Will They or Won’t They?
If you haven’t got around to reading the IAEA fifteen page report, I think it’s fair to summarise it as; smoking gun not found, but there was a whiff of cordite in the air. Certainly the report could find no credible reason for enriching uranium to twenty percent, as Iran is currently doing, when the centrifuges work that is. They also were unconvinced of the need for Iran to investigate a trigger mechanism, whilst conceding that it could have some civilian applications. Iran did not appear to be pursuing any of those applications.
Let’s consider why Iran would want a civilian nuclear power program. Why would any country want to pursue a nuclear power program? The two most obvious answers are little or no access to fossil fuels for a variety of reasons and a forecast increase in power demand which existing power generation facilities will not be able to meet. In fact, let’s take a brief overview of Iran as a country. I’ll give you some bald facts, most valid as of January 2012 and drawn from a variety of sources. Naturally, I can make no claim for the veracity of these figures, which in many cases are estimates (not mine).
- The population was 77,891,220 as of July 2011.
- Of these, 70.9% were in the age group 14-64.
- The median age was 26.8 years
- Population growth estimated at 1.24% pa
- Life expectancy at birth 70.06 years (don’t you just love statistics)
- The literacy rate of fifteen to twenty four year olds is claimed as 98.7%.
- HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate 0.2% (2009 estimate)
For those like me who didn’t know, the prevalence rate is found by dividing the number of those living with HIV/AIDS by the total number of population.
So all in all, apart from a low life expectancy, a reasonable picture. Not an aging population and population growth is reasonable but hardly explosive.
Ethnic groups: Persian 61%, Azeri 16%, Kurd 10%, Lur 6%, Baloch 2%, Arab 2%, Turkmen and Turkic tribes 2%, other 1% (2008 est.)
OK, well I can see some potential problems there, bearing in mind that Iran is still a fairly tribal society outside of the major cities. The Kurds are a potential source of conflict because of pan-Kurdish aspirations to an independent Kurdistan and for anybody who might have been unsure; Iran is very definitely NOT an Arab nation.
Religions: Muslim (official) 98% (Shi’a 89%, Sunni 9%), other (includes Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i) 2%. No surprises there, I’m sure.
Taking a brief overview of the economy, we find that most industries are state owned and run, inefficiently by all accounts, and there is an over- reliance on the oil industry. Inflation is high and no doubt getting higher whilst unemployment is in double-digit figures. There is an ongoing-problem with people leaving the country to seek employment.
There are state subsidies on food and energy, which Ahmadinejad has been trying to cut for a number of years, no doubt why the Majlis (parliament) summoned him to explain the state of the economy.
There is not much publicly available information on manufacturing industries, the inference being that these are small-scale family-run affairs. This is important when we come to look at the energy sector. What this does mean is that things like ‘white goods’ have to be imported and this is where sanctions will be biting.
Agriculture: products listed are wheat, rice, other grains, sugar beets, sugar cane, fruits, nuts, cotton; dairy products, wool; caviar. I could find no mention of meat production or fishing, but they must exist, if only on a family-enterprise level.
Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulfur
The picture I have is of a non-industrial country, probably able to feed itself but not particularly well or reliably. There have been reports of Iran trying to buy rice from other countries. Beef and veal imports have been falling quite dramatically since 2010. I can find nothing to suggest that Iranian meat production has risen to meet the drop in imports, so the implication is that meat consumption must be falling, probably either as a result of sanctions or lack of foreign currency.
Let’s take a look at the energy sector, again sorry for a stream of figures, but they tell an interesting story.
Oil – production: 4.252 million bbl/day (2010 est)
Oil – consumption: 1.845 million bbl/day (2010 est)
Oil – exports: 2.523 million bbl/day (2009 est.)
Oil – imports: 297,100 bbl/day (2009 est.)
These figures include oil products. They do not take into account any fluctuation in oil reserves. Overall, a healthy picture one would say; provided of course the oil exports continue. But remember the question, why would Iran want to develop a civilian nuclear industry?
