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IRAN: Writer says war won't stop nuclear program

June 5, 2008 | 10:48 am

The possibility of a United States or Israeli war to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions has been an obsession among foreign policy wonks, diplomats and journalists for some time.

AxworthyMany Iran experts believe such a war would be a disaster that would fail to halt Iran's nuclear program. Michael Axworthy (pictured right) is one of them.

During the 1970s, the British author and former diplomat traveled to Iran many times while his parents lived and worked there. He joined the British foreign service in 1986, serving as a head of the Iran desk from 1998 to 2000. 

Over the last eight years he's been writing books and teaching about Iran in the United Kingdom. His latest book, "A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind," was released last month. It traces the country's history from its earliest days, emphasizing its religious, intellectual and cultural traditions.

Axworthy graciously agreed to an e-mail interview about Iran and its current confrontation with the West.  "The crisis is a result of the hostility that has persisted between the U.S. and Iran since the revolution of 1979 and the hostage crisis.

"But it has its roots in the U.S.-Iran relationship earlier than that, notably in U.S. support for the regime of the Shah in the 1960s and 1970s, and the coup attempted by the British and the CIA against Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953. The prime reason the clerical regime in Iran might want a nuclear weapon is as a deterrent to the U.S. regime-change policy."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Is the U.S. going to launch a war against Iran?

MICHAEL AXWORTHY: I believe the costs to the U.S. of military action are too high, and that there have been  at least two effective rebellions against that idea within the U.S. system already — the most recent being the National Intelligence Report report last November, in which the U.S. intelligence community declared that Iran had not been pursuing a nuclear weapon program since 2003.

But if the U.S. and the wider international community are unable to stop the Iranian program (whether by warlike or peaceful means) then Israel could take action unilaterally.

Empire LAT: What are some potential consequences of a war meant to target Iran's nuclear installations?

AXWORTHY: Iran would have a range of retaliatory options, include attacks on U.S. installations on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf, attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, and attacks against Israel. The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan could also change for the worse.

LAT: Could a war halt Iran's nuclear ambitions?

AXWORTHY: Military action could not destroy an Iranian nuclear weapon program. The program could easily be dispersed to widely separated, secret locations, that could not be seen from the air, and repositioned deep underground, so deep that even nuclear weapons might not destroy them even if their locations could be hit.

Even if damage were done, once the applied knowledge of how to enrich uranium has been acquired, it is impossible to prevent the activity going ahead, if the will to do so is there. Military action against Iran is more likely to persuade ordinary Iranians of the need for a nuclear deterrent than anything else.

LAT: Do you think Iran is trying to obtain nuclear weapons?

AXWORTHY: Important Iranian religious leaders have declared that nuclear weapons, and all weapons of mass destruction, are immoral and unacceptable, and this matters. We should take those statements seriously (not least because, during the Iran/Iraq war, Iran refrained from retaliating with chemical weapons when Saddam Hussein used those weapons against Iranian troops, and against civilians. Many Iranian veterans are still suffering the after-effects of those weapons).

The NIE concluded last November that Iran had not been pursuing a nuclear weapon program since 2003. But western governments have good reason to believe that at various points they have pursued a nuclear weapon program. The explanation for this apparent contradiction could be that the Iranian leadership has wanted to develop a capability, short of an actual weapon, that would still serve as a deterrent. In other words, to have all the elements ready to produce a weapon if necessary, but not the weapon itself. The only practical value of nuclear weapons is as a deterrent, as is well known.

LAT: How can the West curb Iran's nuclear ambitions without going to war?

AXWORTHY: Only by negotiation — direct, committed negotiation between the U.S. and Iran at an appropriately high political level, directed at a resolution of all outstanding disputes between Iran and the U.S.

LAT: What effects are sanctions currently having on Iran? Are they working?

AXWORTHY: Sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian economy, contributing to the high inflation and high unemployment that make miserable the lives of many Iranians (factors that were significant in 2005 in the election of Ahmadinejad). But sanctions are a blunt instrument, and whether they are working to produce the effects on Iranian government policy that the West hopes for is more uncertain.

The statement by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on June 3, restating Iran's commitment to its nuclear program and saying that Iran seeks only civil nuclear power and not a nuclear weapon, would seem to suggest otherwise. This policy has broad support within Iran, irrespective of other political divisions.

LAT: What would it take to get Iran to stop supporting militant groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and possibly Iraq?

AXWORTHY: A 'Grand Bargain' of the kind proposed by the Iranian government (and ignored by the U.S. government) in 2003. The proposal suggested talks toward a resolution of the nuclear dispute, and de facto Iranian recognition of Israel, in return for an end to the U.S. policy for regime change in Iran, and a normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran. Note that 2003 is also the date at which the NIE concluded that work on the Iranian nuclear program stopped. Although Ahmadinejad came to power after that, his significance is often exaggerated (not least by himself) and the other elements in the leadership group are much the same as they were in 2003.

Incidentally, I would applaud the reports … showing that the picture of support from Iran for insurgent action against coalition troops in Iraq has been greatly exaggerated on the strength of very little evidence; and that the much greater destabilizing effect of action by foreign fighters and suicide bombers on the Sunni side, especially from Saudi Arabia but also from other countries in the region, has been scandalously neglected

LAT: How would you describe the state of Iranian society today?

AXWORTHY: That is a big question, and the Iranian people have a way of surprising pundits. I have mentioned the problems of inflation and unemployment already — there is also a serious drug problem, as a result of Iran's position on the drug highway from Afghanistan to Europe.

There seem in addition to be a number of trends at work — away from religion and toward nationalism in politics, though there is also a mood of disillusionment and nihilism among many young people after the failure of the reform project under the Khatami presidency of 1997-2005.

A more optimistic feature is the growing role of Iranian women in education and the job market — 65% of university entrants are women, and many of them go on to well-paid jobs, often earning more than their husbands.

LAT: What are the chances that Iranians themselves will bring about a change of Iran's policies

AXWORTHY: The ruling clique have become more adept at manipulating the electoral system, and it is hard to be too optimistic. But there is still genuine politics in Iran, and significant differences within the political class.

For example, the Majlis is now strongly conservative, but it has successfully resisted appointments and policies proposed by President Ahmadinejad at a number of important points. A range of judicious observers, from Paul Wolfowitz to the son of the last Shah, from the dissident Akbar Ganji to the Nobel prizewinner Shirin Ebadi, have urged against military action, in favor of allowing Iranians to develop freer, more representative government themselves, without outside interference.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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