Iran raises the stakes on a nuclear bluff?
Imagining Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the poker table may reveal a lot into the characteristics of this leader who revels in shocking the world with his unpredictable behavior.
Let’s try to imagine how the eccentric Iranian leader would react if he lost a bundle of cash in the final round of a card game. Would Ahmadinejad slouch back in his chair, extend his congratulations to the winner, and chalk up his loss to the fickle gods of fate? Or would he jump up from his chair and accuse the other players of conspiring against him?
Or, finally, would Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an agitated state of desperation and defeat, pull a pistol from his pocket and dare the winner to take away the pot?
Any one of the above options seems possible, but somehow the last variable comes to mind all too easily. But then there is another question: once the firearm is pulled, would Ahmadinejad really fire the weapon? Would he really risk pulling the trigger, even though doing so would mean certain annihilation not only for him, but possibly a large number of the innocent participants?
Bluffing is an invaluable ploy in a game of cards, but it can be a reckless option in the world of geopolitics, especially when nuclear weapons and a regional war may be at stake.
But that is exactly what Ahmadinejad is doing: daring the world to call his bluff, which in the worst-case scenario would amount to an attack on Iran, possibly initiated by Israel, which has been on the receiving end of Ahmadinejad’s saber barbs since he first came to power.
US National Security Advisor Jim Jones said on Sunday that Washington is "still open to nuclear talks" with Tehran, but "the clock is ticking" towards the end of the year, the deadline that Israel has given Iran for accepting UN demands. Israel in the past has said that “all options are on the table” concerning how to deal with the situation, which is diplomat-speak for military force.
Iran insists that it is pursuing its nuclear program for strictly energy purposes, while other nations, specifically Israel and the United States, believe that Tehran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon program.
The success or failure of Tehran’s deal with the United Nations hinges on what to do with Iran’s Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). Tehran originally agreed to ship its LEU to Russia for further processing. The depleted uranium would then be returned to Iran, which would use it for medical purposes.
But Iranian officials have rejected the UN proposal, saying there are no guarantees that the country would in fact receive the fuel it requires.
Instead, Iran is demanding the “nuclear swap” take place within the country's borders, but negotiators say the conditions of the deal are unchangeable.
Is military intervention in the cards?
An important question when considering military action against Iran concerns Tehran’s real intentions toward Israel. In other words, does Ahmadinejad really want to “wipe Israel off the map” as has been repeated numerous times in the western media? Some commentators say that Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel, although certainly not statements of affection, have been exaggerated.
The leader of the Russian Islamic Committee, Geidar Jemal, told me in Moscow that Ahmadinejad’s words have been misinterpreted, and the Iranian leader was speaking about the Israeli “regime” and not the people itself.
“Ahmadinejad never uttered the phrase, ‘wipe Israel off the map,’” Jemal said. “He was referring to the ideological existence of the Jewish state as a political entity, not as a physical one.”
In late 2007, 60 Minutes, the US political news program, reported that the Iranian leader said, “I think that the Israeli government is a fabricated government” to support the notion that he wants to “wipe Israel off the map.”
In fact, the news program omitted a large portion of Ahmadinejad’s speech, which read, “The solution is democracy. We have said allow the Palestinian people to participate in a free and fair referendum to express their views. What we are saying only serves the cause of durable peace. We want durable peace from that part of the world. A durable peace will only come about… once the views of the people are met.”
But these exercises in semantics will not convince the world, much less the Israelis, that a nuclear-armed Iran is a beneficial thing. Indeed, regardless as to what Ahmadinejad said or meant to say in past tirades, much of the world is unanimous in the belief that a nuclear-armed Iran is something to prevent.
But here we unwittingly hand Ahmadinejad a weighty rhetorical rebuttal: how can the seven members of the nuclear club (Russia, China, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, which has deployed a nuclear arsenal but has never acknowledged it, and the United States, which is the only country to use nuclear weapons against an adversary) deny Iran the right to develop what it argues is a harmless nuclear energy program?
Russia, for one, does not want to see more countries developing nuclear weapons – that's according to Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at a news-conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Moscow on Monday.
“I will be frank with you that Russia is not interested in increasing the number of nuclear weapons club members,” Medvedev said at a media briefing he gave with Singh after the talks. “Research in the nuclear area should be strictly peaceful. We are closely watching what is going on, for that matter, in the proximity to our borders with our neighbors.”
It is doubtful that the Iranian leader heeds the advice of any outside parties. At least part of the reason Ahmadinejad wants nuclear power is to prove to the world that Iran, which many view as a regional and even global power (especially with arch-enemy Iraq largely tamed), has the intellectual and technical prowess to develop such technologies. It was exactly this sort of fanatical competition between India and Pakistan that allowed both of these countries to test nuclear weapons and then celebrate on the streets like they had just won an international football competition.
Can the international community remain comfortable with the idea that Iran will feel redeemed once it acquires nuclear energy? Or should we believe that Iran, if and when it acquires nuclear weapons, will immediately launch an unwinnable, suicidal war against its perceived enemies? Somehow such a move would put a definite damper on the nuclear victory parades.
Finally, is launching a “preemptive” war against Iran sometime in the near future really the best way to end this standoff? Mohammed ElBaradei, the recently retired former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, says the answer is no.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, ElBaradei said an Israeli military strike against Iran would be "absolutely… the worst thing that could happen."
“There is no military solution. . . . If a country is bombed, you give them every reason – with the support of everybody in the country and outside the country – to go for nuclear weapons, and nobody can even blame them,” said ElBaradei, who retired from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week.
The former IAEA head then asked that the global community address the situation from the present realities, while remembering that an atmosphere of mistrust has existed between Iran and the United States for over half a century.
“You have to look at it in the context of 50 years of animosity and distrust,” ElBaradei advised.
“We only started to deal seriously with Iran, in my view, with the coming of the new administration in the U.S., when Barack Obama said, ‘We are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.’”
He then stressed the need for dialogue with Tehran without the animosity of the past.
“For at least three years, the U.S. was against any dialogue with Iran,” the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog said. “The animosity was described in biblical terms, and rhetoric makes a lot of difference. You cannot describe a country as part of an ‘axis of evil’ and then turn around and expect them to have trust or behave in certain ways.”
ElBaradei said if the Bush administration had embraced a policy of rapprochement with Iran and adopted a more realistic approach, the nuclear issue “could have been resolved four to five years ago.”
Collapse from within?
As today’s civil disturbances in Tehran suggest the question of what to do about Ahmadinejad may be settled without the assistance of foreign powers.
Today, it has been reported that Iranian police have clashed with opposition supporters in central Tehran. Details of the clashes could not immediately be confirmed because of a foreign media ban.
Early on Monday, the day that Iran holds an annual commemoration for the killing of three students in 1953 during an anti-American protest, a heavy police presence was reported around the campus of Tehran University in an effort to block anti-government protests.
Iranian security forces, including the elite Revolutionary Guards, publicly announced they would block any attempt to use the event to stage opposition protests.
Iran’s security forces have cracked down hard on protests by opposition members ever since the disputed presidential elections in June that delivered Ahmadinejad back to power. Street protests that broke out following the election announcement left dozens killed and scores injured.
As a result, the government banned all public protests, but in a shrewd move the opponents began to use officially sanctioned demonstrations to get out their message.
According to one opposition website, government officials shut down mobile phone networks in the center of Tehran to keep protesters from communicating with each other, while another website said police were using live rounds of ammunition.
The Iranian authorities denied the charges and no fatalities have been reported.
The one question that Ahmadinejad must be asking himself is: where does the bell toll louder for his political life – at home or abroad?