It began
in 1957 when Reza Shah Pahlevi signed a civilian Atoms for Peace
agreement with Eisenhower's administration. Iran received a US
research reactor in 1967. Then in 1974 after the first oil shock,
the Shah created the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, explicitly
tasked to develop civilian nuclear power to displace oil freeing
more oil for export, and for developing a nuclear weapon. The
Bushehr reactor complex of civilian power reactors was begun
by West Germany in the 1970's under the Shah, the same time Iran
began buying major shares of key German companies such as Daimler
and Krupp. After his 1979 ascent to power, Ayatollah Khomeini
ordered all work on the nuclear program halted, citing Islamic
beliefs that weapons of mass destruction were immoral.
In 1995, the Russian Foreign Ministry signed a contract with
the Iranian government to complete the stalled Bushehr plant,
and to supply it with Russian nuclear fuel, provided Iran agreed
to allow IAEA monitoring and safeguards. According to an article
in the March 2004 MERIA Journal, that 1995 Russia-Iran deal included
potentially dangerous transfers of Russian technology such as
laser enrichment from Yefremov Scientific Research Institute
(NIIEFA). Iran's initial deal with Russia in 1995 included a
centrifuge plant that would have provided Iran with fissile material.
The plant deal was then canceled at Washington's insistence.
The monitoring of Bushehr continued until the reports from NCRI
of secret nuclear weapons facilities in 2002 led to increased
pressure on Iran, above all from President Bush, who labeled
Iran one of a three nation 'axis of evil' in his January 2002
State of the Union speech. That was when the Bush Administration
was deeply in preparation of regime change in Iraq however and
Iran took a back seat, not least as Washington neo-conservatives
such as Ahmad Chalabi had convinced the Pentagon his ties to
Teheran could aid their Iraq agenda.
Since that time, relations between Washington and Teheran have
become less than cordial. Iran has been preparing for what it
sees as an inevitable war with the United States. Brig. Gen.
Mohammad-Ali Jaafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards'
army, told the official IRNA news agency on October 9 2005, 'As
the likely enemy is far more advanced technologically than we
are, we have been using what is called 'asymmetric warfare' methods.
We have gone through the necessary exercises and our forces are
now well prepared for this.' This presumably includes terrorist
attacks and the use of weapons of mass destruction and their
means of delivery, ballistic missiles.
On January 20 2006 Iran announced it had decided to withdraw
investments from Europe. This was the same week UBS Bank in Zurich
announced it was closing all Iranian accounts. According to US
Treasury reports, Iran has an estimated $103 billion in dollar-denominated
assets alone. There is potential to cause short-term financial
distress, though likely little more should Iran sell all dollar
What seems clear is that Iran is defiantly going ahead with completion
of an independent nuclear capability and insists it is abiding
by all rules of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA.
Iran also apparently feels well prepared to sit out any economic
sanctions. The country is the second largest OPEC oil producer
(4.1 million barrels/day in 2005) next to Saudi Arabia (9.1 million
bpd). It is fourth largest in the world just under the total
oil production of the USA (4.9 million bpd). Russia with 9.5million
bpd production in 2005 takes claim to being the world's largest
Iran has also accumulated a strong cash position from the recent
high oil price, earning some $45 billion in oil revenue in 2005,
double the average for 2001-2003. This gives it a war chest cushion
against external sanctions and the possibility to live for months
with cutting its oil export all or partly. That is clearly one
of the implicit weapons Iran knows it holds and would clearly
use in event the situation escalated into UN Security Council
economic sanctions. In today's ultra-tight oil supply market,
with OPEC producing at full capacity, there would be no margin
to replace 4 million Iranian barrels a day. A price shock level
of $130 to $150 is quite likely in that event.
