There is no consensus that Tehran is about to develop atomic weapons, but harsh sanctions might give it reason to do so.

Early on May 4, 2003, an unsigned, one-page fax arrived at the State Department in Washington, D.C. It contained an extraordinary secret offer from Iran's rulers: in return for regime security, an end to sanctions and access to civilian nuclear technology, Iran promised full transparency in its nuclear programme and a termination of material support for terrorist groups.

Tim Guldimann, Switzerland's Ambassador to Tehran, wrote in his covering letter that the proposals had been approved by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then-President Mohammad Khatami, and then-Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi.

Eight days later, an al-Qaeda bomb ripped through downtown Riyadh — and the United States blamed Iran. Mohammad Javad Kharazzi, Iran's Ambassador to the United Nations, flew to Geneva on May 24, to push forward the deal. His interlocutor, top U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, didn't show up.

Pressure on India

Nine years to the month since that lost opportunity, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in New Delhi, seeking greater Indian support for harsh oil sanctions intended to choke Iran's nuclear programme. For New Delhi, this involves real costs: the alternatives to Iranian oil are relatively expensive; Iran, moreover, offers India the sole reliable land route into strategically-important Afghanistan, where both countries have common interests.

The sanctions have been advertised as necessary to force a recalcitrant Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons — a pursuit, many fear, that could lead other regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to also seek similar capabilities, and even conceivably end in a nuclear holocaust. Earlier this month Iran and the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany — held their first nuclear talks in over a year. Gary Samore, a key U.S. adviser, said sanctions helped. “There was much less posturing, no preconditions,” he said.

Little evidence

In India, though, there is mounting fear that the sanctions regime could just as easily lead the regime to dig in its heels — as it did after the spurned 2003 offer. For one, there is little evidence Iran is in fact within striking range of producing nuclear weapons. In testimony to the U.S. Senate in January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said there was no evidence to suggest Iran was working to build a bomb. David Petraeus, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, concurred. Past intelligence estimates provided to President Barack Obama have arrived at much the same conclusions.

Last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that Iran had significantly enhanced its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium — a level that can be converted relatively quickly into weapons-grade material. The stockpile far exceeds Tehran's stated needs for medical use.

However, the respected Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) concluded last year, that a decision on whether or not to make a bomb was “unlikely to occur until Iran is first able to augment its enrichment capability to a point where it would have the ability to make weapons-grade uranium quickly and secretly.” Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, Israel's army chief, said last month that he did not think Mr. Khamenei would “want to go the extra mile” needed to build a bomb. “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people,” he said.

None of this is reason enough to be sanguine. Iran has developed missiles that can deliver a one-tonne warhead, the typical weight of a nuclear weapon, up to 1,000 kilometres — evidence that the idea of possessing one figures in its military imagination. Bruno Tertrais, an eminent French scholar, has also pointed out that just two countries that acquired the capabilities to make nuclear weapons didn't eventually succumb to the temptation of building one.

But will they use one? “Iranians,” Israeli expert Avner Cohen has aruged, “are aware of the catastrophic consequences of such an act.” The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates that the Israeli nuclear arsenal, at more than 200 boosted and fusion weapons, is enough to annihilate Iran.

Irrational actors?

In Israel and the U.S., some experts argue that Iran's theocratic leadership simply can't be counted on to be deterred by nuclear weapons — and thus, even the smallest risk that it could acquire one must be eliminated. In 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered an apocalyptic speech, arguing that the “establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world.” “The outcomes of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land,” he continued. “Israel must be wiped off the map.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic words were recently invoked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claimed that Iran “determinedly works for our destruction.” Iran was, he continued, “feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.”

Iran's religious right, though, is more divided on the issue than the country's adversaries insist. Mr. Khamenei has gone on record to assert that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic. Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi's Mesbah-Yazdi, one of Mr. Ahmadinejad's key ideological mentors, and his disciple, Mohsen Gharavian, have defied this line. In February 2006, for example, Mr. Gharavian said there was “no religious constraint in using nuclear weapons to retaliate.” However, figures like Mohammad Reza Bahonar, once one of Mr. Ahmadinejad's loyalists, have criticised him for giving the impression that Iran is “bent upon destroying the prevailing global management.”

Messianic fantasies, it bears mention, aren't an Iranian monopoly. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who presided over the most formidable nuclear arsenal on earth in the midst of the Cold War, said in 1971 that, “for the first time ever, everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.” Later, in 1980, he told fundamentalist television evangelist Jim Bakker: “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon.” The world survived Mr. Reagan; there is no particular reason to believe it won't survive Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Iran's foreign policy, analyst Sergey Markedonov recently pointed out, consisted of “loud revolutionary rhetoric [but] realist foreign-policy moves”: consisting of cultivating Christian Armenia, a refusal to back Islamists in the Russian Caucuses and its cultivating détente with pro-U.S. Georgia.

For now, Iran is talking, hoping to stave off a sanctions regime that hurts. Escalating the pressure to unbearable levels, though, could mean the regime loses any stakes in the regional and international order — tipping the balance in favour of those in Iran who believe it is imperative to acquire the most potent instrument of regime survival known to the human race.

praveens@thehindu.co.in

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