Proven Oil reserves: 137 billion bbl based on Iranian claims.
Iran has about 10% of world reserves (1 January 2011 est.)
My maths is not of the highest calibre, but I reckon that’s about one hundred years worth of oil in the ground, assuming they don’t find any more. For a democratically elected government, not a real looming problem but for a theocracy with perhaps a longer view, well maybe. Oil of course is not everything.
Natural gas reserves: 41.41 Trillion (yup, trillion) cu m
Natural gas production: 138.5 billion cu m (2010 est.)
Natural gas consumption: 137 billion cu m (2010 est.)
I’m beginning to think that Iran might just possibly be in great shape, from an energy perspective, particularly when a further gas reserve estimated at 1.42 trillion cu m was discovered in the Iranian part of the Caspian Sea in late 2011. Then there are renewable energy sources, which brings us to the final set of figures, electricity (or electrickery if you prefer). These figures show the annual electricity generated expressed in kilowatt-hours. There are figures available which show estimated losses in power transmission and electricity exported, but let’s keep it simple.
Electricity generated: 212.8 billion kWh (2009 est.)
Electricity – consumption: 206.7 billion kWh (2009 est.)
Electricity from renewable sources: 7.46 billion kWh (2009.)
My friends, Iran needs nuclear energy with all its associated problems like a hole in the head. There is no push for rapid industrialisation hence no plausible claim of a dramatic future increase in demand for power. If, a big if, a decision had been taken to leave the oil and gas in the ground and look for other energy sources then why would you re-invent the wheel and go for old nuclear technology? You’d want the latest, safest most future-proof ‘kit’ that you could buy or persuade somebody to give you and if that meant you had make a few new friends in order to lay your hands on this equipment without upsetting a lot of people then you’d do that. As we all know, Iran has not chosen to do this, so there are two possible conclusions:
- The new friends that they would have to make are unacceptable to them.
- They are developing nuclear weapons and need the cover of a civilian nuclear industry.
The Great Satan and the Little Satan.
Just in case you’ve been holidaying off the planet for the last thirty-three years, the above is how Iran refers to America and Israel respectively. Now America has nuclear weapons and a civilian nuclear energy program. Israel has a 1950s nuclear plant at Dimona, built with the French, which is widely believed to produce weapons grade plutonium. To avoid reliance on imported coal and seeking a clean form of electricity, they proposed a joint civilian nuclear program with Jordan, under French supervision, but this was rejected by Jordan as inappropriate until the question of a Palestinian state had been resolved. Currently both Israel and Jordan import Egyptian natural gas, but recently Israel has accelerated development of off-shore gas fields and has large reserves of Shale Oil, but there are environmental concerns connected with developing those.
So, if you were Iran you’d probably turn to France for nuclear expertise if you didn’t want to talk to America. Nope, impressed by the technology of Chernobyl they went to Russia. If you believe the CIA, and I mean who wouldn’t, they also sought advice from Pakistan and North Korea, both of whom have nuclear weapons but not much in the way of a civilian nuclear power industry. Hmmm. It certainly looks like a duck as it waddles and quacks its way across the farmyard, but why would Iran want nuclear weapons?
The conventional answer to that would be to make themselves safe from attack, but attack by whom? Well, America and Israel obviously, but would having nuclear weapons, or trying to acquire them, actually make them safer? Iran would probably point to North Korea as proof that having some sort of nuclear capability would mean they were safe from attack. I would direct your and their attention to Pakistan, whose sovereignty is regularly ignored by American ground forces and drones in pursuit of Taliban forces and the odd remaining Al Qaeda figure. I am saying that Pakistan having nuclear weapons hasn’t prevented American incursions whether in hot pursuit, intelligence gathering operations or targeted assassinations. Given that American /Iranian relations since the 1979 revolution in Iran have been rocky to put it mildly, I can see that the Iranians would be looking over their shoulders much of the time. There have been armed clashes between the two countries (America and Iran) and of course Iran sponsors both Hezbollah and Hamas. The former has directly attacked American forces in Lebanon whilst they were there and both organisations launch attacks against Israel. There is absolutely no love lost between either Iran and America and Iran and Israel. I won’t detail all the clashes; they’re in the public domain. Iran offered an olive branch after the invasion of Iraq and Bush (2) rejected it. Obama offered an olive branch and Iran rejected it. Round and round we go and it might be tempting to be slightly sympathetic to Iran’s desire to obtain a credible deterrent except for one thing.
