“Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.” This seems to be the current valid formulation about the country’s nuclear program. The rulers of Iran would disagree, of course, at least in public.

Immediately before Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, had resigned from a post as special advisor to Barack Obama on Iran issues in June last year he had published his account on post-revolutionary Iran in his highly acclaimed book “Guardians of the Revolution – Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollah” [1]. Due to its lack of verifiable references it is not (and not meant) a scholarly analysis but rather a guide for the new administration in the White House to get more familiar with revolutionary Iran’s turbulent history under two Supreme Leaders and four (or five) presidents. Much of Obama’s overture towards Iran including last year’s Nowruz message may have been due to Takeyh’s briefing on why Iran’s “fist is clenched for a reason,” as Muhammad Sahimi has put it.

The book is divided into four chapters which grossly cover the incidences and domestic power struggles during presidencies of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami; and Ahmadinejad’s first term. Those who are not so much aware of the West’s acquiescence of Saddam’s application of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s might be enlightened, or reminded once more, by Takeyh’s fresh look upon the malicious involvement of Israel the U.S., and European powers. Mutual distrust and disdain is hard to overcome after all.

Evidently, Iran’s nuclear program, which had been launched more than forty years ago by Shah Reza Pahlavi with the determined help of the United States [2], has mainly been revived by Iran’s revolutionaries after their experiences as victims of Saddam’s WMD in the late 1980s while the West carefully watched the humanitarian disaster [3]. In the 1980s, it was the then speaker of the majlis and later president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi who were devoted proponents of a nuclear program. While only in the late 1990s, Iran managed to get assistance from Russia for the (re)construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant [4], Iran also received sensitive nuclear designs and technologies from the illicit network of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan. When the Iranian dissident Alireza Jafarzadeh (Takeyh doesn’t mention his name nor affiliation, the National Council of Resistance of Iran) revealed in August 2002 the existence of clandestine uranium enrichment facility near the small village of Natanz in Central Iran (at that time not operational) and a heavy water facility at Arak (not finished yet), the country’s credibility was completely devastated for years up to now.

After all, these nuclear activities (and, as the unclassified part of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) clearly states, they contained a military dimension) were promoted during ‘reform’ president Mohammad Khatami’s tenure. It would be interesting to learn why and how the in a way glorified Khatami who, according to Takeyh, sought an improvement of international relations could expedite an illicit nuclear program in flagrant violation of safeguard agreements of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory. While the NIE judged in December 2007 with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, with “moderate confidence” that the program remains frozen, and with “moderate-to-high confidence” that Iran is “keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons”, Takeyh does not mention it with a word. He rather seems to have accepted that large factions in Iran’s ruling establishment, not only the New Right, as he calls it, but also realists agree “that the enhancement of Iran’s influence necessitates a weapon capability.” That ultimately the Supreme Leader would have to make a decision about assembling a nuclear weapon would be self-evident, but Takeyh fails to mention a respective fatwa, or religious decree, by Ali Khamenei in 2005 condemning production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons as haram, or forbidden under Islamic law.

The tide of events after Iran’s disputed presidential elections last year could not be covered in Takeyh’s book. It seems so that his appraisal of Iran’s nuclear program has considerably tightened in recent articles. In “After Iran Gets the Bomb” he writes, together with James M. Lindsay, at Foreign Affairs:

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is determined (!) to become the world’s tenth nuclear power. It is defying its international obligations and resisting concerted diplomatic pressure to stop it from enriching uranium. It has flouted several UN Security Council resolutions directing it to suspend enrichment and has refused to fully explain its nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even a successful military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would delay Iran’s program by only a few years, and it would almost certainly harden Tehran’s determination to go nuclear. The ongoing political unrest in Iran could topple the regime, leading to fundamental changes in Tehran’s foreign policy and ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But that is an outcome that cannot be assumed. If Iran’s nuclear program continues to progress at its current rate, Tehran could have the nuclear material needed to build a bomb before U.S. President Barack Obama’s current term in office expires.”

Recent estimates have in fact mentioned sometime in 2013 as a realistic date for Iran being eventually able to assemble a nuclear weapon. It is remarkable that Lindsay and Takeyh establish a connection with Obama’s probable retirement.

“The advent of a nuclear Iran – even one that is satisfied with having only the materials and infrastructure necessary to assemble a bomb on short notice rather than a nuclear arsenal – would be seen as a major diplomatic defeat for the United States. Friends and foes would openly question the U.S. government’s power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively.”

It might be interpreted as a final appeal to act, indeed with might and main. As Lindsay and Takeyh went further in an op-ed for the Washington Post on February 21:

“Today, as Iranian hawks consolidate their power and the Revolutionary Guards emerge as a key pillar of the state, Tehran views nuclear weapons as the means to regional preeminence. A nuclear shield would give Iran freedom to project its power in the Middle East. Such an Iran is unlikely to be subtle about brandishing the nuclear card.

“It would take considerable American political skill and will to contain such regional pretensions. Washington would need to be explicit about its red lines: no initiation of conventional warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material or technologies; no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. Washington would need to be just as explicit about the consequences of crossing those lines: potential U.S. military retaliation by any and all means necessary.

“The challenges of making containment work make it far preferable that Iran stop – or be(ing) stopped – short of becoming a nuclear power. Efforts to negotiate limits on Iran’s nuclear program must be pursued with vigor, and economic pressure on Tehran must be maintained. Military options should not be taken off the table.

“If Tehran remains determined to go nuclear and preventive attacks prove too risky or unworkable to carry out, the United States will need to formulate a strategy to contain Iran. In doing so, however, it would be a mistake to assume that containment would save the United States from the need to make tough choices about retaliation. If Washington is not prepared to back up a containment strategy with force, the damage created by Iran’s going nuclear could become catastrophic.” (Emphasis added.)


[1] Takeyh R. Guardians of the Revolution – Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford University Press, New York 2009.

[2] The Shah’s nuclear program wasn’t entirely peaceful. Takeyh writes (p. 242f):

“In the aftermath of the revolution, the shah’s former foreign minister, Ardashir Zahidi, confessed the following:

‘The Iranian strategy at that time was aimed at creating what is known as surge capacity, that is to say, to have the know-how, the infrastructure, and the personnel needed to develop a nuclear military capacity within a short-time without actually doing so. But the assumption within the policymaking elite was that Iran should be in a position to develop and test a nuclear device within 18 months.’

The Washington establishment, which was nurturing the shah’s desire to act as the policeman of the Persian Gulf, not only looked the other way but also actively assisted his pursuit of such weaponry.”

[3] Human-wave assaults by Iranian forces are briefly mentioned by Takeyh as an ostensible strategy. The horrible consequences of commanding basiji, i.e. young volunteers, even teenagers, into the mine fields in large-scale suicide missions are not very much outlined here. Martyrdom as a strong idea in the strange ideology of the Islamic Shi’a together with religious fervor has resulted in war crimes of a dimension which have possibly been seen before only in Nazi Germany during WWII. Since then, these suicide attacks have set the standard for suicide bombings all over the Middle East and elsewhere.

[4] The German Kraftwerk Union AG had signed a contract in 1975 to build the pressurized water reactor but withdrew in July 1979. The construction site had been heavily damaged by Iraqi bombardments during the war.

[5] Takeyh claims (on p. 7) that the book conforms to the prevailing standards of transliteration. “However, at times, popular usage of names and places has been retained given their familiarity to the general reader.”

Last update March 27, 2010.

This entry was posted in Book Review, Iran, NPT, USA and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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