Iran now has decisive influence within the Shi'ite dominated
new Iraqi government. The most influential figure in Iraq today
is the Shi'ite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Mohammad al-Sistani,
the 75 year old cleric born in Iran. On January 16 2006, after
the new Iraqi government offered al-Sistani Iraqi citizenship,
he replied, 'I was born Iranian and I will die Iranian.' That
also gives Teheran significant leverage over the political developments
The Israeli options
Israel has been thrown into a political crisis at just
this time of Iran's strident moves, with the removal of the old
warrior, Ariel Sharon, from the scene. Israeli elections will
come March 28 for a new government. Contenders include the present
acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Israeli media reports that
President George W. Bush has decided to do what he can to try
and ensure that Olmert, standing in for an incapacitated Ariel
Sharon, is elected to be full-time prime minister when Israelis
go to the polls on March 28. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
has invited Olmert to visit Washington DC, probably sometime
Other reports are that the Vice President, we might say, the
'spiritual leader' of the US hawks, Dick Cheney, has been covertly
aiding the Benjamin Netanyahu candidacy as new head of the right-wing
Likud. Netanyahu is also directly tied to the indicted US Republican
money launderer, Jack Abramoff during the time Netanyahu was
Sharon's Finance Minister. Washington journalists report that
Vice President Dick Cheney, and his advisers David Addington
and John Hannah, are working behind the scenes to ensure that
former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu succeeds acting Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert in March. Cheney is working to defeat the
more moderate Kadima Party -- formed by Ariel Sharon and his
more moderate ex-Likud allies-- in the March 28 elections.
Bush has not come out with direct vocal support for Olmert, but
Olmert has stressed that he will continue to work with America
to realize a Palestinian state. Israeli press report the new
middle-of-road (Israeli middle) party of Olmert and Sharon-Kadima--will
probably win landslide elections to the dismay of Cheney's and
Karl Rove's Christian Right and neo-conservative base. According
to the Palestine newspaper, Al-Manar, the Bush Administration
is conducting secret contacts with the Palestinian Authority
and Arab countries in an effort to have them help strengthen
Olmert's stature. The US reportedly informed them that it is
interested in having Olmert head Kadima and "continue the
process that Sharon began to solve the Palestinian-Israel conflict."
The paper further reports that Washington feels that Olmert is
a 'smart leader who will be able, with his advisors, to lead
the peace process and rebuff the political machinations against
The Bush White House even informed Olmert, according to the paper,
that it would like him to keep Sharon's advisors on his team,
especially Dov Weisglass and Shimon Peres. Weisglass, Sharon's
personal lawyer and broker of ties to Washington, recently said
he was in almost daily contact with Condi Rice.
On January 22, Olmert addressed the issue of Iran. According
to Israeli State Radio, he said that Iran was trying to engage
Israel in the conflict surrounding Tehran's ongoing nuclear enrichment
efforts, and that he concurs with Ariel Sharon's position that
Israel would not lead the battle against Iran. He said that that
'responsibility falls first and foremost on the United States,
Germany, France and the Security Council. We do not have to be
the leaders.' By contrast, his Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz,
stated Israel will not tolerate Iran achieving nuclear independence,
a statement that analysts feel signals a military action by Jerusalem
is possible, with or without official US sanction.
This all would indicate that there is a definite split within
Israel between a future Olmert government not eager to launch
a pre-emptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities versus
the ever-hawkish neo-conservative-tied Netanyahu. Notably, prominent
Washington neo-conservative, Kenneth Timmerman, told Israeli
radio in mid January that he expects an Israeli pre-emptive strike
on Iran 'within the next 60 days,' i.e. just after Israeli elections
or just before. Timmermann is close to Richard Perle, the indicted
Cheney chief of staff, Lewis Libby, to Doug Feith and Michael
The question is whether ordinary Israelis are war weary, whether
with Palestine or with Iran, and seek a compromise solution.
Polls seem to indicate so. However, the very strong showing of
Hamas in the January 25 Palestine elections could change the
Israeli mood. The day after their vote success, Hamas leader
Mahmoud A-Zahhar claimed that his movement will not change its
covenant calling for the destruction of Israel, reported the
Israeli online news portal Ynet.
