Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Iran nuke issue could flare up

By Chu Zhaogen (China Daily) Updated: 2012-01-13 08:08

Iran faces an unprecedented test this year, because tensions between the Islamic republic and the West show no signs of easing in the foreseeable future.

Though at the end of 2011 Iran proposed restarting talks over its controversial nuclear program with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, political trust between Iran and the West has exhausted and they are caught in a "prisoner's dilemma". Besides, the likelihood of Iran returning to the negotiation table despite the mounting Western pressure is slim.

On Dec 31, 2011, US President Barack Obama signed into law tough new sanctions targeting Iran's central bank and financial sector in a bid to cripple Iran's oil revenue. Since the Iranian central bank is in charge of settling the accounts of most of the country's oil exports, the new sanctions, if implemented strictly, will cut many refineries off their crude sources in Iran.

That apart, many European Union diplomats claim to have reached a preliminary agreement to impose an oil embargo on Iran, indicating that the West is determined to force Teheran into submission.

Iran's earnings from oil exports account for 80 percent of its total foreign exchange revenue and 60 percent of the government's budget revenue. The United Nations Security Council has already imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran, but since they were not targeted at the country's oil industry they didn't paralyze its economy. Now that the West seems hell-bent on striking at Iran's oil industry, Iran could suffer a lethal blow.

The West, led by the US, look to maintain the pace of their strategic expansion. Encouraged by the "Arab Spring", the US used its best commandos to kill Osama bin Laden, withdrew all its combat troops from Iraq and vowed to do the same in Afghanistan in the near future.

With governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya toppled, and Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down from power in Yemen, Washington's "Greater Middle East Initiative" - previously viewed by many as a castle in the air - advanced remarkably well in 2011. Now the US sees Iran and Syria as the biggest obstacle to the success of its ambitious Middle East plan.

The West may first draw a bead on Iran because of its leading role among anti-American countries. But irrespective of which country - Syria or Iran - the West strikes first, outside military intervention will trigger a chain reaction in the "Shi'ite Crescent" region.

Moreover, the recent statement of US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon within one year, if not less, and a nuclear-weapons-armed Iran was "unacceptable", could serve as the US' timetable for settling the Iranian nuclear issue.

Adding to the tension is Israel, the closest American ally in the Middle East, which has been on tenterhooks over Iran's nuclear program and making its own preparations ever since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened to "wipe Israel off the map".

The political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa is indeed undergoing dramatic changes, worsening the environment for Israel. The pro-American and pro-Israeli governments in Egypt and Tunisia have fallen, and the Arab-Israeli conflict has been re-activated. Islamic forces are surging ahead in elections in Tunisia. Egypt has become increasingly tough on Israel. On its part, Israel wants to attack Iran to consolidate its national safety and advantages in the Middle East. And it seems Israel is likely to kidnap the US' Iran policy in the year of American presidential election.

China and Russia have enough reasons to oppose the use of force against Iran, because both countries have a stake in the Iranian issue. A conflict between Iran and the West, or even mere saber-rattling, can increase oil prices drastically, making China a victim of imported inflation because it depends on foreign crude for more than 50 percent of its needs.

Iran's northern part is close to Russia's Caucasus region which has rich oil reserves. So a direct exposure of Iran to the US could pose a national security threat for Russia.

Despite these facts, China and Russia have not been able to prevent the Iranian issue from deteriorating. So it is up to Iran and the US to settle the issue peacefully.

If Iran takes a U-turn and changes its nuclear course, it could save itself from military strikes. It's not that Iran faces imminent strikes if it does otherwise.

If the American public strongly opposes military action against Iran, the Obama administration may restrain Israel from starting a war. After all, going against public opinion could cost Obama his reelection. But conversely, if launching a war could help Obama win a second term in the White Office, Iran cannot escape military strikes.

The author is a research fellow of public policy studies at Fudan University, Shanghai.

(China Daily 01/13/2012 page9)

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