October 24, 2003

October 24, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Iran's Insidious Intentions

Don't break out the champagne and caviar yet. The European Union's (EU) recent deal with Iran's Mullahs over their so-called peaceful nuclear energy program is not likely to be the last we hear of Tehran's nuclear transgressions. 

Sure: the agreement appears to be a step in the right direction. But the EU deal may, in fact, aid Tehran's strategy of keeping the international community at bay (and isolating Washington) while clandestinely racing toward the nuclear weapons finish line. (Israel claims Iran is but a year away from having nukes.) 

Further, by cutting a deal with the EU, Iran keeps the brouhaha from being hashed out in the UN. The UN Security Council might easily have levied  sanctions on Iraq, severely damaging  the prospects of its pending trade deal with the EU. In this light, Iranian concessions don't seem so concessional after all. 

The problem with thisdeal is that it reeks of the 1994 compact with North Korea, known as the Agreed Framework. Under that deal, Pyongyang agreed to end its nuclear weapons program for heavy oil and civilian nuclear energy assistance. (Sound familiar?) But within four years, North Korea began cheating. (It took us an additional four years to figure that out.)

If we're not careful, we'll end up facing the same situation in Iran we face in North Korea today.

Be nervous about Iran for a couple of reasons:

Countries do what is in their own best interest. Iran will as well. Along with the bomb comes a lot of prestige and political clout. A nuclear weapon is a great equalizer in international politics. More specifically, it'll be a lot harder to muscle Tehran into abandoning  its support for terror groups such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah and HAMAS, when it sits astride the bomb.

With the world's 3rd largest oil reserves, Iran doesn't need nuclear power for peaceful energy purposes. Further, a peaceful nuclear energy program and one for nuclear weapons are not mutually exclusive. The fuel produced by a civilian program can be turned into the fissile material used in nuclear weapons. 

And don't put too much faith in the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA couldn't find, Saddam's nuclear program until after the first Gulf War-despite having looked for it for 10 years. There's no reason to think they'd have better luck unearthing a furtive nuke program in Iran.

Worse, the Iranian nuclear program poses  a security dilemma for other Middle East states.  Why? Whenever on country  makes itself more secure, its neighbors feel less secure. Consequently, they feel that they have to do something to feel secure again. It's like keeping up with the Joneses, only with nuclear weapons.

This brings us to Saudi Arabia. The newest rumor is that the Saudis are cooperating with Pakistan on a nuclear weapons program. Some would argue that this is completely implausible since Riyadh has the ultimate weapon, the United States, as its protector. But is the prospect completely inconceivable? No. Here's why:

  • Saudi relations with the US are not very good. In fact, they are quite strained. Eleven of 19 hijackers were Saudi and the Kingdom has been a major financier of terrorism and hate-mongering Islamists. Washington has been pressuring Riyadh pretty hard on the terrorism front. If you were a Saudi prince, might you not think that it would be a good idea to get those Americans off your back once and for all by providing for your own defense?
  • From across the Persian Gulf, (Sunni Arab) Saudi Arabia regards (Persian Shia) Iran with suspicion. Keenly  aware of Iran's desire to dominate the Gulf, the Saudis may well wonder who will keep the Persian Mullahs in check, now that Saddam is gone? The princes might think that having a nuke or two in their back pocket might not be a bad idea. 

Let's move on to Israel. Is Tel Aviv nervous about all of this? You bet--and rightfully so. Iran's national policy calls for the destruction of the two Great Satans: the United States and Israel. And Israel is well within range of Iran's nuclear-capable Shahab-3 missile.

Can Israel do something about it? Sure. After all, Israel crippled Iraq's nuclear program with a strike on the Osirak reactor in 1983. But Iraq is a heck of a lot closer than Iran, and Israeli fighters would have to fly over Iraq or Saudi Arabia to get to Iran. Though not impossible, it would be a far riskier mission than the Osirik strike.

And what about the U.S.? American interests cannot be subjugated to the whims of the EU. Washington must remain  skeptical of Iran's intentions to hold up its end of the EU-brokered deal until it is verifed that this was, indeed, a breakthrough for nuclear non-proliferation and notfor Iran's nuclear weapons program. Until we can be sure of that, it's best to  keep the champagne and caviar on ice.

Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs for the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

Reprinted with permission of The New York Post