Last week, a new element appeared in the chemistry of the long-standing
Israeli Likud-US Congress influence nexus. Larry A. Franklin,
a former Pentagon Iran analyst and close friend of leading Pentagon
neo-conservatives, was sentenced to 12 years and seven months
in jail for sharing classified Pentagon information with pro-Israel
lobbyists through an influential Washington-based lobby organization,
AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC has
been at the heart of ties between the Israeli right-wing Likud
and members of the US Congress for years. It is regarded as so
powerful that it is able to decide which Congressman is elected
or re-elected. Previously it had been considered 'untouchable.'
That is no longer true it seems.
Franklin pleaded guilty last October to sharing the information
with AIPAC lobbyists and Israeli diplomat Naor Gilon. Steve Rosen
and Keith Weissman, who were fired from AIPAC in 2004 in the
affair, are facing charges of disclosing confidential information
to Israel, apparently about Iran. The sentencing is causing major
shock waves throughout major US Jewish organizations including
the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith. The conviction has
hit a vital lobbying tool of AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobby
groups, namely, expenses paid trips for US Congressmen to Israel.
Hundreds of politicians are taken to Israel every year by non-profit
affiliates of groups like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee
- trips Jewish leaders say are a vital tool in pro-Israel lobbying.
The Bush Administration had tried to bury the Franklin case,
unsuccessfully. They could only delay the trial until after the
November 2004 US elections. The Franklin scandal in the US as
well as the Jack Abramoff lobbying affair, have both hit severe
blows to the suspicious money network between Likud and the White
House, potentially fatally weakening the Israeli hawk faction
The Russian factor in Iran
The role of Putin's Russia in the unfolding Iran showdown
is central. In geopolitical terms, one must not forget that Russia
is the ultimate 'prize' or endgame in the more than decade long
US strategy of controlling Eurasia and preventing any possible
rival from emerging to challenge US hegemony.
Russian engineers and technical advisers are in Iran constructing
the Bushehr nuclear plant, at least 300 Russian technicians.
Iran has been a strategic cooperation partner of the Putin government
in terms of opposing US-UK designs for control of Caspian oil.
Iran has been a major purchaser of Russian military hardware
since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in addition to buying
Russian nuclear technology and expertise.
In March 2005 Iran-Russian relations took a qualitative shift
closer. That month Moscow agreed to the sale of a 'defensive'
missile system to Tehran, worth up to $7 billion-worth of future
defense contracts. In 2000 Putin had announced Russia would no
longer continue to abide by a secret US-Russia agreement to ban
Russian weapons sales to Iran that the government of Boris Yeltsin
had concluded. Since then, Russian-Iranian relations have become
more entwined to put it mildly.
Moscow currently says it is in talks with Iran to build five
to seven additional nuclear power reactors on the Bushehr site
after completion of the present reactor. Russia expects to get
up to $10 billion from the planned larger Bushehr reactors deal
and additional arms sales to Iran. It is currently building the
reactor on credit to be paid by Iran only after the completion
of the project. Sanctions and admonitions will not change Russia's
relationship with one of the most demonized states in America's
'axis of evil.' Iran has become a major counterweight for Moscow
in the geopolitical game for Washington's total domination over
Eurasia, and Putin is shrewdly aware of that potential.
A look at the map (see below), will reveal how geo-politically
strategic Iran is for Russia, as well as for Israel and the USA.
Iran controls the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the choke point
for oil from the Persian Gulf to Japan and the rest of the world.
Iran borders the oil-rich Caspian Sea.