Iranian regional ambitions and Religion.
OK I know, that’s two things. Let’s look at Religion, as that and regional ambitions are closely linked.
The Iranian version of Islam is Shi’a. The split between Shi’a and Sunni Islam occurred roughly eleven hundred years ago and they’ve been at each others’ throats ever since. For those interested there is much information readily available about this and I don’t intend to rehash it here. It is true to say that Shi’a hate Sunni almost as much, occasionally more, than they hate Christians and Jews. It’s also true to say that more Muslims have been killed by Muslims than anybody else combined and this can lead to some interesting although largely under-reported problems in the Persian Gulf area.
Kuwait. Predominantly Sunni, 15-20% Shi’a, many Farsi speaking.
Bahrain. The Royal family is Sunni but the Muslim population is predominantly Shi’a (66-70%).
Qatar. Sunni, but 10% of the population are ethnically Iranian
UAE. Mainly Sunni.
Iraq. 60% of the population is Shi’a, government is Sunni.
Although Iran can and does ferment trouble in Arab countries with Shi’a minorities, one has to realise that there is no love lost between Iranians and Arabs in general. The chances of Iran establishing a Shi’a ‘empire’ in the Gulf area are slim, but that doesn’t stop them trying. One reason why they were unable to export their 1979 revolution was that there is a long-standing suspicion, historically correct, that Iran (previously Persia) wanted to establish leadership of the Muslim world. 88% of the Muslim World is Sunni, so this is unlikely to happen, but there are regular clashes. Probably the only thing that prevents the Arabs and Iranians having a re-run of the 1980s Iran/Iraq war is a mutual hatred of Israel, but sometimes it is a close-run thing. The Muslim world is adept at keeping these internal divisions out of the public gaze, again usually by attacking Israel in some way or other. For those who might be tempted to think that if Israel suddenly ceased to exist, or that suddenly the Palestinians achieved statehood all would be sweetness and light in the Middle East, think again.
Iranian Shi’as are ‘twelvers’, that is they believe that the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan never actually died and exists in what is referred to as the Occultation. They expect his return, as the Mahdi, at the end times. I suggest you Google these terms to gain a deeper understanding as I’ve decided that this is not going to be a three-part posting, and as I’m no Islamic scholar I have no wish to misinform in my ignorance.
Now I’m going to make a bit of a sweeping generalisation here for the sake of brevity. Most religions have some version of ‘end times’, with a variety of signs and portents, but most seem content for God to work in his own time. The Iranian Shi’as however, whilst believing that one of the signs of the approaching end of times is widespread destruction and death, in common with other adherents of the general belief, also believe that Mankind can hasten the arrival of the Mahdi by actually causing this widespread destruction. They, in the form of Ahmadinejad who is only a mouthpiece remember and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have on occasions publicly called for the destruction of the State of Israel, the physical destruction that is. There is an annual ‘Holocaust Denial Day’ in Iran and public demonstrations against both Israel and America, but more of that in a moment. Perhaps most chillingly, given that he is the real power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was quoted by Iranian state television as saying, in 2006,
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has made its own decision and in the nuclear case, God willing, with patience and power, will continue its path.”
In a public address in 2008 Khamenei claimed that in the event of war against “enemies,” Iran
“…will strike at them with all our capabilities”
Others in the Iranian government structure regularly make calls for war against Israel and war against America. Given the nature of the government, one might assume that they are not going out on a limb by making such statements.
