In the last six months, the Iran conflict has intensified. The UN Security Council has adopted economic sanctions and a ban on Iranian arms exports. The wording is harsh, and the American force presence in the Gulf area is formidable.
- What is the Iran conflict about?
- Who are the parties to the conflict?
- How has the conflict developed in the last couple of years?
- What can happen in the future?
2: Escalation of the conflict
The first escalation wave started in August 2005. At that time, the EU countries France, Great Britain and Germany (= EU3) – and Javier Solana on behalf of the whole EU – presented an economic and political offer package to Iran. The package had some clear shortcomings: It contained no offer to build nuclear power plants and no safety guarantees, as EU3 had anticipated. Iran rejected the move as an insult. In the months that followed, the United States used a quarter of an hour to escalate the conflict: Iran’s new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded in provocative terms, and in January 2006, Foreign Minister Condoleezza Rice said the case was over.
Now there were only discussions about punitive measures in the Social Security Council. In the spring, however, the United States returned to the diplomatic track and joined the European countries in preparing a new and better package of offers to Iran. The Americans also said they were willing to negotiate, together with the Europeans, if Iran stopped all uranium enrichment. Perhaps the Republican administration thought it was best to do so in view of the November 2006 congressional election.
The second escalation wave began after the election. What is new this time is the UN sanctions and the military escalation . The United States has had sanctions against Iran since the hostage drama of 1979-1980, but the Tehran government has done well nonetheless. They have a harder time dealing with UN sanctions. These are the plagues of the Iranian economy, with which Ahmadinejad and his government have had a bad hand.
Critics point out that there must be something wrong with Iranian foreign policy as the outside world – not just the United States – faces the country. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the sanctions will provide a solution to the conflict. Had the United States been willing to negotiate with Iran for a political solution, in a scheme with both carrot and whip, our prospects would have been better. But the Bush administration is known to have an ingrained reluctance to talk to its enemies.
The military escalation includes two aircraft carrier groups. A third is on the way: It may replace one of the two, but at some point there may be three such groups in the area. In addition to aircraft and cruise missiles on ships and submarines, the United States can use bombers from home bases in the United States and the United Kingdom and from bases in the region, including Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which has grown significantly in recent years. The threat of the use of military force is therefore quite clear. Whether the weapons will actually be used is another matter.
3: Nuclear program or nuclear weapons program?
When oil prices rose sharply in the 1970s, the shah – Reza Pahlavi – started an extensive nuclear program. European and American companies competed for the assignment. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, the program was halted: the Ayatollah showed no interest in nuclear issues.
But in the mid-1980s, while the war with Iraq was raging (1980-1988), there was new momentum in it. Iran began cooperating with an illegal network hired by the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, Ahmad Qadeer Khan. They offered technology for uranium enrichment. Khan had trusted this technology from the German-Dutch enrichment plant in Almelo (Netherlands), where he worked for a time, and used it in the secret Pakistani nuclear weapons program. The network was rolled up after a German ship on its way to Libya, “BBC China”, was stopped in early October 2003 with nuclear technology on board. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has since found that companies and individuals from more than 30 countries on four continents contributed to it. (But not from Russia, where many believed that the danger of leaks was greatest).
In the second half of October – after 18 years of secrecy – the Iranians gave a comprehensive analysis of the nuclear program. After the cargo on “BBC China” was revealed, they had hardly any better choice. The IAEA was given the opportunity to practice the so-called additional protocol to the standard agreement on insurance control (part of the non-proliferation regime). This provides expanded access to information and inspections. The condition is that the information and the places to be inspected are related to fissile material – the bottleneck in the process leading up to finished nuclear weapons.
According to fashionissupreme, the IAEA cannot inspect military installations unless there is reason to believe that there is a nuclear-related activity in the city. Iran was nevertheless urged to voluntarily allow such inspections, which the Iranians did on individual occasions. For more than two years, Iran accepted more extensive control from the IAEA than any other country in the world.
In the autumn of 2004, the IAEA was able to establish that nuclear material was not derived from the nuclear program, and that Iran complies with its obligations under the safeguards agreement. The breach of contract applies to the period 1985–2003. Such conclusions are based on the information the host country itself provides about the activities: The agency cannot say whether there are any secret facilities or activities in the country. There are still a number of outstanding issues that the additional protocol and the voluntary inspections could have helped to clarify. But Iran withdrew this right to control when the case was brought before the Security Council in February 2006.
The critical element is the enrichment , which is based on centrifuges that spin at high speed and that separate the heavy U-238 isotopes from the fissile U-235. Iran has produced a large amount of uranium gas (UF6), which is the form the uranium must have when it is fed into the centrifuges. The country is now also close to completing a pilot plant in Natanz with 3,000 centrifuges.
Technically, this can provide enough high-enriched uranium for 1-2 Hiroshima-type bombs per year. Developing such weapons is relatively simple: in 1945, the United States was reasonably confident that the Hiroshima bomb, which was also based on high-enriched uranium, would work even if it was not tested. In April 2007, during the one-year anniversary of the start-up of the plant, Iranian spokesmen announced that they were now ready to start enrichment on an industrial scale. The goal is 50,000 centrifuges and 7 MWe of electric power. The problem is that the same technology can also be used for military purposes. By recycling the uranium gas, one gets ever higher concentrations of U-235.