Will there be an attack on Iran?

The main problem is the lack of clarity regarding its nuclear program and suspicions that it is secretly developing a nuclear bomb. Harsh sanctions against Iran have been introduced by the United States, and even harsher by the UN Security Council and the EU.
Russia, which supports these sanctions, continues building the nuclear power plant (NPP) in Bushehr, which should become operational in August 2010. Vladimir Sazhin, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, RAS, who spent many years working in the country, discussed with Izvestia’s Sergey Leskov the possibility of a global conflict around Iran.

Professor, allow me to immediately, so as not to get sidetracked, ask you the questions that are most concerning to the public when it comes to Iran. Is it true that corporal punishment is inflicted for alcohol consumption in Iran? Is it true that in 1979, there were plans to not only seize the US Embassy, as it was many times portrayed by Hollywood, but also the Soviet Embassy? And is it true that in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War, our troops on Iraqi planes bombed an old nuclear power plant in Bushehr?

According to some reports, in 1979, the future president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in the ranks of fighters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who seized the US embassy together with the hostages. A takeover of the Soviet embassy was also being considered, but apparently it was decided that two superpowers is just too much, especially since the “Great Satan,” the United States, was considered to have been a greater evil than the “Red Satan,” the Soviet Union.

But there was an attempt to capture the Soviet embassy in 1980: alleged Afghan immigrants broke in and rampaged through the territory of the embassy, all the while the police forces remained inactive. In 1988, another attempt to break into the embassy was made. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, both sides used Soviet technologies, of which the Iraqis had more and the Iranians had less. Iraq was assisted by our advisors, but there were no pilots.

As for corporal punishment for alcohol consumption, that is the truth. Alcohol consumption is prohibited under the Iranian law. In the first years of the revolution, a person could have been shot for smelling like alcohol. Today, Islamic courts could prescribe several lashes to even a foreigner who tries smuggling alcohol into the country. Public shootings of confiscated alcohol bottles are organized. Meanwhile, it’s easy to buy a bottle of alcohol on Tehran’s black market.

Russian-Iranian relations have a 500-year-old history. Prior to the 1917 Revolution, Russia owned railroads, factories, concessions and land in Iran. Shah Reza Pahlavi was a Cossack general. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union built more than 60 industrial facilities in Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the scale of economic partnership declined sharply. Nevertheless, Russia built in Iran a nuclear powered plant which will become operational in late August 2010. What are Russia’s current positions in Iran?

Russia’s volume of trade with Iran amounted to about $3 billion in 2009, about the same as it was with the small State of Israel. Russia is far from being one of Iran’s top 10 partners. Our share of Iran’s import amounts to only 6%. Iran’s supplies to Russia make up 0.2% of our import volume. The nuclear power plant in Bushehr, acknowledged Rosatom head Sergey Kiriyenko, was not profitable for Russia, but in the difficult 1990s its orders saved Russia’s nuclear industry. Some economists say that this NPP will even harm us in the future, because Iran could start selling gas to Europe, thus competing with Russia.

At the IAEA General Assemblies I have heard numerous speeches of Iranian representatives who said that their nuclear program is strictly peaceful, and that the accusations of their militant nature are being made based on the desire to see a weaker Iran. Are there specific facts that point to the militant nature of Iran’s nuclear program?

Until Iran is able to enrich uranium to 90%, it could continue muddying the waters. But there are plenty of indirect signs indicating that it is working on obtaining a nuclear weapon. Economists estimated that if the country has less than 10-12 power-generating units, than independently producing energy is irrational. It will be 5-7 times more expensive than on the global market.

Iran insists on the need to create the industrial sector by independently enriching uranium, and argues that this will ensure independence. But Iran does not have abundant supplies of uranium ore. Fuel supplies are enough for only 10 years of operation of one power generating unit, such as the one in Bushehr. After rapidly exhausting its resources, Iran will be forced to buy uranium ore. On the other hand, Iran has plenty of natural uranium reserves for a nuclear weapons program.

Iran is leading a plutonium program and developing heavy-water reactors. These reactors are “the yesterday” of nuclear engineering, but are very-much-so suitable for the development of weapons-grade plutonium. IAEA experts are discovering undeclared dual-purpose radioactive material in Iranian facilities. Iran is secretly building new uranium enrichment plants.

There are many facts. Tehran is playing the game of cat and mouse with IAEA, and the international community has reasons to be skeptical of the nuclear program. Iran wants to acquire a full range of scientific and technological prerequisites for the creation of an atomic bomb, so that its final acquisition is only one step away. Especially peculiar is Iran’s missile program. What is the reason for creating ballistic missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers if not for the delivery of nuclear warheads?

If Iran truly wanted to develop peaceful nuclear energy, as it claims, then it would have agreed to Vladimir Putin’s perfectly advantageous suggestion to work with the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk.

