America's next target

By keeping the rest of the world guessing about its nuclear capacity, Tehran has raised talk of war

Bluff, perhaps, or double bluff, but the game is dangerous. Iran, while protesting that its aim is to build on its civilian nuclear energy only, is acting in a way which makes it pretty clear that its true pursuit is weapons. Israel, with apparent US backing, is encouraging the world to speculate that if Iran is not stopped by diplomatic means from going nuclear, then Israel will stop it by force. Both sides are nearing the edge of their brinkmanship. Yet, for both, the calculations are dense and devious.

Late last month, Iran went out of its way to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency. Three days after the IAEA had told Iran to freeze all operations connected with uranium enrichment, Tehran announced that it had resumed producing a uranium gas for enrichment as a nuclear fuel. Depending on the process, the fuel can be used either for peaceful or for military purposes. Iran is carefully preserving this useful, and deeply threatening, state of ambiguity. Outside experts differ on when Iran might be in a position to test a nuclear weapon, but many believe it will be able to do so within the next few years.

Israel's defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on 29 September: "All options for preventing [Iran obtaining nuclear weapons] will be considered." A nuclear-armed Iran, still calling for elimination of the Jewish state, would not be tolerated by the nuclear-armed Israel. Mofaz accepted that America's demand for political and economic pressure to be brought to bear might be the right way to go for now, but indicated that time was running out. He posed the sinister question: "What will happen first, nuclear capability or a change in [Iran's] regime?" Another Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, pointed out that same day that nobody was asking Israel "to refrain from a belligerent act". Underlining the belligerency, Israel deliberately talked up the 500 "bunker-buster" bombs (capable of penetrating six feet of concrete and thus exploding underground sites) that it was about to get from the United States.

So is Israel planning a pre-emptive strike along the lines of its 1981 bombing of Iraq's unfinished nuclear plant at Osirak, near Baghdad? One thing is obvious: if it happens, it won't be the surprise attack that Osirak was. Both Israel and the US seem set on allowing widespread speculation about pre-emption, presumably in the hope that the threat will underpin diplomatic attempts to deter Iran from going nuclear. But is the threat realistic? Maybe it is: look, after all, at the men who are ruling Israel. We should not forget, wrote Aluf Benn in Haaretz on 29 September, that "the present political-military leadership - Sharon, Mofaz, Moshe Yaalon [Israel's chief of staff], [Major General] Dan Halutz - has few inhibitions about exercising military might. Operations that were once considered taboo, such as attacks on Damascus and assassinations of Hamas leaders, now seem self-evident."

That said, destroying Iran's nuclear facilities would be a totally different affair from destroying Osirak: it would be both harder and much more dangerous. For a start, Iran has many installations scattered over its huge territory, and they are protected. The main military site, at Natanz in central Iran, is buried deep underground. Bombing Bushehr, its one nuclear plant on the verge of completion, might be feasible (if the Russian technicians working there could be got out of the way), but it would bring about huge retaliation while chalking up only limited military gains.

And Iran, unlike Iraq, has many means of retaliation, directly against Israel and indirectly against US interests in Iraq and elsewhere. "The entire Zionist territory," declared Yadollah Javani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards political bureau, "including its nuclear facilities and atomic arsenal, is currently within range of Iran's advanced missiles." Echoing Israel's publicity tactics, Iran has been noisily testing its upgraded Shahab (shooting star) ballistic missile. Even if it refrains from directly attacking Israel, Iran can cause considerable pain for that country through the two Islamist guerrilla movements it partly controls: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Palestine (though it has links with Hamas, the larger Palestinian Islamist movement, it does not exert much influence over the group).

America's wars with Iraq and Afghanistan have put Iran at the heart of the world's most sensitive region, giving it ample opportunity for good or for mischief. For instance, Iran's Shia clerics are believed to have influence over Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's Shia firebrand who challenged the Baghdad government; they were certainly on hand during his recent crucial negotiations with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential clerics. Iran's defence minister, Ali Shamkhani, has hinted strongly at the spoiling tactics to which it would resort if it were attacked: at the very least, it would destabilise an already unstable region.

