Embarrassing Ahmadinejad mostly powerless
From the Winnipeg Free Press.
Thu Sep 27 2007
IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two speeches in New York this
week, at Columbia University and then at the United Nations General
Assembly, have stirred up the usual storm of outrage in the Western
He is a strangely naive man, and his almost-but-not-quite denial of the
Holocaust -- he called for "more research," as if rumours had recently
cropped up suggesting that something bad happened in Nazi-occupied
Europe -- was as bizarre as his denial that there are any homosexuals in
But he is not a "cruel dictator," as Columbia University's president,
Lee Bollinger, called him. He is an elected president who will probably
lose the next election because of his poor economic performance in
office. Nor does he have dictatorial powers.
Indeed, in the areas that matter most to foreigners -- foreign policy,
defence, and nuclear questions -- Ahmadinejad has no power at all. Those
subjects are the sole responsibility of Iran's unelected parallel
government, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian
So ignore the capering clown on the stage. Instead, let's analyze the
drumbeat of accusations that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons with which,
as French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned the General Assembly, it
could "threaten the world." Does it have a nuclear weapons program?
Could it threaten the world, even if it did? And why does the rhetoric
about the Iranian nuclear threat sound so much like the rhetoric about
the Iraqi nuclear threat five years ago?
We know that there once was an Iranian nuclear weapons program, but that
was under the Shah, whom Washington was grooming as the policeman of the
Gulf. After the revolution of 1979, the new leader of the Islamic
Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, cancelled that program on
the grounds that weapons of mass destruction were un-Islamic, although
he retained the peaceful nuclear power program.
Then came the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, in which the United States
ultimately backed Saddam Hussein although he had clearly started the
war, and despite the fact that he was known to be working on nuclear
Despite their Islamic reservations, the Iranian ayatollahs sanctioned
the restarting of the Shah's nuclear weapons program in 1984 to counter
that threat. That is when they began work on the uranium enrichment
plant at Natanz that figures in so many American accusations.
When peace returned in 1988, work at Natanz slowed to a crawl. After
Saddam Hussein's foolish invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to his defeat in
the first Gulf War, and United Nations inspectors dismantled all of his
nuclear facilities, Natanz seems to have stopped functioning entirely.
It was only in 1999 or 2000 that work started there again -- and in 2002
an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran,
a political front for the outlawed terrorist organization
Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, revealed what was going on at Natanz.
The construction of Natanz began in secret, because in 1984 there were
daily Iraqi airraids across the country. It remained secret because
there was no legal requirement to reveal its existence to the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until six months before it
began to process nuclear fuel, and Iran had reason to fear an Israeli
attack on the facility. Iran was embarrassed when the secret was
revealed and immediately suspended work at Natanz for three years, but
it is not illegal and it does not prove that Iran is currently seeking
Many countries have similar enrichment facilities to upgrade uranium as
fuel for nuclear reactors, and that is what Iran now says it is doing,
too. If the Iranian government also knows that, in a crisis, it could
run the fuel through the centrifuges more times and turn it into
weapons-grade uranium, well, so do lots of other governments. It is
called a "threshold" nuclear weapons capability, and it is a very
The IAEA found no evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons,
which is why, since 2005, the issue has been transferred to the UN
Security Council, where political rather than legal issues determine the
The Security Council has imposed mild sanctions on Iran, and the United
States is pressing hard for much harsher ones. It also threatens to use
force against Iran, but for all the overheated rhetoric there is still
no evidence that Iran is doing anything illegal.
Why did it restart work at Natanz seven or eight years ago? Probably in
response to Pakistan's nuclear weapons tests in 1998 and the subsequent
overthrow of the elected government there. Iran is Shia, Pakistan is
largely Sunni and home to some quite militant extremists. They are not
in power now, but Iranians worry that one day they might be, so they are
taking out an insurance policy.
The enrichment facilities may be solely for peaceful nuclear power now,
but they would give Iran the ability to build its own nuclear deterrent
much more quickly in a panic. And if it had nuclear weapons, would it
really "threaten the world," as presidents Bush and Sarkozy allege? Why
would it do that? How could it hope to escape crushing retaliation if it
President Ahmadinejad is a profound embarrassment to his country, but
the grown-ups are still in charge in Iran.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are
published in 45 countries.