The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency took off the gloves this week and bluntly said it was his "gut feeling" that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. The agency, which has spent years trying to conduct inspections at nuclear installations in the country, has been reticent to make a concrete statement about what Iran intends to do with the nuclear technology it has continued to pursue despite U.N. sanctions leveled against it.
Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency said in an interview with the British Broadcasting System (BBC) this week, "It is my gut feeling that Iran would like to have the technology to enable it to have nuclear weapons. They want to send a message to their neighbors, to the rest of the world, 'Don't mess with us,'" he said.
The "ultimate aim," he added, was to be "recognized as a major power in the Middle East" and "the road to get that recognition, to get that power and prestige," was through development of the country's nuclear power. "It is also an insurance policy against what they have heard in the past about regime change," he added.
Regime change is a major concern in Iran at the moment: incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to hold on to his position by stifling an insistent roar of protests by activists who say he stole last Friday's presidential election.
The country's Interior Ministry said that Ahmadinejad had won the race in a landslide victory announced in a hasty announcement made barely two hours after the polls had closed. When the votes were supposedly counted, the numbers were suspiciously lopsided even in the hometown of relatively moderate challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has since called for the election to be annulled and held a second time.
Hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters have continued to show up for massive protests in cities across Iran despite a violent crackdown on dissidents by Basij militia forces loyal to Ahmadinejad.
Dozens of protesters have been beaten and at least 12 have been shot and killed, according to media reports. Local sources said the numbers were far higher. A massive demonstration was called for Thursday afternoon in the capital, and Mousavi was to address the hundreds of thousands who were expected to attend. The challenger urged his supporters to wear black as a sign of mourning for the rigged elections and in honor of the memory of those who had been slain by government militia forces during demonstrations in the past week.
Presidential Change Won't Bring Policy Change
Political analysts, as well as politicians outside the country, believe it is unlikely Iran's nuclear policy will change, regardless of whether it is Ahmadinejad or Mousavi who ends up as president.
U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters Wednesday that he believes there is little difference between the two, but added that in any case, it didn't really matter.
“It’s important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised,” he said.
Obama added that “either way we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and has been pursuing nuclear weapons.”
Supreme Leader Controls Nukes, Not President
Israeli researcher Brandon Friedman disagreed with Obama that there was little difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. "In the mind of U.S. policy makers that may be the case," said Friedman, a doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies, "but in the minds of the large portion of the Iranian public that is clearly not the case."
The researcher, who spoke in an interview with Israel National News, added that Obama's remarks suggested that the U.S. has "some sort of strategy in place and they intend to pursue it regardless of who the president is." He added that ultimately, the election of Iran's president was not relevant to the issue of the nuclear threat to Israel.
The question of which man is more dangerous to the State of Israel, Friedman said, "presumes that they are both dangerous. I am not willing to get on board with the underlying assumption here," he said, adding, "Iranian foreign policy is under the control of Khameni. The question Israel should be asking is, what is the danger level of the office of the Supreme Leader with respect to Israel, as opposed to the presidency. I think foreign affairs begin and end with the Supreme Leader, so that's the question we should be asking ourselves."
The primary difference for Israel, as well as the rest of the world, he said, "has to do with perception and the face that Iran will be presenting to the world. Clearly Israel has a good idea what sort of face Ahmadinejad presents to the world. With Mousavi it is harder to know what sort of face he would have presented if he had won."
'Elections Reversal Unlikely'
Friedman agreed with an assessment by Israeli international Mossad intelligence agency head Meir Dagan that the unrest was likely to end shortly, but said that he, too, had been taken aback at the upheaval in Iran.
"I have certainly been surprised at the intensity and duration of the disturbances," he acknowledged. "I think it is unlikely that there will be a reversal [of the elections] but if [the protests] continue in real substance, it will force the regime to respond in one way or another."
An allegation by an Iranian government prosecutor that the dissidents were being led or influenced by "outside forces" was scornfully dismissed. "That is a typical Islamic regime response to anything from a small crisis to a major crisis; everything is always blamed on outsiders. Cultural, social, military crises… they are almost always attributed to outside forces," Friedman said.
"What we are seeing from Ahmadinejad right now is an attempt to conduct his business as usual. Will they go back to the polls? I personally think it's unlikely. The regime is hoping that conciliating the candidates in some way might help. Behaving as if its business is as usual might help. Cracking down on dissidents might help. It's uncharted territory at this point. Your guess is as good as mine."