There are glimmers of hope. Ali Khameni is not known as a radical cleric, despite the above quotes and has shown himself capable of holding the more conservative clerics in check. He is clearly concerned about Iran’s’ economic woes, not the concern one would associate with a man who is both prepared and preparing to pull the house down on his own head. Countering that, in 2008 he implied that Iran would use nuclear weapons in a war and was vague as to whether their use would depend on Iran being attacked or if they would be used if Iran initiates the war. If you couple that with the calls for the destruction of Israel, Iran’s logistical support for Hamas, a Sunni organisation which ideologically they detest, in their fight against Israel and the support for Hezbollah, it’s no wonder that Israeli leaders are losing sleep. They aren’t the only ones in the region either. Sunni and non-Shi’a Muslim countries view Iran with the deepest suspicions.
So would they or wouldn’t they? I’m afraid it really comes down to can any country afford to take the chance. In Israel’s case, they physically cannot absorb a nuclear attack. In America’s case, although the ‘homeland’ might not be directly physically threatened, most certainly American interests in the region are vulnerable. Arab states worry about ‘nuclear blackmail’ and local Shi’a populations causing internal trouble.
Up to now, Israel has employed a sort of ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine in order to convince the rest of the World of the urgency of pressing Iran to cease weapons development. Both a former head of the Mossad and a former head of Shin Bet (internal security) have publicly cautioned Prime Minister Netanyahu against precipitate action, stating that an attack on Iran would provoke a wider regional conflict. They also both stated that Iran’s leadership (unspecified as to who they were referring) was ‘logical’. Although there might have been a degree of internal politics intruding, both presented a sound case for doing nothing right now. Neither said ‘don’t’, they really said ‘not yet’. A former head of the IDF has spoken in general terms about the problems in mounting an attack on Iran and also spoke of causing a wider conflict. President Obama has acknowledged that Israel’s timetable for possible action is shorter and more urgent than America’s, but has shown no signs of easing up the pressure on Iran. On the contrary, air ‘assets’ have reportedly been moved into SW Asia. The war drums are beating, with many saying better sooner, before they have any chance of developing a weapon.
Will Israel attack alone? I could easily be proven wrong here but I think the answer is probably not, or at least not yet. Israel would face formidable logistical challenges in mounting an effective attack and would not want to be seen as dragging America into an escalating conflict that Obama is not seeking; or at least not seeking yet. America has a long memory and the humiliating 1979 hostage situation still rankles. In the meantime there is an election for Obama to win.
I’ll end with some random thoughts.
Post 9/11 Iranian women spontaneously held a candle-lit vigil for the victims. The vigil was dispersed.
The ‘possibly up to 20 million’ Basjid Militia indicate where the security concerns of the Iranian government actually lay.
Iran could not hope to win in a military confrontation with America, so why give the Americans a ready-made excuse to attack them? Perhaps a way of unifying the country? Wearing America down by repeated conflicts?
If America attacks, it had better be ready, and plan, for ‘boots on the ground’ and regime change. Both sides must know this, so is Iran preparing for a climb-down after playing brinkmanship?
Are sanctions causing internal problems of such magnitude that the Iranian government is actually fearful of a counter-revolution and wishes to provoke an attack, thus unifying the people against an external threat?
Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the Iranian people in an Iranian new years’ message. He said there was a long history of friendship between the Iranian/Persian people and the Jews and Israel did not seek a conflict with the Iranian people. The point about the history of friendship is actually quite true and I have not added any emphasis.
There is growing evidence of internal unrest in Iran, probably encouraged by both Israel and America. An ‘undeclared cyber way’ is also being played out.
There is a long history of mutual misunderstanding between America and Revolutionary Iran and it could just be that Iran has overplayed their hand. Time will tell, but I fear the sands of time are rapidly running out.