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Iran: America's options

By Alok Bansal
Last updated on: October 08, 2005 14:49 IST

The recent vote in IAEA on Iranian nuclear programme has caused enormous consternation in India with various analysts speaking for and against the action.

There have been long debates on what should be the future course of options for India. How should it vote in November? There are still differences on how India should vote on the issue but far more important at this juncture are the options available to the USA.

The Iran vote and after

Let us assume -- and it is a reasonable assumption to make -- that it is unlikely that Iranian actions are going to satisfy the US or meet its approval. It would also be correct to assume that the US would be able to push through the IAEA a resolution referring Iran to the UN Security Council.

Despite changes in the composition of the IAEA board of governors and likely entry of at least two anti-US countries on the board, it is reasonable to assume that US would manage to get the resolution passed.

The next course of action, getting the proposal through the UN Security Council may be tougher because the possibility of Russia and /or China vetoing it is fairly high. Even if the proposal sails through the UN Security Council, it has been proved time and again that the sanctions hardly deter a committed leadership from a particular course of action.

Moreover sanctions always affect the weaker sections of the society the most -- which in Iran's case include women, children and ethnic and religious minorities -- and hardly affect the ruling elites.

Tough nut for the US to crack

If sanctions did not succeed in Iraq, their chances of succeeding in Iran are even lesser. Iran is not only bigger, has more resources and also has a much more representative government. It is also surrounded by a larger number of countries, not all of them follow the dictates of Washington. Besides Iran also has a large sea coast, not only in the Arabian Sea but also in the Caspian. Therefore the imposition of sanctions on Iran is going to be extremely difficult.

Moreover any sanctions on Iran will push the global oil prices through the roof. Iran is today the second largest exporter of oil within OPEC and any disruption of supplies from Iran will raise the price of oil further and will have a catastrophic effect on the global economy.

If sanctions are not a solution then military options at this juncture when the US is committed in Afghanistan and has not been able to extricate itself from the quagmire that is Iraq, are highly unlikely. Today US armed forces are stretched to their limits and do not have the spare capacity to undertake full-fledged military invasion against a state of the size of Iran. It may turn out to be bigger a quagmire than Iraq and Vietnam put together.

If the option of military invasion is not available and the sanctions are likely to be ineffective, then the options realistically available to the US are restricted to various out of the box solutions.

The real danger the world faces

One of these could be an attack on the Iranian nuclear installations using Special Forces but considering the state on ground, is unlikely to succeed. Moreover the US does not have very pleasant memories of the last such attempt made by the Special Forces on Iranian soil.

Aerial attacks on Iranian nuclear installations are another option. A lot has been said and written about Israel doing the US bidding in Iran, but it must be understood clearly that Iran is not Iraq and an Osirak in Iran is not possible.

'Israel will act against Iran's nuke programme'

Not only are the Iranians, unlike the Iraqis, prepared for such an eventuality, but more importantly the Iranian facilities are farther from Israel, more dispersed and not much intelligence is available on all of them. Some of these are totally unknown to the Western media and agencies.

An attack by Israel that does not derail the Iranian nuclear programme will only help the Islamic world to view it as a Zionist conspiracy against a fellow Muslim State. It can only lead to more terrorist attacks against the US and its allies. Another option could have been a regime change but after the recent elections the ability of the US to influence political process in Iran is highly suspect.

Another option is the restructuring of Iranian State, which today may appear as a farfetched idea but is definitely not impossible. Iran though much more homogenous than Iraq has its own share of ethnic and religious minorities as well as political dissidents. Mujahideen e-Khalq, an armed opposition group has been active from Iraq for quite some time and is reported to have shifted its activities to Pakistan.

Iran, US: India's Catch 22

After Saddam, a Kurdish State appears a distinct possibility, Ankara's objections not withstanding. Kurds in Iran are already restive and there were several demonstrations by Iranian Kurds in June following the killing of a Kurdish youth activist, Shovan Ghaderi.

In September Esmaeel Mohammadi, a member of the Kurdistan Komalah Party, was executed despite pleas by various human rights groups. The Kurds in Iran seem to be ready to rise in revolt, provided they are assured of support from Iraqi Kurds and the US.

Of late, even the other minorities have started showing signs of their discontentment with the regime and have started taking recourse to arms.

In April there was a mass uprising of Ahwazi Arabs in Khuzestan province against transfer of land from Arabs to non Arabs allegedly with the intention of bringing about a demographic change. The unrest was brutally suppressed by the regime.

In June there were bomb blasts in Ahvaz in Arab dominated province of Khuzestan and in Zahedan in Iranian Balochistan.

Balochs across the border in Pakistan are already up in arms, and of late even the West Balochistan has started making its presence felt, having been accorded membership of the Unrepresented Nations Peoples Organisation in June this year.

Is Balcohistan burning?

The Baloch nationalists have been taking recourse to armed action against the regime and the regime has been retaliating. In July the Iranian forces are reported to have fired at unarmed Baloch women and children at Dorra Shabaksh near Zahedan and a village was bombarded with helicopter gunships after two security personnel were taken hostage by the insurgents.

In September, Houshang Baameri, a Baloch, was hanged for killing two security personnel. Two Baloch MPs recently resigned from the Iranian parliament to protest the appointment of a known anti-Baloch as the governor of Iranian Balochistan.

It is therefore quite clear that the minorities on the periphery of the Iranian State are in turmoil and it is quite feasible that there may be external factors behind it.

What then are the prospects of these minorities taking on the might of the Iranian State? They  may not appear bright today, but in conjunction with sanctions against Iran, which will definitely degrade its military potential as was evident in the case of Iraq, and with the external support for insurgencies, the possibility of redrawing the Iranian borders is a distinct possibility.

In comparison to the other options available to the US, it may be the best option available and the recent events in and around Iran point towards a US move in this direction.

Alok Bansal is a New Delhi-based security analyst

Alok Bansal