The Iranian president's speech to the UN general assembly on Saturday September 17 and the reaction of Western powers was predictable. In a year when Iran has seen most of its long-term protégés, including Prime Minister Jaafari, President Talebani and their respective militias (SCIRI, Badr Army, PUK …) coming to power in Iraq on the back of the US-UK invasion and at a time when US forces are facing fierce resistance from sunni Iraqis, Iran's Shia leadership can show the kind of bravado we heard from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Even if the European Union and United States refer Iran to the Security Council, it is unlikely that neo-conservatives in the US would initiate an all out attack on Iran – despite similarities with the scenario we witnessed before the Iraq war. First and foremost, the US cannot afford to exacerbate the region's instability, and any attack on Iran would alienate the Iraqi Shia occupation government as well as the rainbow of Shia militias, who currently remain the US-UK's only allies in the region. The US has invested in the Iraqi sectarian groups and cannot afford a confrontation with them.
Secondly, Iran is a much larger, more populated country than Iraq. It is inhabited by over 70 million people divided into five major nationalities (Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Balouchis and Persians) and dozens of other religious and national minorities. The one issue that has the potential of uniting Iran's growing secular opposition movement with almost everyone else in the country would be an attack or threat of attack by the US or its allies on the pretext of Iran's nuclear industry. Of course, given the stupidity of this US administration, such an attack cannot be ruled out. However, even this administration must realise the dangers of embarking on such an adventure.
That is why the sabre-rattling between US and Iran has more to do with containing and reducing Iran's interference in Iraq (where many analysts talk of Tehran's authority amongst the various Shia sects and militias that are so influential) and limiting Iran's influence in the Persian Gulf region. Saudi princes and sheiks of the smaller emirates have expressed concern over Iran's regional authority now that a Shia islamic republic is on the verge of being established in Iraq too.
As far as Iran's nuclear programme is concerned, unless we accept the wild accusations raised by Condoleezza Rice, it is clear from a number of reports – the latest from the International Institute for Strategic Studies – that Iran is still several years away from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Of course, the main question that remains unanswered for ordinary Iranains is, why should Iran, with one of the world's largest oil and natural gas deposits, be so determined to pursue a costly programme of developing nuclear energy – first during the shah's time, when the UK and US governments were keen to sell Iran nuclear technology, and later under an Islamic regime that is constantly cutting and privatising all essential services because of claimed financial difficulties?
Whatever the intention of the Shia rulers in Tehran, since December 2003 Iran appears to have complied with International Atomic Energy Authority regulations more rigorously than other nuclear mini-powers in the region, such as Israel, India and Pakistan. In this respect the indignation expressed by Ahmadinejad regarding double standards is shared by many Iranians inside and outside the country.
The IAEA protocols to prevent nuclear proliferation are unacceptable from the point of view of either principle or legality. Countries which themselves possess sufficient nuclear weaponry to destroy the world several times over – and are continuing to add to their arsenal – are laying down the law to others – or some of them. The US and its EU allies have for decades turned a blind eye to Israel's blatant development of nuclear weapons. The nuclear industry in Pakistan, where al Qa'eda has many supporters within the military and security forces, and where coups have played a major role in determining the composition of governments, is far more advanced than Iran's – indeed Pakistan already has nuclear weapons.
Yet the US and EU seem determined to identify only Iran as a threat (an agreement, however temporary, has been struck with North Korea). To most Iranians it looks like some people have sovereignty while others do not. In international terms, countries are divided into two: fully sovereign and semi-sovereign.
Israel, one of the world's major nuclear powers, gained its arsenal with help form the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s. Yet it has never admitted possession, never joined a nuclear protocol, and has never faced sanctions or IAEA inspections. As an ally of the United States its nuclear arsenal is considered legitimate and not at all dangerous! The Israeli navy is currently deploying a submarine equipped with nuclear warheads in the Persian Gulf. There is little doubt that if the United States is given sufficient excuse to bomb Iran, Israeli warheads will be used, as they were in Iraq in 1992.
According to the IAEA's 2004 report, Tehran failed to reveal sensitive information in its 2003 declaration. The report singled out Iran's failure to declare that it was researching advanced centrifuge designs, known as P2, capable of producing highly enriched uranium. Since then, Iran first banned, then agreed to visits by, IAEA inspectors.
Some in the European scientific community believed that Iran's uranium enriching centrifuges buried underground belie the regime's claims that its nuclear programme is “entirely for peaceful purposes”. When IAEA inspectors first found enriched uranium in Iran's nuclear deposits, the government claimed that this was an accident caused by contamination, and blamed imported equipment. Subsequent reports by IAEA have confirmed Iran's claims. Enriched uranium can be used for commercial reactors (as can plutonium).
But countries are not supposed to enrich uranium without mandatory IAEA inspections because of its potential for 'dual use'. To make a bomb that will be carried in a missile you need 25kg of highly enriched uranium or 8kg of plutonium. Natural uranium contains less than 0.1% of fissile material. This needs to be increased to 20%-90% to make a weapon and it is the centrifuges that carry out this 'enrichment'. But a recent CIA report (July 2005) is adamant that Iran is 10 years away from this level of nuclear development.
As always, the victims of the conflict between US-UK imperialism and Iran's reactionary clerical regime are ordinary Iranians who will suffer from the consequences of a nuclear strike or a nuclear accident. Engineers and scientists who have worked in Iran's nuclear industry have often complained about lack of safety regulations. The clandestine nature of nuclear developments in Iran only increases the inherent dangers.
However, in response to the current threats coming from the US and EU, progressive forces in Iran must renew demands for nuclear disarmament to be implemented universally, not as a selective tool in the hands of empire-builders and global capital.
Yassamine Mather is a member of the eitorial board of Critique, Journal of Socialist Theory, published by Centre for the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements, Glasgow University.