An Iranian nuclear bomb not only worries the West, but also the Arab world, which is fearful of its neighbor’s increasing power. In regard to the Iranian nuclear problem, the Arab elite – especially in the Persian Gulf – is finding more and more things in common with Israel.

There is an innumerable amount of resolutions issued by various international institutions that are led by the UN Security Council. However, Iran continues to develop its nuclear program, unhindered. During the Cold War, even the Soviet Union had a stronger reaction to the international community. Where does such a high level of Iran’s unobstructed independence come from?

Since 2006, the UN Security Council has adopted six resolutions on Iran. Four imposed sanctions. As for the unobstructed independence, it’s national psychology. The roots of imperial claims go back centuries – to the Cyrus and Darius Empires. Moreover, one should consider the Shiite belief of being the chosen ones in the Muslim world.

For a long time, the sanctions were very weak. Iran was like the cat from the fable, in which despite the moral teaching of the chef, it continued eating sour cream. The time that was won by Tehran enabled it to develop its nuclear program to a dangerous level. Today, Iran is able to enrich uranium to already 19.75%. However, the latest sanctions, which were adopted last month, are so severe that Iran established an office for the minimization of its effects.

Resolution 1929 of the UN Security Council expands the list of persons and entities with respect to which states are to “exercise vigilance.” The new list includes 22 state and private organizations, including universities, 15 firms linked to the IRGC... The resolution urges vigilance in communication with all Iranian banks, including the Central Bank. The document allows for the blocking of Iranian citizens’ accounts, bans the opening of Iranian bank branches and transactions involving these branches, bans the movement of persons whose names have been listed in the resolutions of various years, and allows for the inspection of all Iranian ships and aircraft. The sanctions prohibit the sale of heavy arms to Iran: tanks, armored vehicles, heavy gauge artillery systems, aircraft, strike helicopters, warships, missiles and missile systems. Iran has been banned from investing in uranium mines abroad.

Resolution 1929 does not directly affect the oil and gas industry of Iran. However, the US and EU sanctions compensate for this fact. In recent months, practically all global oil and gas companies, including our Lukoil, have discontinued operations in Iran. All of this is a threat to the country’s economy.

Do you predict that Iran will halt its nuclear program or proudly tighten its belt? Will there be a war?

I don’t think Iran will veer off course, and instead will try to once again, as it has repeatedly done in the past, win some time and confuse its opponents. The US and Israel might lose their patience – in that case, there will be a war. Iran’s main rivals will spend another six months observing the efficiency of the sanctions, and then a military strike is possible. In Israel and the US, these plans are on the table. Military experts say that it will be a multi-day airborne missile attack on military and nuclear facilities.

Why do all experts say that it will be a lot more difficult to conquer Iran than Iraq? A military strike on Iraq led to a rapid defeat of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, in the war between Iran and Iraq, which lasted for eight years, there were no winners. In other words, these are equal-sized goals.

These are not equal-sized goals. In the early 1980s, Iran began the war in a state of revolutionary turmoil, when practically the entire army was disorganized. In 30 years, Iran created a strong army both in terms of its size (500,000 to 900,000 people) and armament. Iran has ballistic missiles, modern fighter jets, destroyers, submarines and speedboats that are undetectable by radar. Iran has achieved notable industrial success, and is launching its own satellites into space. Moreover, Iran has allies – extremist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, which are ready to strike Israel and American bases, as well as Shiite and Persian diasporas in the countries of the Persian Gulf.

And if not war? A year ago, after the presidential election, Iran saw massive turmoil. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 began with street riots. How strong is the opposition? Is a political upheaval possible in Iran?

I don’t believe in an upheaval in the foreseeable future. The political system of Iran possesses stability. Many intellectuals are dissatisfied with the government of the ayatollah and the president, but so far the opposition – the liberals, the conservatives and the monarchists – don’t have any real weight. It is a fairly thin and unstructured layer, and I don’t think that in the near future it could pose any real threat to the regime. However, analysts say that 30-35% of the population oppose the current president.

Two years ago I attended an international conference in Tehran, where the Holocaust and the mass killing of Jews during World War II were contested. This made an impression of utter absurdity. Why deny the obvious and enter into confrontation with the entire world?

Honestly, I don’t understand why President Ahmadinejad needs this. Of course, according to the Khomeini doctrine, the “Lesser Satan” of Israel – an enemy of Islamic Iran – does not have the right to statehood. But Ahmadinejad’s radical position hinders the development of relations with other countries and stands in the way of political objectives which have been set forth by the government of Iran.

Does President Ahmadinejad have any merits?

Certainly. He is an honest and dedicated-to-the-Islamic-Revolution politician who is not entangled in any corruption scandals, although he was the governor of the province and the mayor of Tehran. He defends the interests of Iran as he understands them. He fights for his ideas. Iran’s nuclear program is also an idea from which he will not back down.

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