Iran's Atomic Journey

June 1, 2005 Topics: Nuclear Proliferation Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Soft Power

Iran's Atomic Journey

Mini Teaser: Al J. Venter traces the history of the Iranian nuclear project.

by Author(s): Ilan Berman

Al J. Venter, Iran's Nuclear Option: Tehran's Quest for the Bomb (New York: Casemate, 2005), 451 pp., $29.95.

No issue looms larger on the contemporary foreign policy agenda of the United States and its European allies than the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over the past three years, unmistakable signs that the Iranian regime is trying to acquire an offensive nuclear capability--and making serious progress toward that goal--have become an almost daily occurrence. Revelations of secret labs for advanced uranium enrichment, disclosures of new mining and refining stations, and elaborate diplomatic evasion tactics vis-à-vis the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all speak to the Iranian regime's steadfast commitment to its aggressive national nuclear endeavor.

Tehran's advances have generated considerable consternation on both sides of the Atlantic. Echoing their counterparts in Washington, more than a few European officials have publicly warned of dire consequences if Iran succeeds in its atomic efforts. In practice, however, Europe's response has been accommodationist. Since last fall, in a throwback to its failed engagement policy toward the Islamic Republic of the 1990s, the European Union has pursued a diplomatic strategy aimed at blunting Tehran's atomic ambitions through economic inducements. As of this spring, for lack of a better alternative, the Bush Administration has grudgingly signed on to this approach, embracing a policy of economic carrots and diplomatic sticks intended to defuse Iran's nuclear drive.

But trouble is brewing on the horizon. Iranian leaders have taken a hard line in negotiations with their European interlocutors, rejecting the idea of economic incentives in exchange for a lasting freeze on uranium enrichment. The United States and the world, Iranian policymakers now maintain publicly, should "get used to the idea of a nuclear Iran." For its part, Israel--the country most directly threatened by a nuclear Iran--has not-so-subtly put Europe and the United States on notice that diplomatic failure will mean that military action is in the offing.

Given these stakes, a book detailing the scope of Iran's nuclear program was well nigh inevitable. Al J. Venter just happened to write it. Venter, however, brings credibility to his analysis. A veteran defense correspondent for Britain's prestigious Jane's Intelligence Group, Venter has logged time in some of the world's most dangerous places. His Rolodex fairly bulges with the names of important scholars, officials and analysts, and his personal accounts of investigating Iran's nuclear inroads, particularly on the African subcontinent, make for gripping reading. They also provide a chilling insight into the scope and sophistication of Iran's concerted, multi-decade quest for the atomic bomb.

There are important insights here. "The Iran-Iraq War permanently altered the course of Iranian history", Venter confirms in his chapter on the subject, which is borrowed wholesale from the Federation of American Scientists. In meticulous detail, the study examines the course of battle between the two hostile neighbors, delving into Iraq's strategic calculations and the Iranian military response. By doing so, it elegantly frames the seminal events that set the Islamic Republic firmly on the path to acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Over the years, Iran has matched its overt attempts to acquire the bomb with a formidable clandestine procurement operation. It was through this effort that Tehran attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain access to fissile material in Kazakhstan and in Russia during the early 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, this effort is hardly a thing of the past; Iranian opposition elements have recently alleged that Tehran has allocated some $2.5 billion to acquire three nuclear warheads from abroad. Venter tackles this issue as well, touching upon Iran's inroads into the nuclear black market that has cropped up in the post-Soviet space since the end of the Cold War and the quiet scavenger hunt for critical materiel and know-how in central and eastern Europe that has mirrored Tehran's public nuclear contacts with an array of foreign nations. Venter's related examination of the workings of contemporary proliferation networks only serves to hammer home the point that Iran's nuclear program has by now become a truly international affair.

Since the early 1990s, Russia has emerged as Iran's most important strategic ally and a key enabler of the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions. Venter draws on the work of a number of noted Russia scholars in his lucid examination of Moscow's atomic ties to Tehran, and of the reasons underpinning them--chief among them the Kremlin's continuing fears of Iranian involvement in the stirrings of radical Islamic separatism that have emerged in the Caucasus. Left unexamined, however, is the shift now visible in the balance of power between the two countries, as Moscow comes to grips with Iran's growing activism in Central Asia and the Caucasus and Tehran's mounting threat to Russia's own national security. That is certainly a shame, because these trends provide hopeful glimpses into a future in which a Russo-Iranian divorce might just be in sight.

