Analysis: Playing poker in Teheran

Ahmadinejad's boast that his country has joined the nuclear club appears to be an admission of weakness.

Iran Nuclear 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Iran Nuclear 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The public celebrations notwithstanding, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's boast that his country has joined the nuclear club appears to be an admission of weakness, rather than a show of strength. The operation of a few centrifuges to obtain a low level of enrichment for small amounts of uranium is far from having an indigenous fuel cycle that can be used to produce fissile material in any useful amounts. To make nuclear weapons, the illicit Iranian facilities will need to be scaled up from less than 200 to tens of thousands of complex centrifuges, along with the rest of the technology involved. With so much more to do to reach their goal, why are the leaders of the radical regime in Teheran engaging in such dramatics now? The reasons appear to be both fear of external intervention capable of stopping their efforts and the need to claim a victory to bolster low levels of domestic political support. After having violated its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with impunity for many years, Iran has now been officially declared as being in "non-compliance" by the International Atomic Energy Agency. With discussions on sanctions beginning in the UN Security Council, and growing consideration of eventual military action, the regime in Teheran is under increasing strain. In response, it is trying to imitate the North Korean and Pakistani strategy. In those cases, the international reaction was slow, negotiations were dragged out until the nuclear weapons capabilities had become a fait accompli and the cost of preventive attack had become too high. The Iranian leaders know that if given enough time, they will also be able to follow the same path. But they are not there yet, and Ahmadinejad's boasts are not credible. Iran still has a long way to go before its claims of nuclear independence can be taken seriously. And the US, as well as Europe and perhaps also Russia and China, may have learned from their failure to act in the cases of North Korea and Pakistan. The tendency to overplay a weak hand is also apparent in recent Iranian threats of massive retaliation in response to a preventive attack on its nuclear facilities. Officials in Teheran are issuing increasingly shrill threats. This rhetoric includes frequent announcements of "breakthroughs" in the development and testing of a new and devastating missile, accompanied by television broadcasts allegedly showing parts of the missile tests. For example, a few days ago, during a very visible military exercise conducted by the Revolutionary Guards, an official boasted of having successfully tested a new Iranian-made "air-to-sea-and-ground missile capable of being fired from planes and helicopters, which can evade anti-missile missiles." He claimed that this "top secret" high-speed torpedo was so sophisticated that "no submarine or warship can escape." In the effort to increase the strategic impact, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, declared that the US must recognize Iran as a "big, regional power," warning that if pressed, Iran could use its control of the Straits of Hormuz, a vital access point to Gulf oil shipments. Repeating the claim that Iran could defend itself against any invasion, he added: "I advise Americans not to move toward a military strike against Iran." However, on closer inspection, the Iranian technological achievements are not very impressive. The "super fast torpedo" looks very similar to a Russian weapon developed many years ago, with a small range and limited effectiveness. And the same is true for other recent Iranian military "achievements." Before going further with this dangerous game, Iran might consider Saddam Hussein's efforts. The former Iraqi dictator greatly exaggerated his military capabilities in the years prior to the 2003 war, and boasted about chemical and biological weapons capabilities that, it turned out, he did not have. His strategy backfired - the threats of massive retaliation did not prevent the attack, but rather hastened it. Of course, there are many differences between the two cases, but the similarities may be sufficient to lead Iranians to consider the costs of playing nuclear poker without any cards.