Why Iran wants its own nuclear deterrent

Iran's declaration Tuesday that suspension of nuclear enrichment is only temporary shows how far European powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remain from substantially slowing Iran's move toward a nuclear bomb.

The problem, analysts say, is the apparent belief of Iran's leaders that the benefits of obtaining a nuclear bomb now outweigh the drawbacks. With President Bush having branded them "evil" and with US forces deployed in Iraq to their west and Afghanistan to their east, the Iranians seem to be gambling that their best interests lie in having their own nuclear deterrent.

The Europeans - Britain, Germany, and France - are unable to provide Iran with what it wants most: a guarantee against US military action. Without that, analysts say, Iran is likely to continue a diplomatic game of alternating concessions and declarations of nuclear intent until there's direct engagement by the US.

"They've been attacked by [weapons of mass destruction] in the past and the international community not only did nothing, but turned a blind eye," says Rob Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa project. "They're in a regional environment where other countries have nuclear capacity, and they're surrounded by countries with a strong US military presence, so they feel finding their own independent means of deterrent is critical."

The issue of national pride for Iran also looms large in discussions of a nuclear weapon.

"They see themselves of the France or Great Britain of the Persian Gulf," Mr. Malley says. "They feel they should have the bomb."

Malley argues that the only diplomatic solution would require that the US come to the table and "create the sense that [Iran is] no longer under siege and that their regime is not threatened."

On Tuesday, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, sought to paint Iran's agreement - which headed off possible UN Security Council sanctions - as a temporary step that is a major diplomatic victory over the US.

Iran "has not renounced the nuclear fuel cycle [and] will never renounce it,'' he told reporters. "We have proved that ... we are capable of isolating the United States."

The US has been skeptical of the accord, saying it amounts to little more than a first step.

"The Iranians agreed to suspend - but not terminate - their nuclear-weapons program. Our position is that they ought to terminate their nuclear weapons program," President Bush said.

Sam Gardiner, a retired US Air Force colonel who used to teach at the National War College, recently conducted a simulation for The Atlantic Monthly about American military options against Iran as it moves towards a nuclear bomb.

The assessment of the team he put together was that the use of force would not work, or would come at too high a cost.

"The thing I think people don't realize is how much leverage the Iranians have over us right now,'' says Mr. Gardiner. "We have limited military options particularly when we're in Iraq. Iran has the leverage to make things go very badly for us there."

Other analysts point to Iran's ties to Hizbullah, and the chance the terror group could be used as a proxy to strike out at Israel in the event of an attack.

The ICG's Malley says the best bet now is for the US to use the current interlude - assuming the temporary halt in uranium enrichment is confirmed by the IAEA - to get involved and put offers on the table that address many of Iran's concerns.

He says that probably will not be enough for Iran to give up its hopes of obtaining a nuclear weapon, but may help rally members of the international community behind the US to consider other options.

"If you don't have the feeling that a good faith effort was made, therefore you want be able to coalesce a group of countries against Iran,'' he says. "Before you get to something more drastic you need to exhaust diplomacy, or you're going to get into a go-it-alone situation again."

Even sanctions now are a weak option, with Iran's important role in the global oil market.

Analysts suspect the country has had a windfall of $20 billion over budgeted oil revenue this year, thanks to high prices caused by the war in Iraq.

Mr. Gardiner says Iran's ability to drive prices even higher could do severe damage to the developed economies.

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