WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- There may be one or two more moves to be made in Tehran's cat-and-mouse game with nukes. But few serious observers can remain in much doubt that Iran is determined to become a nuclear power, and that its current government is prepared to lie, cheat, smuggle, obfuscate, bully, bribe, threaten and resort to just about any maneuver in order to win nuclear status.
Who can blame them? The Iranians are surrounded by nuclear powers. On the eastern front, Pakistan has nukes and missiles to deliver them. Just beyond Pakistan, India is another nuclear power, and this is a dangerous neighborhood. The part of Pakistan that borders Iran is Baluchistan, and the Pakistani government is currently accusing India of stirring up separatist militants -- just as the world was breathing a sigh of relief that the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir was easing.
To the North lie two more nuclear powers, Russia and China, whose current intentions toward Iran seem entirely amicable. Russia is prepared to sell Iran just about anything, including nuclear reactors, Kilo-class submarines and the very latest S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems. Russia also last December signed a billion-dollar deal to sell Iran the new Tor-M1 air defense system, designed to shoot down cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs.
And China is prepared to buy just about anything that can help fuel its booming economy, witness Sinopec's 30-year deal to buy 250 million tons of Iranian natural gas, to explore and develop Iran's Yadavaran field and buy its oil. When announced in November, 2004, it was said to be worth $70 billion. It is now worth over $100 billion, and will take Iran from a 13 percent share of China's energy imports in 2003 to a 20 percent share by the end of this decade.
To the West lies the undeclared nuclear power of Israel, the only Middle Eastern country that has nuclear weapons, and also one of the few with the full triad of delivery systems. Just like the really big boys, Israel can deliver its nukes from land-based Jericho missiles, from its F-15I long-range fighter-bombers, or from the cruise missiles aboard its Dolphin-class submarines.
This means that Israel has a wholly survivable deterrent, capable of delivering second and third strikes even if Israel itself were destroyed. (One complication for any imams or mullahs pondering Israeli target options would be the theological implications of destroying the al-Aqsa mosque in the heart of Jerusalem, the most holy site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.)
And to the South of Iran sails the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in the Indian Ocean, and to the West sails the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, while the B-2 Stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri proved in the bombing of Baghdad that they can strike from any point of the compass. And the lesson that Tehran learned from the American wars against Iraq was that their national sovereignty (or rather, their immunity from U.S.-sponsored regime change) could only be guaranteed by the possession of nuclear weapons.
The only question now is whether the world is prepared to put up with a nuclear-armed Iran, which is currently led by a religious zealot who declares publicly that the Holocaust never took place and Israel should be wiped off the map.
The current betting is that the British, French and German foreign ministers, after three fruitless years of negotiation, will Thursday call for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Authority to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. Depending on the votes of Russia and China, some sanctions may be imposed, but are unlikely to be sufficiently draconian (or enforced) to deter an oil-rich state from pursuing a top strategic interest.
British and German intelligence believe that once Iran starts to enrich uranium, which it is now poised to do, it should be able to deploy a usable weapon within five to eight years. The CIA thinks three to five years may be closer to the mark, while estimates from different bits of the Pentagon and Department of Energy range from one year to 10. Last January, senior Israeli officials in Jerusalem told this reporter that "the point of no return" for Iran's nuclear capability would be the first few months of this year.
There is a second point of no return -- the moment when Russia starts to deliver and deploy the new S-300 and Tor-M1 air defense missile systems, and makes the prospect of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities even more difficult than it is already.
With a combination of its cruise missiles, the elite 69 squadron flying the long-range F15I strike warplane and Special Forces, Israel (by flying through airspace that is effectively U.S.-controlled) could disrupt and seriously delay Iran's nuclear program, even though it has reportedly been buried deep underground and dispersed in as many as 300 separate sites. Israel could probably buy three or four more years, and Iran may by then be run by a less worrying government.
According to Israel's Army Radio, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz last week told a conference at the University of Tel Aviv that Iran's nuclear program "can be destroyed." But various Pentagon war games suggest it would be a tough military proposition even for the far more capable U.S. strike forces, and would have incalculable political and economic consequences, starting with oil soaring toward $200 a barrel as Iranian anti-ship missiles threaten to close the Gulf to shipping.
If Iran, as an oil-rich sovereign state, is determined to become a nuclear power there are no obvious steps short of all-out war and occupation that could prevent it eventually from doing so. So just as the world has learned to live with the Soviet-American nuclear balance, and with the Indo-Pakistani nuclear balance, it may soon start to accept that it will probably have to live with the balance of nuclear terror between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
Curiously enough, with the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem giving the Mullahs pause for thought, until the Iranians become very certain of the accuracy of their Shahib missiles, the Iran-Israel standoff may ironically prove to be rather stable.