Behind the furious rattle of sabres is the other question: whether or not Iran really is determined to go nuclear. There is one very good reason why it should, exemplified by North Korea. At one time Iraq, Iran and North Korea were all on George W Bush's little list for regime change. Then North Korea revealed, by testing a weapon, that it had crossed the nuclear threshold, and suddenly there was no more talk of Korean regime change. By acquiring the bomb, North Korea had put itself on a higher level. Equally, there would be no better way for the Iranian regime to protect itself from overthrow from outside than by having the bomb.

Iran is surrounded, and in some cases threatened, by nuclear countries and forces: the Americans in the Gulf, Nato's arms in Turkey, Israel (with its formidable though absurdly unacknowledged nuclear arsenal), Russia and Pakistan. Having its own bomb would lessen the constraints, allowing Iran more freedom to try to expand its theocratic influence. Whatever the deplorable consequences of a nuclear Iran for world safety - not only the perils of a bomb in the hands of a fundamentalist regime, but also the copycat effect on the region, possibly signalling the death knell of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) - it would provide a safety net for Tehran's own leaders.

Set against this is the evident usefulness of the nuclear threat as a trade-off for some grand international deal. So long as Iran simply remains on the verge of going nuclear, it has the chance of backtracking in return for some hugely worthwhile bargain. But the conservative forces that run Iran are divided on the "bazaar" advantages of the bomb - and the neoconservatives in America would be unlikely to consider any prospect of a bargain.

Note that, in Iran, this is an internal split among the conservatives only. The long-running division between conservatives and reformists, which has been the prime Iranian story ever since President Mohammad Khatami's election seven years ago, is no longer particularly relevant - though it could become so again one day. In his memoir of Iran, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, published this summer, Christopher de Bellaigue reflects on the sad demise of the reform movement: "It was possible that President Khatami, who had been elected on a pledge to make Iran more democratic, would succeed in steering a course between God and freedom, to the detriment of neither. No longer. Reform had been defeated. The conservatives had won."

Though Iran's conservatives do not advertise their divisions, they hardly speak with one voice. On one side are the ultra- hardline ideologues, prepared to brave it out and waiting for the security of the bomb. They see virtue in reversing Khatami's internationalism, visualising a future in which Iran will promote core revolutionary idealism behind a wall of isolation. Believing that America's difficulties in Iraq have strengthened Iran, they think that the west's (and Israel's) bluff can be called.

On the other side are the relative pragmatists, probably including Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who do not care to return in full to the ostracism of the past. They appreciate the tentative links with Europe fashioned by Khatami; they may even, behind the public bombast and sermons, see the bomb as the instrument of a giant bargain with the United States which could lead to a new relationship between the two countries.

Yet with George W Bush and Ayatollah Khamenei in charge of their respective countries, with hard men on both sides, the notion of a new relationship seems a forlorn, if not surreal, hope. The much more likely outcome, if Iran continues to defy the IAEA, is that the US will succeed, at the end of this year, in getting Iran referred to the UN Security Council for breach of the NPT, and will then press the council to punish Iran with some form of sanctions. It is quite unclear what such sanctions might be, beyond a tightening of existing restrictions on dual-use equipment and so forth, or indeed whether Russia and China would allow any sanctions resolution to get through the council.

In its current mood, Iran would probably shrug off minor sanctions. But, for all its bravado, the country is not in a strong position economically. For the moment, it is floating along, buoyed up by the high price of oil, its people lulled into political passivity. But oil and gas apart, Iran has nothing to sustain it. Its other industries are sclerotic, and a strong nationalistic tendency in the new parliament (right-wing, because most reformist candidates were barred from competing in February's general election) is blocking development by insisting on vetting all foreign contracts. While America's unilateral sanctions are painful, barring all US investment and deterring others from investing in Iran's oil and gas, UN oil sanctions would destroy the regime.

None the less, it is unlikely that petroleum consumers will impose oil sanctions, if for no other reason than the precipitous effect this would have on oil prices. Nor, so long as the top people in Iran and America keep their jobs, is there likely to be any sort of grand, solve-all bargain. So we have a stalemate: it looks as if the perilous brinkmanship will continue - until one side or the other steps over the edge.