Iran: the threat

If Hollywood were to draft a blockbusting script with the Iranian nuclear threat as its theme I could imagine two protagonists at its core racing to prevent catastrophe. The American [possibly female] played by one of the new wave of British actors so popular now, would be a lowly intelligence officer, an analyst in something dull like the countries imports, on the opposite side of the world an Iranian [played by a darker skinned British actor] who would also be a middle-ranking civil servant. We will make him a geologist. The back story of each of the protagonists would keep this epic subject human, the American would have most likely had a promising start to their career but had fallen because of a screw up, which was no-doubt, their superiors fault, they also suffer some human but crippling fault like addiction or mental illness. The Iranian is a caring family man, sensitive, genuine but at odds with the religious fundamentalism of his government.

The rest of the story is fairly predictable: intelligence suggests the Iranians are moments away from assembling a nuclear warhead, with Iran and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [shown in a compilation of news clips] threatening the very existence of Israel. Meanwhile Israel is threatening to bomb the bomb making factory deep in a mountain, but this doesn’t suit American foreign policy as it would jeopardise peace in the Middle-East. Doing nothing and allowing Iran the bomb would mean almost certain holy war of Shiite’s belief in the return of the 12th Iman and a great Islamic Empire which, in turn would force their long term adversary: the Sunni Saudi Arabia, into a devastating global conflict dragging the West into the battle as they desperately try to secure oil supplies. Allowing Israel to attack the nuclear installations would trigger another kind of war and just to give the movie plot an extra twist, a late revelation reveals the bunker busting bombs chosen would be useless against the bomb making reactor deep in the mountain.

As the film reaches its climax and the dilemma between action and inaction is forced into an explosive conclusion it is our protagonists who find the answer. Perhaps the geologist is able to convince his authorities that the reactor [just about to be turned on to make its deadly nuclear bomb material] is on a geological fault line that was just about to slip and cause a local nuclear disaster and must be decommissioned. Or perhaps the plucky Analyst has to convince their superiors that the intelligence is flawed: Iran is years away from assembling a bomb and the US has been deliberately  fed misinformation by double agents bent on achieving war with Israel and the West and the re-establishment of the Mullahs who are losing power as the Arab spring empowers the disgruntled  Iranian people desperate for democracy.  At the last moment the reactor is decommissioned, the planes return home and peace is secured for a few more years.  The last few frames are the beginnings of an uprising as the oppressed Iranian people take to the streets.

However, as glossy blockbusters go it is perhaps a little too predictable, it could be worse, it could end with a team of Navy Seals or SAS abseiling into the underground nuclear installation blowing up the tunnel and sealing the radioactive debris in a mountainous tomb with the blame for the attack placed on the shoulders of an obscure-homegrown-super-fundamental Iranian sect at odds with, what it considers, the liberal mullah rulers. So lets rewind to the beginning and have a gritty plot which is big on dialogue and has a real twist.

The truth is that a daring bombing raid that cripples the nuclear infrastructure of Iran would have to be comprehensive and it would need to be several attacks on installations all over Iran. If it could be achieved it would need the airforce of the US, multiple bombing runs, the biggest ground penetrating bunker buster and would be pretty close to an all out attack. It would most likely empower the current Iranian government who are currently struggling with sanctions and hyper inflation and who could entrench their position claiming that the West is the threat they claim. And ultimately they would double their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, perhaps buying them from Pakistan or North Korea to prevent future attacks, an attack now would just delay nuclear proliferation. But wait, in Hollywood land couldn’t we have a daring bombing raid where a lone stealth bomber drops a super ‘earthquake bomb’ to cause the underground mountain bunker to bury the threat forever and appear to be a natural disaster? The movie closes with the President in a newscast commiserating with the Iranian government and promising to send aid to the earthquake victims with the hope it may heal Iran-American relations….Perhaps not.

In reality an Israeli or American attack could drag Britain into the conflict, the future of our gas supplies are tied up in Qatar just a few miles across the Gulf from Iran and an easy retaliatory target for the Revolutionary Iranian Guard. The UK has an RAF combat base there.

But perhaps there is a bigger threat, a bigger twist in this plot. Perhaps the Iranian government is telling the truth about its nuclear program and it is purely peaceful and hiding in plain sight is a far more scarier truth.  Perhaps Iran’s sabre rattling and  claims of a peaceful nuclear development which is tinged with hostility to the International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring nuclear proliferation is a double bluff. Saddam Hussein did much the same thing, claiming there were no WMD yet making it impossible to verify just to give the impression that they really had WMD despite it being an empty threat.because he thought Iran was a greater threat than the US.

The biggest twist is that Iran: the second biggest oil producer is actually running out of oil.

A look at historic Iranian oil production  [Iranian Oil Production 2000-2012 link] could show that either the Iranian government is dreadfully inefficient and unable to keep the nationalised oil industry up to date or that production peaked in the mid 00s [noughties] and is quickly dropping off from 4 million barrels a day in 2008 to 3.5 m/bbl today. This kind of reduction is beyond anything manageable on a national and ultimately international level [The Hirch Report [link] reckoned on a 3% annual reduction worldwide would bring chaos].

It is assumed that decreasing Iranian oil production is due to sanctions but these only came into force in the summer of 2012 which is not included in the graph. China and even Japan have leapt on the opportunity to buy Iranian oil with their own currency so Iran is unlikely to have lost customers. Iran, along with the rest of OPEC, has had ever growing reserves, in 1987 reserves increased from 49 to 93 billion barrels and currently the reserves stand at 151 billion barrels [ despite over a billion barrels a year being extracted for the last couple of decades]. OPEC countries do not allow independent assessment of reserves and the advantage of lying allows for member countries to extract a bigger quota, maintain social and economic stability as well as encourage investors to imagine that the country is a safe bet. If Iran suddenly announced that reserves were low, domestic fuel would be rationed to ensure exports, attention would turn to other OPEC reserves, the people would probably riot and overthrow the mullahs and a global economic crisis would ensue. The truth could be far worse than a few nukes in the hands of Iran.

There are plenty of signs that Iran has energy difficulties: the ludicrously cheap and subsidised petrol and energy prices of a few pence per litre are being tackled by government but there is also huge investment in making vehicles run on natural gas. The official view is that Iran has little refining capability and has to import petrol and that it is vulnerable to foreign sanctions or international issues. One may ask why they don’t build capacity considering that it is cheaper than nuclear power stations. Indeed nuclear power would be a sensible option for a country with good uranium reserves, and a population whose power consumption is closer to high users like the U.S.

The Iranian government has a track record of mismanagement but whilst the prospect of Peak Oil still means that the country may well be extracting oil for another 50 years [rather than the projected 100 years] it still has to keep the illusion that everything is fine. They need to make a transition that means their domestic energy needs are met with a mix of supply [that even includes windturbines] and they are able export oil to pay for it, yet continue the pretence and the denial of developing nuclear weapons becomes the, double bluff.

The protagonists of our movie are forced to make a decision, to speak or stay quiet. In the real world you could take the proof to major newspapers even Fox News and despite being news worthy there are plenty of people who just don’t want to hear it. The closing scenes of this movie is a right-wing commentator on Fox News proclaiming it to be a eco-nazis plot, a hoax by tree-hugging pinkos and enviro-fascists trying to prevent Americans their right to drive their car.