July 8th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: No quick fix for suffering Aboriginal communities

EDITORIAL: Quarantine subverted by free trade agenda

QUARANTINE: Senate blasts AQIS over citrus canker outbreak

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA's Liberal Opposition shoots itself in the foot

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Where did all the culture go? / Don't cry for me, Nigeria / Water on the brain

THE WORLD: Has the United Nations any future?

BIOETHICS: Should lesbians be allowed artificial insemination?

THINKERS: Thoroughly modern Mill - John Stuart Mill

IRAN: Can the West tame Iran's nuclear ambitions?

MEDIA: Propaganda masquerading as news

Something rotten in academia (letter)

Muslims who reject extremism (letter)

Under the influence? (letter)

WONDER WOMAN: The myth of 'having it all', by Virginia Haussegger

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Can the West tame Iran's nuclear ambitions?

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, July 8, 2006
Can Iran be persuaded to abandon its clandestine nuclear-weapons program in favour of civilian nuclear technology, asks Dr Sharif Shuja. If not, will Iran's powerful friends, Russia and China, be prepared to support the United States in imposing economic sanctions on Iran, thereby jeopardising hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts and investments?

Today, many would argue that the role of nuclear weapons is of decreasing relevance in international security, and that states possessing them are either reducing their inventories or, in some cases, renouncing them altogether.

Some other states, however, are doing the reverse, notably North Korea and Iran.

Iran is considered by the West as a leading candidate for acquiring nuclear weapons. Allegations persist of an Iranian covert weapons program, which contravenes Iran's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Some observers point to the apparent logic of Iran going down the nuclear path, noting Iran's "rough neighbourhood", its nuclear neighbours and its experience of being on the receiving end of Iraq's chemical weapons, etc.


Some consider Iran's acquisition of nuclear weaponry as only a matter of time, possibly sooner than we might anticipate.

Most observers also consider Iran a likely proliferator of such weapons, and focus either on ways to delay this process, or else on assessing the implications that an Iranian nuclear weapons program would have for Western interests.

Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denies Iran is producing atomic weapons, and insists his country wants nuclear technology for civilian purposes only.

America's long-term interest would be served were Iran to be governed by moderates who would be more likely to be part of regional security discussions and less inclined to seek nuclear force.

However, in a striking policy shift, the U.S. Administration, in mid-June, declared it would join direct talks with Iran if Iran stopped enriching uranium.

For the previous 20 years, America and Iran were not on speaking terms. Now, this new American move, along with Washington's close cooperation with Britain, France and Germany, might dissuade Iran from seeking the capacity to build a nuclear bomb.

European Union Foreign Minister Javier Solana, speaking on behalf of the major world powers, has offered Iran a new package of incentives, thereby signalling that, for now, the West is pursuing diplomacy rather than confrontation over Iran's nuclear program.

Responding to this initiative, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said: "We had constructive talks. Solana delivered certain proposals that they had been working on. These proposals contain a number of positive steps, and there are also ambiguities that have to be cleared up.

"I hope, after we've had a chance to consider the proposals, we could have more talks so that we can reach a balanced and logical outcome."

The United States and the other countries have also committed themselves to help Iran obtain new agricultural technology and to help Iran's civil aviation. This is another positive signal from Washington.

The U.S. currently refuses to sell anything to Iran, and the nation has an ageing airline fleet.

Speaking to reporters in Texas, U.S. President George W. Bush described Iran's reaction as "positive". "We will see if the Iranians take our offer seriously," Bush said. "The choice is theirs to make."

The world powers are demanding that Iran halt its uranium-enrichment-related work in return for economic benefits and more intangible support, such as backing from the West for Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Key to the entire offer, however, is the United States' commitment, announced recently, to join the Europeans, Russia and China in talks with Iran if the latter suspends uranium-enrichment-related activities.

Many of the economic offers, some of which the European Union also made nearly a year ago, cannot be delivered without US backing because of legal and treaty requirements.

Among them is a guarantee that the United States would facilitate a European offer to provide Iran with a light-water reactor and other civilian nuclear technology. Much of the light-water nuclear technology originates in the United States and, without American government approval, the Europeans could not provide it to Iran.

