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Two months or nine months? This is the question making the rounds with regards to the latest "incident" at Natanz nuclear center where Iran is engaged in a massive uranium enrichment program. Attributed to Israeli secret services, the incident disabled some 5,000 centrifuges put in full operation two months ago as a means of exerting pressure on the new administration in Washington.
Iranian experts say the infernal machine could be back in full gear within two months. Western experts say nine months is a likelier time-span. The "incident" came at a time that Tehran's envoys were engaged in indirect talks with US diplomats on a possible deal for Iran to reduce its enrichment program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed by Washington, the UN and the European Union.
The question is whether Israel, if it were indeed behind the "incident," had coordinated it with the new Biden administration, something that Tehran regards as impossible. If there was coordination we must assume that Israel was doing its bit to help Biden soften the mullahs in new negotiations, a pas-de-deux that the US and Israel have performed in the Middle East many times before. However, if Israel acted alone we must assume that its assessment of the Iranian threat is different from the Biden administration's.
A nuclear armed Islamic Republic might be no more than a nuisance for the US, as is North Korea for example, while it would be an existential threat to Israel.
One thing is certain: as The Washington Post editorialized last week, the Biden administration believes that while Israeli "incidents" might delay Tehran's program, only the US can stop it through diplomacy.
But what if the whole nuclear issue, built by former President Barack Obama as the core of the "Iran problem", is a diversion designed to put real or imaginary foes on a wrong trajectory?
Does the Islamic Republic have a nuclear policy?
The ayatollah and his aides claim they do and that it is aimed at producing electricity for which they need enriched uranium.
However, 42 years after seizing power, they still have only one semi-derelict nuclear power station which is often shut and produces less than two percent of the electricity Iran needs. Even then Iran has no need of enriching uranium domestically as the fuel needed for its sole power plant is supplied by its Russian builders until the end of its life-span in 2032.
So, is Iran enriching uranium to build a bomb?
Obama was adamant that this was not the case.
He cited a "fatwa" by "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei that forbids Muslims from building the bomb. (Needless to say, possibly apart from Obama no one has seen the fatwa.)
If we assume that Biden shares Obama's conviction or that he, too, has seen and believed the fatwa, we would wonder why he should bother to stop the mullahs from wasting resources on something for which they have no obvious use. As for the mullahs, what they offer is simple: a promise not to do something that they claim they have never done, are not doing, and would never want to do.
What if what many see as the Islamic Republic's nuclear policy is a posture, not to say an imposture, not a policy? That posture serves the Khomeinist regime's interests by shifting the focus away from the real mischief and crimes it has been committing inside and outside Iran for four decades.
The current diplomatic "initiative", concocted by the Europeans, may end in a compromise with the US lifting at least some of its sanctions in exchange for Tehran agreeing to slow down its uranium enrichment program. The Biden administration could add a diplomatic feather to its cap while the mullahs, starved of cash since 2019, would get the money needed to keep their other mischiefs going on the old or perhaps even grander scale.
The Khomeinist regime isn't hurting anyone by enriching 20 percent uranium that it does not need, and, for technical reasons, wouldn't be able to use even if it decides to build a bomb. But it is hurting many by fomenting terror and instability in large chunks of the Middle East and beyond.
Its "exporting revolution" has already contributed to triggering and prolonging the war in Yemen. Without its involvement, the Syrian civil war may not have led to what is the greatest tragedy the world has seen in the new century. By creating Hezbollah, the mullahs have led Lebanon to the brink of ungovernability, not to say systemic collapse. By supporting the most radical rejectionist groups, the mullahs have also helped block the road to an Israeli-Palestinian coexistence accord.
Inside Iran, the Khomeinist regime has committed crimes against almost every section of society by massacring peaceful protesters, persecuting religious minorities and political dissidents and damaging the nation's key institutions with corruption, mismanagement and, as we witness in the current Covid-19 pandemic, sheer incompetence.
To forget all that, not to mention the seizing of scores of hostages and the killing of hundreds of US, British and French soldiers with roadside bombs and terror attacks in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 100 terror operations in 22 countries across the globe, would be the height of naiveté and a sure sign of moral decadence.
At the same time, the mullahs have provided an "Islamic" cover for the crimes that Russia and China have committed in Chechnya and East Turkestan (Xinjiang). The fakeness of their Islamic pretensions is highlighted in other domains. They have endorsed the annexation by Russia of the Muslim enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the stationing of Russian troops in Syria and Azerbaijan (former Soviet) Republic. The mullahs have blocked joint action in support of more than a million Muslim Rohingya driven out of their homes by the Burmese military. It is also interesting that, taking the clue from Moscow, a regime that casts itself as champion of "true Islam" refuses to recognize Kosovo, the latest Muslim majority nation to gain independence.
No, the so-called Iran problem cannot be summed up in the grade agreed for enriching uranium. Nor is the problem limited to Tehran's behavior, as Obama claimed. Posturing is no substitute for policy.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.