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Iran: what next?

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Robin Lustig | 13:39 UK time, Monday, 30 November 2009

It'll soon be make-your-mind-up time about Iran.

When Russia and China join the rest of the world in condemning Iran for lack of cooperation over its uranium enrichment programme (Cuba, Venezuela and Malaysia were the only countries to vote against the IAEA resolution last week), you can be pretty sure things are getting serious again.

A couple of months ago, it looked as if Iran might be prepared to go along with the idea that it should open up its hitherto-undisclosed nuclear research plant at Qom and send its low-enriched uranium to Russia to be further enriched so that it could be used for medical purposes. (I wrote about it at the time here.)

But since then, there's been no progress - and now Tehran has announced that it plans to build 10 more uranium enrichment plants to produce fuel for a big expansion of a nuclear power programme.

So what's going on? Is Tehran just stringing the UN along, dropping tantalising hints every now and again that it might be prepared to cooperate, while all the time carrying on with its enrichment programme?

Or is there is a behind-the-scenes power struggle under way, with different factions in Tehran fighting for supremacy?

The former White House Iran expert Gary Sick argues that the apparent hardening of the Iranian position is a sign that following the bitterly disputed presidential election in June, the Revolutionary Guards have in effect seized power.

He writes on the Daily Beast website: "I am personally convinced that the Revolutionary Guard Corps is now rapidly becoming the dominant force in Iranian politics--greater than President Ahmadinejad, and greater even than Ayatollah Khamenei himself, though the pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards] and others continue to pay lip service to his "leadership."

"I base this judgment, among other things, on the fact that senior leaders of the pasdaran no longer have any compunction about taking positions that differ from those of the President or the Supreme Leader; yet neither the President nor the Supreme Leader ever dare disagree with the pasdaran."

Whoever is calling the shots in Tehran, the Obama administration will soon have to decide what to do. There are three options: keep trying to talk, but in the knowledge that Iran may, despite its consistent denials, be well on the way to developing a nuclear weapons capacity; introduce a Security Council resolution to mandate tougher sanctions, but in the knowledge that they may have only a marginal effect, if that; or start gearing up for a possible military strike, as is being urged by Israel.

Steven Simon at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations has written a detailed piece here about how Israel may be tempted to go it alone with military strikes against Iran's known nuclear facilities.

He says: "Israel is capable of carrying out these attacks unilaterally. Its F-16 and F-15 aircraft, equipped with conformal fuel tanks and refueled with 707-based and KC-130 tankers toward the beginning and end of their flight profiles, have the range to reach the target set, deliver their payloads in the face of Iranian air defenses, and return to their bases.

"The munitions necessary to penetrate the targets are currently in Israel's inventory in sufficient numbers; they include Bomb Live Unit (BLU)-109 and BLU 113 bombs that carry two thousand and five thousand pounds, respectively, of high-energy explosives. These GPS-guided weapons are extremely accurate and can be lofted from attacking aircraft fifteen kilometers from their target, thereby reducing the attackers' need to fly through air defenses. Israel also has a laser-guided version of these bombs that is more accurate than the GPS variant and could deploy a special-operations laser designation unit to illuminate aim points as it is reported to have done in the attack on the al-Kibar facility in Syria."

But of course if Israel were to decide to send its bombers to Iran, they would need to cross Iraq first, and that would mean either getting permission from Washington, or running the risk of US air force interceptors scrambling to stop them.

Steven Simon argues that it is very much in US interests to ensure that things don't get to that point. "Israel is not eager for war with Iran, or to disrupt its special relationship with the United States. But the fact remains that it considers the Iranian threat an existential one and its bilateral relationship with the United States a durable one, and will act if it perceives momentous jeopardy to the Israeli people or state."


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