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Persian Timelines

By David Warren

This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency methodically reported that revolutionary Iran continues its uranium enrichment programme, and continues to stonewall the agency's inspectors asking routine questions about it. Also, to stonewall exceptional questions about, for instance, the source of some bomb-grade uranium particles their inspectors found by chance. The latest fay U.N. deadline passed, for Iran to suspend that nuclear programme, and the Iranian government confirmed it would continue to ignore such demands.

Indeed, better and prompter information than the IAEA receives seems to be supplied regularly to Kayhan, the venerable Tehran daily that has evolved into one of the ayatollahs' livelier propaganda sheets. Day after day they publish boastful articles on Iran's nuclear progress. My favourite was the front page three weeks ago, dominated by a colour photo of bearded nuclear technicians in their scrub suits, the leading one with his thumb in the air, in a gesture that means "all systems go" in America, but "giving the bird" in Iran. The headline read: "Authorities to the journalists who visited the nuclear facilities: As you see, Iran is not implementing the resolution."

There was nothing subtle about that, nor about any of the numerous statements made recently by various members of Iran's military elite, from Sejjad Kouchaki, commander of the Revolutionary Guard fleet, to Nur Ali Shushkari, head of ground forces, to Sobh-e Sadeq, speaking for Revolutionary Guard operatives planted around the world. All wished to fantasize about what would soon happen to American forces in the region. (See "Memri" website for inventories and translations.)

And as an aside, about what will happen to Israel. A recent Kayhan editorial dwelt fancifully upon the time when, "The mighty missiles are launched from Iran, and Israel becomes a scorching hell for the Zionists, before they are plunged into actual hell."

In reference to Hezbollah, and the country's other foreign assets: "All it would take is for Iran to open its wallet a little, and we will witness long lines of blond, blue-eyed officers becoming prisoners of the fighting cocks."

Modern Persian, as Arab rhetoric can be fairly colourful, even while it continues to be cliché-ridden. It is comic to imagine some of these statements reversed and transferred into the mouths of Western military technocrats. I like to imagine, for instance, how the New York Times would report, say, the U.S. secretary of defence, in chorus with various serving U.S. admirals and generals, declaring that, "The Muslim Entity will be reduced to fiery cinders!"

Granted we are dealing with the equivalent to mental cases, the supplementary question becomes, "How much damage can Iran do?"

For the most conservative estimate, I would naturally turn to Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's soft-spoken and understated director, who persistently strays beyond his remit as the world's chief nuclear weapons inspector only by offering his humble opinion that any military strike against Iran would be "catastrophic" and "counter-productive". He is not, in other words, the firebrand type.

Speaking to the Financial Times, of London, he guessed this week that Iran is perhaps six months away from being able to manufacture highly-enriched uranium on an industrial scale, from about 3,000 centrifuges. That would put them on track for a nuclear bomb by about fall of next year. Though of course, Mr ElBaradei would not be so indiscreet as to presume that the Iranians were intending all this bomb-grade material for use in nuclear bombs. His wink consisted of admitting that even if it weren't, the mere existence of the stock would have some "deterrent value", from the ayatollahs' point of view.

I have heard estimates to suggest A-day may be much closer than the autumn of 2008, but frankly, after Iraq, I no longer trust the information that leaches out of Western intelligence agencies, any more than the Iraq war opponents say they once didn't. I am little more confident of estimates from Israeli sources, though I know they take intelligence tasks more seriously.

The one fact I trust is that the West has a very long history of being absolutely incapable of penetrating events within alien totalitarian regimes. We have trouble even taking information from defectors seriously: as I recall from the good old days of the Cold War. A fanatic Shia Muslim totalitarian order that thinks and speaks in Persian, is about as opaque to our "experts" as the contents of a black hole.

My Persian friends tell me we should hit the deck, but meanwhile we simply wait to find out what will happen.

© Ottawa Citizen

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