Why would a bald man fight tooth and nail to get a comb? The question fits the situation in which the Islamic Republic of Iran finds itself regarding its controversial nuclear programme.
Despite the latest diplomatic manoeuvres, it is clear that Tehran is determined to ignore demands, made by the United Nations Security Council, that it suspend its uranium and plutonium enrichment activities.
At first glance all this is quite puzzling. Iran does not have any working nuclear power plant and thus has no immediate need of enriched uranium even as fuel. The only Iranian nuclear power plant under construction in Hellieh on the Bushehr Peninsula is not scheduled to come on stream before next spring. And, when it does, it will have enough fuel for the first 10 years of its operation. Russia, which is building the station, has offered to provide all the needed fuel for its entire lifespan of 37 years.
To sum up: Iran does not need any enriched uranium at least until next March. After next March, it would still need not produce any enriched uranium until the year 2017. Even after 2017, Iran would still have no need of domestic uranium enrichment for the Hellieh plant until 2044.
Iran’s plutonium project is even more interesting. Not only does the country not have any heavy water power plants that might need plutonium, it has no plans to build any either. In other words, Iran is spending cast sums of money on a project for which it has no obvious use. Unless, of course, the plutonium in question, as the enriched uranium discussed above, is meant for purposes other than producing electricity.
It is hard to argue a case in favour of nuclear power plants in Iran. Iran has the world’s second or third largest oil reserves and the second largest reserves of natural gas. Even if Iranian domestic consumption of energy were top reach average Western levels in the next decade or so, Iran would still have enough domestic energy resources to last it more than 400 years. As several studies by Iranian academics have shown, nuclear power would be at least 27 per cent more costly to produce and distribute than electricity generated by oil, gas or hydroelectric power plants.
There is yet another argument against nuclear power plants in Iran. The whole country is located on one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. Hellieh, the place where the first nuclear power plant is being built, has been destroyed by earthquakes on at least three occasions in the past century or so. Pouring Hellieh’s cooling water back into the Gulf could do untold harm to the environment in the region while the problem of what to do with the spent fuel remains unsolved. The idea of burying it under the waters of the Gulf or in the Iranian Lut Desert is regarded by many Iranian experts as “sheer lunacy”.
Not surprisingly, the nuclear issue has never been properly debated in the Islamic Majlis or explained to the Iranian public. It is a grave decision taken by a handful of men and against the advice of many Iranian scientists and academics.
So why is the Islamic Republic ready to take big risks in order not to suspend uranium enrichment even for a few months before the Hellieh plant is ready?
The obvious answer is that the Islamic Republic wants to put itself in a position to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons. There is, of course, nothing illegal about such a project, Iran, and all other countries, have the right to build nuclear weapons if they so wish. The problem is that, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is legally bound not to produce nuclear weapons.
Thus, the logical step for the Islamic Republic would be to suspend its membership of the NPT, as did North Korea in 2000, or even withdraw from it and do as it pleases.
The problem, however, is that Khomeinism, the ruling ideology in Iran today, has a logic of its own which is not easily understood in terms of mainstream international behaviour.
In that logic, the Islamic Republic, as the embodiment of the Only Truth, is not bound by laws, regulations and norms of behaviour developed by the “Infidel”.
Matters have become even more complicated because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has turned the issue of uranium enrichment into the ultimate red line of his administration. Having accused his predecessors as having almost committed treason by agreeing to an earlier suspension of uranium enrichment, Ahmadinejad is now in no mood to do exactly that.
By insisting on suspension as a precondition to talks, the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, are asking Ahmadinejad to destroy his macho image and thus undermine his entire strategy for relenting the Islamic Revolution into what he regards as its second and most decisive phase.
The 5+1 must understand that in Iran today the issue of uranium enrichment goes far beyond its diplomatic, military and security aspects. This issue has come to symbolise two visions of the Khomeinist revolution. The first is that of people like former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami who believe that the central task of the revolution is to consolidate its hold on Iran, leaving the idea of exporting the revolution to the rest of the world for future generations. In that sense people like Rafsanjani and Khatami resemble the advocates of “Socialism in One Country” in the USSR of the 1920s. Ahmadinejad, however, resembles the advocates of “Permanent Revolution” in the same period.
The fishtail conclusion of the mini-war in Lebanon has immensely boosted the position of the “Permanent Revolution” camp. Ahmadinejad is convinced that his strategy of “pre-emptive move” has succeeded and that with the US entering a period of confusion as the Bush presidency draws to its close, the Islamic Republic can and must establish itself as the regional superpower.
And there are signs that, after years of relative low profile, Tehran is preparing to revive its programme to export the Khomeinist revolution. In a speech last Tuesday the
“Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi, in effect claimed that the ” Divine Strategic Victory” won in Lebanon was a sign that Muslim peoples everywhere would rally to the Iranian standard in a showdown with the US and its regional allies.
“We are not exporting our revolution by force, “Khamenehi said. “We are offering it as a gift.”
What the outside world is facing is a resurgent revolutionary regime determined to impose its agenda on the region-with or without nuclear weapons. The issue of uranium enrichment has become an issue of Iran’s domestic politics and the demarcation line between two visions for the future of Iran and the region. By accepting suspension in any form, Ahmadinejad and his camp would be admitting defeat. And that is something that they are not ready to do, especially in the wake of their “victory” in Lebanon.
The bald man may not need a comb to look after his nonexistent hair. But he might need it to prove that he can do as he pleases and that no one is allowed to dictate to him.