For a number of years Washington has been threatening Iran for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Until now, the consensus has been that to undertake military action against Iran was so crazy that even President George Bush would not attempt it. But whenever questioned about whether military action or the use of nuclear weapons is under consideration, Bush's officials repeat that "all options" are on the table.
The case against Iran is far from convincing. While the acquisition of a centrifuge enrichment capacity may not be strictly necessary to fuel the twin 1000Mwe VVERs at Bushehr, Iran is nevertheless worried about the reliability of its fuel supply, concerns that can be met by an enrichment capacity of its own.
India has nuclear weapons, but does not attract anything like the opprobrium the US reserves for Iran with its non-existent nuclear weapons program. India, with a different indigenous CANDU-type reactor technology, has a highly self-sufficient nuclear fuel cycle based on heavy water and natural uranium. India also has a significant enrichment capability, currently being expanded, at Mysore.
Other nations with significant indigenously developed enrichment capacities include Pakistan, France, China, Russia, the US and Britain (all with weapons), plus Argentina, Germany, Brazil (once accused of having a weapons program, but now certified "clean") and Japan (a "virtual" weapons state). Australia has for some years also operated an experimental, privately owned laser enrichment facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney.
Yet Iran's miserable 164 unreliable and primitive centrifuges, which are incapable of either enriching enough uranium to supply a single reactor or to supply enough 100% enriched uranium for a single small warhead, have attracted the US's fury.
Iran's enrichment cascade is at Natanz, outside the world-heritage classified town of Isfahan, and housed in deeply buried underground halls. Some months ago, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials and diplomats were taken on a guided tour of the facilities.
Natanz remains subject to IAEA inspection and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards remain in place. The IAEA has issued a series of reports that waver between arguing that Iran is technically in breach of IAEA requirements (largely because of Iran's often uncooperative attitude), that the IAEA "cannot guarantee" Iran's peaceful intentions, and that there is "no proof" of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and no positive or definite indication of a nuclear weapons program.
Iran has pointed to a religious fatwa by Iranian cleric and second supreme leader Ali Khamenei to the effect that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic". Even the CIA, in a classified report that was nevertheless leaked to US journalist Seymour Herch, has said that there is "no indication" of a focused program to acquire nuclear weapons.
There has been no progress in developing nuclear weapons because, as the Iranian government keeps repeating, there is no intention to develop them. That said, there would be no more powerful way to convince the Iranian government to make the acquisition of nuclear weapons a top priority than to threaten it with military strikes, possible nuclear strikes and/or "regime change".
Herch described specific plans involving the use of "bunker busters" on Natanz, and the existence of bitter dissent within the Pentagon with doubters being "shouted down" by administration voices. More recently, it seems that large numbers of senior military figures have made it known that they will resign en masse should there be an attack on Iran.
The Israeli press has been full of articles speculating on the possibility of Israel undertaking strikes (including nuclear) on Iran. More worrying has been the publication of a purported Israeli plan for nuclear strikes on Natanz and other targets, involving both conventional and nuclear weapons delivered by aircraft. A few weeks ago Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that Israel was engaged in "negotiations" with the USAF to allow passage of its fighter-bomber planes to Iran.
Herch emphasised that the US's strike plans for Iran are in the "active" file, with preparations being made for their execution. This does not mean that they will be executed, but it means that they may be. It is the prospect of these plans being put in the "execute now" file that has led to the most recent resignation threats from US military officials. Two aircraft-carrier-led task forces are in the Persian Gulf right now running aircraft "sorties" and awaiting further orders.
What if there is military action against Iran? The repercussions could include: the Shia-dominated government of Iraq will either collapse or find itself at war with its putative sponsor, the US. Iraq will unite fully against the US. The Straits of Hormuz will be blocked. Iranian missiles and navy units could be involved in "suicide" missions. Iranian oil would go off the market.
In case of large-scale conventional action/regime change, or nuclear strikes, oilfields will be torched, and oil prices will skyrocket. The rest of the Middle East will literally, or figuratively, go up in flames. The use of nuclear weapons for the third time will propel the world far more cataclysmically than 9/11 ever did into a new and perilous nuclear era.
There are quite a few reasons for this potential disaster to be averted. An outburst of sanity on the part of the Bush administration is one possibility, admittedly remote. Congressional fury is another, perhaps slightly less remote. Senior military officers' refusal to implement plans they deems to be downright looney is perhaps a more likely reason.
Catastrophe is never inevitable. It not inevitable for Iran, it is merely "on the agenda". The challenge is to force Bush to take it off.
[John Hallam is an anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Sydney.]