Significantly, on January 23,
the Russian daily, Kommersant reported that Armenia, sandwiched
between Iran and Georgia, had agreed to sell 45% control of its
Iran-Armenia gas pipeline to Russia's Gazprom. The Russian daily
added, 'If Russia takes over this [Iran-Armenia] pipeline, Russia
will be able to control transit of Iranian gas to Georgia, Ukraine
and Europe.' That would be a major blow to the series of Washington
operations to insert US-friendly pro-NATO governments in Georgia
as well as Ukraine. It would also bind Iran and Russian energy
relations. While the Armenian government denies they have agreed,
negotiations continue with Gazprom holding out the prospect of
demanding double the price or $110 per 1000 cubic meters rather
than the present $54 unless Armenia agree to sell the stake to
Russia is pursuing a complex strategy regarding its cooperation
with Iran. Minatom, the Russian nuclear energy group announced
some time back that Russia was in discussion with Teheran to
increase Iran's nuclear capacity by 6000 megawatts by 2020. The
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed a year ago that
Moscow would supply Iran with fuel for the Bushehr reactor even
if it did not sign the IAEA Additional Protocols. While Putin
has assured the world that Iran must demonstrate full NPT compliance
before the Russian nuclear transfers occur, the Russian Foreign
Ministry stated previously that the IAEA's failure to condemn
Iran opened the door for Russia to help build future reactors
in that country. Putin has managed to put Russia square in the
middle of the present global showdown over Iran, a position which
clearly tells some in Moscow that Russia is indeed again a 'global
player. Undoubtedly more.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, in a January 18 discussion
with the daily, Nezavisimaya gazeta, stated, 'It is not
profitable for Russia to impose sanctions on Iran, since we just
recently signed an agreement to sell them nearly $1 billion worth
of medium-range anti-aircraft weapons. These modern weapons are
capable of hitting targets up to 25 kilometers away and will
probably be used to defend various testing sites in Iran. Therefore,
if some attempt is made to strike at the country and the deliveries
from Russia are made quickly enough, we can expect a strong response.
In other words, Iran will be able to defend itself.'
Ivanov added a significant caveat: 'However, if ballistic missiles
are used, then nuclear sites can be targeted effectively. We
must not forget that Russia has its experts working on some of
these sites, and is not interested in a military scenario, if
only to protect them.'
Russia's current strategy is to renew its earlier offer, rejected
initially by Teheran, to take the uranium fuel from Iran to Russia
for reprocessing, thus defusing the crisis significantly. On
January 25, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said
that Tehran views Moscow's offer to have Iran's uranium enriched
in Russia as a 'positive development,' but no agreement has been
reached between the countries, according to an AP report.
Larijani repeated Iran's threat to renew enrichment activities
if it is referred to the UN Security Council. Moscow has proposed
having Iran's uranium enriched in Russia, then returned to Iran
for use in the country's reactors - a compromise that could provide
more oversight and ease tensions, at least in theory, with the
United States and European Union over Iran's nuclear program.
Talks have continued over the specifics, including Tehran's proposal
to have China involved in the Russian enrichment process.
Following his meeting with Russian Security Council chief Igor
Ivanov, Larijani told press, 'Our view of this offer is positive,
and we are trying to bring the positions of the sides closer.'
Further talks come in February, after the planned emergency IAEA
meeting of February 2. Iran opposition groups claim the Russian
talks are merely a ploy to divide the West and buy more time.
Larijani and Ivanov said in a joint statement that Tehran's nuclear
standoff must be resolved by diplomatic efforts in the U.N. atomic
The China factor in Iran
China, in its increasingly urgent search for secure long-term
energy supplies, especially oil and gas, has developed major
economic ties with Iran. It began in 2000, when Beijing invited
Iranian President Khatami for a literal red carpet reception
and discussion of areas of energy and economic cooperation. Then
in November 2004, curiously at the occasion of the second Bush
election victory, the relation took a major shift as China signed
huge oil and gas deals with Teheran.
The two countries signed a preliminary agreement worth potentially
$70 billion to $100 billion. Under the terms, China will purchase
Iranian oil and gas and help develop Iran's Yadavaran oil field,
near the Iraqi border. That same year, China agreed to buy $20
billion in liquefied natural gas from Iran over a quarter-century.
Iran's Oil Minister stated at the time, 'Japan is our number
one energy importer for historical reasonsbut we would like to
give preference to exports to China.' In return China has become
a major exporter of manufactured goods to Iran, including computer
systems, household appliances and cars.
In addition to selling Iran its computers and home appliances,
Beijing has been one of the largest suppliers of military technology
to Teheran since the 1980's. Chinese arms trade has involved
conventional, missile, nuclear, and chemical weapons. Outside
Pakistan and North Korea, China's arms trade with Iran has been
more comprehensive and sustained than that with any other country.