Delaying decisive international action has been central to Iran's nuclear progress thus far, and Venter provides a sobering blow-by-blow account of how Tehran has managed diplomatically to stall, mislead and confound the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations. Like a growing number of officials in the United States and Europe, he reaches the inescapable conclusion that the UN and its subsidiary organs are woefully ill equipped to provide a durable diplomatic answer to the Iranian regime's sophisticated attempts to acquire an atomic capability.

Most uniquely, Venter, a South African by birth, provides insights into the now-defunct nuclear program of his native land--an atomic effort that he credibly suggests is likely to be the template that Iran's ayatollahs are following in their quest for the bomb. His striking first-hand revelations about the tacit strategic partnership that has evolved since the early 1990s between South Africa and Iran speak volumes about the deep-seated anti-Americanism that continues to pervade much of the South African political establishment to this day. They also shed much-needed light upon a bilateral relationship that, in contrast to Tehran's high-profile strategic ties to the Russian, Chinese and North Korean governments, has evolved largely away from the public eye.

Venter's heavily technical analysis, however, comes up short in several respects. For one thing, his chronicling of Iran's nuclear advances contains precious little mention of the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and Iran's own notions of post-September 11 regional security. This constitutes a near-fatal oversight, since President Bush's 2002 classification of Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" is central to the redoubled nuclear ambitions that are now visible among Iran's ayatollahs. In fact, the rapid dismantling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, and the contrasting persistence of a newly nuclear North Korea, have been key to reaffirming to Iran's leaders the importance of their own atomic efforts. As one Western diplomat succinctly explained to Reuters in October: "Iranian leaders got together after the Iraq war and decided that the reason North Korea was not attacked was because it has the bomb. Iraq was attacked because it did not."

For another, Venter fails to examine the deadly domino effect that Iran's nuclearization is likely to have on a volatile Middle East. Tehran's advances have already prompted Saudi Arabia's ruling House of Saud, Iran's chief religious competitor, to appeal to Pakistan for atomic assistance. Other states, including Egypt and Turkey, are likely to do the same if forced to live with a nuclear Iran. Even Iraq, now transitioning toward stable self-governance, might not be immune from the urge to seek strategic parity with its larger menacing neighbor. Similarly left unaddressed is the detrimental effect that the eruption of such a Middle East arms race would inevitably have on the durability of American alliances in the Persian Gulf, as Iran's neighbors scramble to acquire local antidotes to Tehran's nuclear threat.

There are tantalizing glimmers of a larger picture. Venter's insightful overview of the Islamic Republic's principal ideological weapon, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its role in Iran's atomic quest, accurately captures the IRGC's centrality to the longevity and stability of the clerical regime in Tehran. But he chooses not to delve deeper, failing to explore either the durability of the ideology binding the IRGC to Iran's ayatollahs or, more significantly, whether those bonds can in fact be broken.

The same goes for Hizballah. Despite its role as Tehran's main terrorist proxy, as well as the most likely recipient of Iranian nuclear technology, Venter's discussion of the powerful Shi'a militia is relegated to an appendix, with little linkage to the main text or to the group's prominent place in Iranian strategy. As a result, little is said about the real and frightening possibility that Iran's nuclear successes could translate into substantial gains for Hizballah or other terrorist organizations.

Back in 2002, Michael Eisenstadt, one of Washington's leading Iran experts, succinctly summarized the nature of Iran's strategic posture. Unlike in the United States, Eisenstadt told a Washington audience,

"[Iran's] strategic triad consists of: WMD and their associated delivery systems (which consist of rockets and missiles); their naval sea-denial capabilities--in other words, their ability to interdict a shipment of oil through the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and their ability to conduct terrorism overseas."

Venter provides important and timely insights into the sophistication, maturity and reach of one leg of that triad. His work, however, raises almost as many questions as it answers. The most central of these is: How should the United States, and the international community at large, set about defusing Iran's mounting nuclear menace?

Sadly, on that score, Venter remains silent. Iran's Nuclear Option may present a convincing account of the threat to international peace and security that is now posed by the Iranian atomic impulse, but it fails to offer any sort of policy prescriptions for dealing with it. The end result is a dismal picture of diplomatic missteps, official neglect and an Islamic Republic inexorably advancing toward a capability that will irrevocably alter not only the balance of power in the Middle East, but the very dynamics of the War on Terror.

Essay Types: Book Review