The decision to offer Iran help with a nuclear reactor is bound to be especially controversial because, according to scientists, it is possible to harvest spent plutonium from such a plant and use it to manufacture material for an atomic bomb.

Western powers are convinced that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at achieving the capability to make bombs. Tehran insists it wants nuclear technology only for civilian purposes.

Iran has a long history of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities. In light of the fact that the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is said to have provided Tehran not only with equipment for enriching uranium, but also with actual designs for the bomb, Iran's claim to be pursuing a civilian nuclear program looks unconvincing.

Why would Iran need to pursue a civilian nuclear program when it possesses some of the largest proven oil and gas reserves in the world, which are more than enough to fuel its domestic needs? Why would it opt for nuclear energy, which is far more complicated to develop and far more expensive to produce?


Washington has accused Iran of deceiving the international community and of harbouring a nuclear weapons program. Washington fears that, once Iran owns nuclear weapons, it will sell them to terrorists and threaten the security of the United States and its allies. So, the Bush Administration is talking tough and considering options, such as sanctions.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has said: "For an oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources. What Iran really seeks is a shield to discourage intervention by outsiders in its ideology-based foreign policy."

This is the main reason, Kissinger continues, that "it will be difficult to fashion a package of incentives to spur denuclearisation of Iran".

America's decision to offer direct talks with Iran may be intended most of all to nudge Russia and China into agreeing that, if Iran still fails to cooperate, UN sanctions should be imposed on Iran.

Russia's contribution to Iran's Bushehr reactor is significant. It is clear that, without the transfer of technology from Russia and China, Iran could not have achieved the pace of progress that it has in developing its nuclear program.

Russia not only supplies Iran with critical ingredients for its nuclear and missile programs; it also sells Iran advanced conventional weapons, including submarines and ship-borne surface-to-surface missiles.

Russia and Iran also share common strategic interests in the Caspian region, especially at a time when it is U.S. policy to deny Iran access routes for energy pipelines through this territory and to marginalise Russia's ability to market Caspian energy.

While deepening ties with the Central Asian states, China is also steadily extending its reach into Iran. In terms of economic relations, China has become one of Iran's most important trade partners. Bilateral trade has increased rapidly in recent years, with the volume of trade last year reaching some $3.3 billion, several times higher than that of a decade ago.

Chinese firms are active in Iran in the fields of electricity, dam-building, cement plants, steel mills, railways, shipbuilding, transport, oil, gas and refineries. Iran has formalised a deal with China, which conservative estimates say would amount to upwards of $70-100 billion.

It includes a Chinese commitment to purchase 250 million tonnes of Iranian liquefied natural gas over 30 years, develop the giant Yadavaran oilfield in southwest Iran (near the Iraqi border), and import 150,000 barrels a day of crude oil from the field at market prices.

In the long term, China also hopes to participate in an Iranian pipeline project (the so-called Nekka project). This pipeline would link Tehran to the Caspian Sea. From there, a line with another planned pipeline from Kazakhstan to China is envisaged.

China, a huge energy consumer, wants to have a hand in what happens to these vast energy resources. Hence, Beijing is warming to Tehran.

Until now, Russia and China, both with big commercial links to Iran, have been deeply reluctant to endorse sanctions. They will still be loath to do so. But it will be harder for them to continue to shield the Iranians diplomatically if the Iranians refuse to respond in an amiable manner.

What then? Will Russia, which actually plays the pivotal role in running several of Iran's nuclear facilities, agree to sanctions being imposed on its ally, Iran, which refines some of Russia's oil for shipping through the Straits of Hormuz at competitive prices?

Will Russia and China promote and comply with such sanctions and jeopardise hundreds of billions of dollars in their contracts and investments?

And, if they do not, will the inability of the Security Council to pass such a resolution give the U.S. the excuse to invade, citing "inaction" on the part of "the international community"?

  • Dr Sharif Shuja is an academic staff member of the International Studies Program at Victoria University.

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