China has sold thousands of tanks, armored personnel vehicles,
and artillery pieces, several hundred surface-to-air, air-to-air,
cruise, and ballistic missiles as well as thousands of antitank
missiles, more than a hundred fighter aircraft, and dozens of
small warships. In addition, it is widely believed that China
has assisted Iran in the development of its ballistic and cruise
missile production capability, and has provided Iran with technologies
and assistance in the development of its clandestine chemical
and nuclear weapons programs. In addition, China has supplied
Iran scientific expertise, technical cooperation, technology
transfers, production technologies, blueprints, and dual-use
In sum, Iran is more than a strategic partner for China. In the
wake of the US unilateral decision to go to war against Iraq,
reports from Chinese media indicated that the leadership in Beijing
privately realized its own long-term energy security was fundamentally
at risk under the aggressive new pre-emptive war strategy of
Washington. China began taking major steps to outflank or negate
total US domination of the world's major oil and gas resources.
Iran has become a central part of that strategy.
This underscores the Chinese demand that the Iran nuclear issue
be settled in the halls of the IAEA and not at the UN Security
Council as Washington wishes. China would clearly threaten its
veto were Iran to be brought before the UN for sanctions.
EU relations with Iran
The EU is Iran's main trading partner concerning both
imports and exports. Clearly, they want to avoid a war with Iran
and all that would imply for the EU. The EU's Balance of Trade
(BoT) with Iran is negative due to large imports of oil. Germany's
new CDU-led government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has made
a clear point of trying to reaffirm close ties with Washington
following the tense relations under former Chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder who openly opposed the Iraq war along with France's
Chirac in 2002 and 2003.
Chirac for his part is the subject of major controversy since
he held a speech January 19 in which he overturned the traditional
French nuclear doctrine of 'no first strike' to say, were a terrorist
nation to attack France, he would consider even nuclear retaliation
as appropriate. The mere declaration by a French President has
triggered an international uproar. Whether it was French psychological
warfare designed to pressure Iran, or the reflection of a fundamental
change in French nuclear doctrine to one of pre-emptive strike
or something similar, is so far not clear. What is clear is that
the Chirac government will not stand in the way of a US decision
to impose UN sanctions on Iran. Whether that also holds for a
US-sanctioned nuclear strike is not clear.
The EU-3, whose negotiations diplomatically have so far produced
no results, are now moving towards some form of more effective
action against Iran's decision to proceed with reprocessing.
The only problem is that other than nuclear sabre rattling, the
EU has few cards to play. It needs Iranian energy. It is also
aware of what it would mean to have a war in Iran in terms of
potential terror retaliations. The EU to put it mildly is highly
nervous and alarmed at the potential of a US-Iran or Israel-US
vs Iran military showdown.
The Bush Administration role in Iran
Unlike the Iraq war buildup where it became clear to
a shocked world that the Bush Administration was going to war
regardless, with Iran Washington has so far been willing to let
the EU states take a diplomatic lead, only stepping up pressure
publicly on Iran in recent weeks. On January 19 the US repeated
that neither it nor its European partners want to return to the
negotiating table with Iran. 'The international community is
united in mistrusting Tehran with nuclear technology,' said Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice. 'The time has come for a referral
of Iran to the [UN] Security Council,' she added. Rice's choice
of the word 'referral' was deliberate. If Iran is only 'reported'
to the Security Council, debate would lack legal weight. A formal
'referral' is necessary if the Council is to impose any penalty,
such as economic sanctions.
The neo-conservatives, although slightly lower profile in the
second Bush Administration, are every bit as active, especially
through Cheney's office. They want a pre-emptive bombing strike
on Iran's nuclear sites.
