Thursday, February 09, 2006

Whither Iran

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The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been most vocal in the discussion about the cartoons and has tastelessly announced a Holocaust cartoon competition.
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As if comparing the belief of a religion (which is supernatural) to a historically documented genocide is equivalent. However, education in some Islamic societies teaches that the Holocaust didn’t happen.
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It looks, on the face of it, given the intransigence of Iran on its nuclear programme, its desire to destroy Israel, its ongoing support, training and funding of terrorism, that it is looking for conflict.
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The problem is that Iran is deeply divided. One argument made is that much of the Iranian population, particularly the 50% under 30, are pro-Western and have little time for Islamic fundamentalist. The fire of the Islamic revolution has by and large gone for that population. Don’t forget that Iranians are NOT Arabs and most do not speak Arabic, and the affinity that Ahmadinejad has with the Palestinians is not one that Iranians ethnically share. Iran’s political system does not provide a particularly good outlet for alternative views.
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At the top is the Supreme Leader, who is the religious and state head of the country, selected from an Assembly of Experts (pope style). He then appoints the religious members of the Council of Guardians, who with members selected by the Parliament, vet political candidates for their consistency with the Islamic constitution.
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So for starters, you can’t be a non-Islamic candidate or a Muslim candidate who does not believe that Islam should be the deciding factor in government. As a result, turnout at elections has varied. Only 10% turned out for the Tehran local elections, so Ahmadinejad was a Mayor with very little support.
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Reformists have called for those opposing the regime to boycott the elections, but still 59.6% turnout for the 2005 Presidential election was reported, with Ahmadinejad getting 61.69% of the vote against more moderate reformist candidate Akbar Hāschemī Rafsanjānī. While not an overwhelming endorsement, it is still one that George Bush would have been very happy with. Democracy is, after all, the counting of heads, not what is in them.
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So what does this mean? It means that given half the chance, a lot of Iranians would cheer the downfall of the Islamic Republic, particularly citizens of Tehran, and that by sheer demographics this will occur. The problem is it wont be soon enough.
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You see Iran has a nuclear programme – one ironically that was started with the help of the USA in 1975 under President Gerald Ford. The objective was to help Iran develop nuclear power in order to free up its oil reserves for export to North America. Of course back then, Iran was governed by the Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was overthrown an alliance of opposition groups (liberal and conservative), which was subsequently overtaken by the Islamic revolution. A Siemens/AEG Telefunken joint venture had signed a contract to build a nuclear power plant which was terminated after the revolution.
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Iran’s nuclear programme was in abeyance during the 80s, due to the war with Iraq and a lack of interested western partners. In the 1990s Russia helped Iran develop the Bushehr facilities, under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.
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Iran under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty has the international legal right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, as long as it accepts inspections by the IAEA to ensure it is not developing a military capability. In 2002, an Iranian dissident pointed out there are secret nuclear facilities at two locations not subject to these inspections. By 2004, the IAEA is not convinced that Iran has responded adequately to these allegations, in response the Iranian government breaks seals of the IAEA on its equipment, and resumes building nuclear centifuges. By September 2004, the IAEA calls on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. By November 2005, following the Iranian elections, the IAEA is impatient, rightfully so, as Iran still refuses to allow inspections it is treaty bound to comply with.
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So now the IAEA has voted 27-3 to submit its concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme to the UN Security Council. The Council can impose economic sanctions on Iran. Iran meanwhile has said it will resume uranium enrichment, denies it is pursuing nuclear weapons (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons on August 9, 2005, while its President sabre rattles against Israel.
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Iran must not gain nuclear weapons. If it wanted to prove it had no such intent, it could do so by opening up its facilities to inspection. The fact that it refuses to do speaks volumes. Iran has several motives for gaining nuclear weapons:
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1. Regime survival: Having been branded as part of the Axis of Evil by George Bush and seen the regime change the US implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is reason to believe it could be next. Having a nuclear capability would deter the US, the sooner it gets it the better.
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2. Threaten Israel: Iran would want to deter any possible Israeli strike of Iranian facilities and to use a nuclear capability as a bargaining chip for its proxies (Hizbullah) in the region. At worst, it could supply terrorists with a small device to explode at an Israeli target, dramatically raising the stakes of the Palestinian conflict.
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3. Status in the region: With neighbours Pakistan, India and China all nuclear, Iran will feel it can have a greater say in regional affairs with a nuclear capability.
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So what now? Dialogues, sanctions, war, overthrow of the regime? Are enough Iranians disenchanted that they will deal to the government if it goes too far, or do words need to be backed up by action? More to follow tomorrow.

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