But whatever Cheney's office may be doing, officially, the Bush
administration is pursuing a markedly different approach than
it did in 2003, when its diplomacy was aimed at lining up allies
for a war. This time, U.S. diplomats are seeking an international
consensus on how to proceed, or at least, cultivating the impression
Iraq and the deepening US disaster there has severely constrained
possible US options in Iran. Back in 2003 in the wake of the
Iraqi 'victory,' leading Washington neo-conservative hawks were
vocally calling on Bush to 'Move on to Tehran' after Saddam Hussein.
Now, because of the ``bloody quagmire'' in Iraq, the US is severely
constrained from moving unilaterally.
With 140,000 troops tied down in Iraq, the US military physically
cannot support another invasion and occupation in yet another
country, let alone Iran.
Because of Iran's size, a ground invasion may require twice as
many troops as in Iraq, says Richard Russell, a Middle East specialist
at the National Defense University in Washington. While an air
campaign could take out Iran's air defenses, it could also trigger
terrorism and oil disruptions. Washington is internally split
over the issue of a successful nuclear strike against Iran,
AIPAC and Abramoff impact Washington
Another little-appreciated new element in the US political
chemistry around the Bush White House are two devastating legal
prosecutions which have hit the heart of the black and grey money
network between Washington Republicans and the Israeli right-wing
Jack Abramoff, the financial patron of several prominent Republicans,
including ex-House Majority Leader, Tom Delay, and Steve Rosen,
the key force behind AIPAC, were two of the most influential
Jewish lobbyists in Washington before legal scandals effectively
ended their careers and sent them scrambling to stay out of prison.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy
arising out of his work lobbying for Indian gambling casino interests.
That scandal could implicate far more Congressmen and even some
in the White House.
Rosen is fighting allegations that as chief strategist at AIPAC,
he received and passed classified national security information,
received from Larry Franklin, to unauthorized parties. Perhaps
it is coincidence that two such high-profile damaging cases to
the lobbying power of right-wing Israeli hawk elements surface
at the same time, at just this time when war drums are pounding
AIPAC's drama began August 2004, when on the eve of the Republican
National Convention, the FBI raided the organization's offices,
looking for incriminating documents. A year later, in August
2005, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia
indicted Rosen, by then AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues,
and Keith Weissman, who had been an AIPAC Iran analyst. The government
disclosed it had had the men under surveillance for more than
four years and alleged that they had received and passed along
classified information. The indictment named a Pentagon aide,
Lawrence Franklin, as their co-conspirator. Franklin, who has
agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, pleaded guilty in October
2005 to passing classified documents to unauthorized persons
and improperly storing such documents in his home. He was sentenced
to 12 and a half years in prison last week.
Bush, as de facto head of his party, faces a potentially devastating
November Congressional election. With the quagmire of Iraq continuing
and more Americans asking what in fact they are dying for in
Iraq if not oil, Bush's popularity has continued to plunge. He
has now only 46 per cent of popular support. More than 53 per
cent of people have expressed unfavorable opinion of Bush. The
Hurricane Kartina debacle of bungled response by the White House,
the growing perception that Bush has 'lied' to the public, all
are working to seriously undermine Republican chances in November.
The stench of insider deals, not only with Cheney's Halliburton
is growing stronger and getting major media coverage, which is
new. Conservative traditional Republicans are outraged at the
unprecedented Federal spending binge Bush Republicans have indulged
to protect their own special interests. In a recent article,
Michael Reagan, conservative son of the late President, wrote,
'Republican congressional leaders promised individual members
of Congress up to $14 million 'in free earmarks,' (i.e. special
spending allocations) if they would support, which they did,
the massive $286.5 billion Bush transportation bill.' According
to Reagan, 'The bill came to a total of 6,300 earmarked projects
costing the taxpayers $24 billion, a clear case of bribery. The
people being bribed were members of Congress. The people making
the bribes were members of Congress. Congressmen bribing congressmen.'
A recent Fox News poll indicated that Americans saw the Republican
congressional majority as materially more corrupt and more responsible
for the current spate of scandals than the Democrats by a wide
In January 2003 President Bush signed a classified Presidential
Directive, CONPLAN 8022-02. Conplan 8022 is a war plan different
from all prior in that it posits 'no ground troops.' It was specifically
drafted to deal with 'imminent' threats from states such as North
Korea or Iran.
Unlike the warplan for Iraq, a conventional one, which required
coordinated preparation of air, ground and sea forces before
it could be launched, a process of months even years, Conplan
8022 called for a highly concentrated strike combining bombing
with electronic warfare and cyberattacks to cripple an opponent's
response-cutting electricity in the country, jamming communications,
hacking computer networks.
Conplan 8022 explicitly includes a nuclear option, specially
configured earth-penetrating 'mini' nukes to hit underground
sites such as Iran's. In summer 2005 Defense Secretary Rumsfeld
approved a top secret 'Interim Global Strike Alert Order' directing
round-the-clock military readiness, to be directed by the Omaha-based
Strategic Command (Stratcom), according to a report in the May
15, 2005 Washington Post. Previously, ominously enough, Stratcom
oversaw only the US nuclear forces. In January 2003 Bush signed
on to a definition of 'full spectrum global strike' which included
precision nuclear as well as conventional bombs, and space warfare.
This was a follow-up to the President's September 2002 National
Security Strategy which laid out as US strategic doctrine a policy
of 'pre-emptive' wars.
The burning question is whether, with plunging popularity polls,
a coming national election, scandals and loss of influence, the
Bush White House might 'think the unthinkable' and order a nuclear
pre-emptive global strike on Iran before the November elections,
perhaps early after the March 28 Israeli elections.
Some Pentagon analysts have suggested that the entire US strategy
towards Iran, unlike with Iraq, is rather a carefully orchestrated
escalation of psychological pressure and bluff to force Iran
to back down. It seems clear, especially in light of the strategic
threat Iran faces from US or Israeli forces on its borders after
2003 that Iran is not likely to back down from its clear plans
to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle capacities and with it,
the option of developing an Iranian nuclear capability.
The question then is what will Washington do? The fundamental
change in US defense doctrine since 2001, from a posture of defense
to offense has significantly lowered the threshold of nuclear
war, perhaps even of a global nuclear conflagration.
Geopolitical risks of nuclear war
While the latest Iranian agreement to reopen talks with
Moscow on Russian spent fuel reprocessing have taken some of
the edge off of the crisis for the moment. On January 27 President
Bush announced publicly that he backed the Russian compromise,
along with China and El Baradei of the IAEA. Bush signalled a
significant backdown, at least for the moment, stating, 'The
Russians came up with the idea and I support itI do believe people
ought to be allowed to have civilian nuclear power.' At the same
time Rice's State Department expressed concern the Russian-Iran
talks were a stalling ploy by Teheran.
Bush added 'However, I don't believe that non-transparent (sic)
regimes that threaten the security of the world should be allowed
to gain the technologies necessary to make a weapon.' The same
day at Davos, Secretary Rice told the World Economic Forum that
Iran's nuclear program posed 'significant danger' and that Iran
must be brought before the UN Security Council. In short, Washington
is trying to appear 'diplomatic' while keeping all options open.
Should Iran be brought before the UN Security Council for violations
of the NPT and charges of developing weapons of mass destruction,
it seems quite probable that Russia and China would veto imposing
sanctions such as economic embargo on Iran for reasons stated
above. The timetable for that is likely sometime around March-May,
that is, after a new Israeli government is in place.
At that point there are several possible outcomes.
* The IAEA refers Iran to the UN Security Council which proposes
increased monitoring of the reprocessing facilities for weapons
producing while avoiding sanctions. In essence Iran would be
allowed to develop its full fuel cycle nuclear program and its
sovereignty is respected, so long as it respects NPT and IAEA
conditions. This is unlikely for the reasons stated above.
* Iran like India and Pakistan, is permitted to develop a small
arsenal of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the growing military
threat in its area posed by the United States from Afghanistan
to Iraq to the Emirates, as well as by Israel's nuclear force.
The West extends new offers of economic cooperation in the development
of Iran's oil and gas infrastructure and Iran is slowly welcomed
into the community of the WTO and cooperation with the West.
A new government in Israel pursues a peace policy in Palestine
and with Syria, and a new regional relaxation of tensions opens
the way for huge new economic development in the entire Middle
East region, Iran included. The Mullahs in Iran slowly loose
influence. This scenario, desirable as it is, is extremely unlikely
in the present circumstances.
* President Bush, on the urging of Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neo-conservative
hawks, decide to activate CONPLAN 8022, an air attack bombing
Iran's presumed nuclear sites, including for the first time since
1945, with deployment of nuclear weapons. No ground troops are
used and it is proclaimed a swift surgical 'success' by the formidable
Pentagon propaganda machine. Iran, prepared for such a possibility,
launches a calculated counter-strike using techniques of guerrilla
war or 'asymmetrical warfare' against US and NATO targets around
The Iran response includes activating trained cells within Lebanon's
Hezbollah; it includes activating considerable Iranian assets
within Iraq, potentially in de facto alliance with the Sunni
resistance there targeting the 135,000 remaining US troops and
civilian personnel. Iran's asymmetrical response also includes
stepping up informal ties to the powerful Hamas within Palestine
to win them to a Holy War against the US-Israel 'Great Satan.'
Alliance. Israel faces unprecedented terror and sabotage attacks
from every side and from within its territory from sleeper cells
of Arab Israelis. Iran activates trained sleeper terror cells
in the Ras Tanura center of Saudi oil refining and shipping.
The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia around Ras Tanura contains
a disenfranchised Shi'ite minority which have historically been
denied the fruits of the immense Saudi oil wealth. There are
some 2 million Shi'ia Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Shias do most
of the manual work in the Saudi oilfields, making up 40 percent
of Aramco's workforce.
Iran declares an immediate embargo of deliveries of its 4 million
barrels of oil a day. It threatens to sink a large VLCC oil super-tanker
in the narrows of the Strait of Hormuz, chocking off 40% of all
world oil flows, if the world does not join it against the US-Israeli
action. The strait has two 1 mile wide channels for marine traffic,
separated by a 2 mile wide buffer zone, and is the only sea passage
to the open ocean for much of OPEC oil. It is Saudi Arabia's
main export route.
Iran a vast, strategically central expanse of land, more than
double the land area of France and Germany combined, with well
over 70 million people, and one of the fastest population growth
rates in the world, is well prepared for a new Holy War. Its
mountainous terrain makes any thought of a US ground occupation
inconceivable at a time the Pentagon is having problems retaining
its present force to maintain the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations.
World War III begins in a series of miscalculations and disruptions.
The pentagon's awesome war machine, 'total spectrum dominance'
is powerless against the growing 'assymetrical war'assaults around
Clear from a reading of their public statements and their press,
the Iranian government knows well what cards they hold and what
not in this global game of thermo-nuclear chicken.
Were the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis to risk launching a nuclear
strike on Iran, given the geopolitical context, it would mark
a point of no return in international relations. Even with sagging
popularity, the White House knows this. The danger of the initial
strategy of pre-emptive wars is that, as now, when someone like
Iran calls the US bluff with a formidable response potential,
the US is left with little option but to launch the unthinkable-nuclear
There are saner voices within the US political establishment,
such as former NSC heads, Brent Scowcroft or even Zbigniew Brzezinski,
who clearly understand the deadly logic of Bush's and the Pentagon
hawks' pre-emptive posture. The question is whether their faction
within the US power establishment today is powerful enough to
do to Bush and Cheney what was done to Richard Nixon when his
exercise of Presidential power got out of hand.
It is useful to keep in mind that even were Iran to possess nuclear
missiles, the strike range would not reach the territory of the
United States. Israel would be the closest potential target.
A US pre-emptive nuclear strike to defend Israel would raise
the issue of what the military agreements between Tel Aviv and
Washington actually encompass, a subject which neither the Bush
Administration nor its predecessors have seen fit to inform the
American public about.
F. William Engdahl
Engdahl, the author of the book, 'A
Century of War:
Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order.' Pluto Press,
can be contacted via his website,