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Iran nuclear danger downplayed in reports

The EastWest Institute says Iran could build a nuclear weapon in one to three years, but it would take up to 15 to develop long-range technology that would pose a threat to the West.

May 20, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — A pair of reports released Tuesday by prominent think tanks downplay the potential dangers presented by Iran, concluding that Tehran is at least six years away from building a deliverable nuclear weapon and that its ability to wreak havoc in the Middle East through surrogates is exaggerated.

A report by a group of Russian and American scientists and engineers at the EastWest Institute concludes that although Iran could build a nuclear device within one to three years of deciding to do so, it would not be able to deliver a long-range weapon for many more years. The scientists also say that a U.S. missile defense system being considered for Central Europe would be useless against an Iranian nuclear weapon.

A separate 230-page report by the Rand Corp., the result of political and military research for the U.S. Air Force begun in 2007, found Iran a less formidable adversary than some believe.

The report notes "significant barriers and buffers" to Iran's ambitions because of the reality of regional ethnic and religious politics and "its limited conventional military capacity, diplomatic isolation and past strategic missteps."

It argues for exploiting the gap between Iran's ambitions and abilities while engaging with Tehran on areas of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan.

The reports come as the Obama administration ponders its next move regarding Iran, which continues to refine and expand nuclear technology that the West suspects is ultimately aimed at producing weapons but that Iranian leaders insist is meant only for peaceful purposes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington this week, is trying to sway the administration to place Iran at the forefront of its Middle East agenda, ahead of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But President Obama told reporters after meeting Netanyahu on Monday that he saw resolving the issue of a Palestinian state as a way of lessening Iran's influence.

The Rand report argues that Iran "feeds off existing grievances with the status quo, particularly in the Arab world," rather than activating agents to stir up trouble. It suggests that the outside world ignore Iranian officials' sometimes aggressive, religiously tinged rhetoric and focus on its activities.

"Its revolutionary ideology has certainly featured prominently in the rhetoric of its officials," the report says. "However, the record of Iranian actions suggests that these views should be more accurately regarded as the vocabulary of Iranian foreign policy rather than its determinant."

Iran's foreign policy is driven more by old-fashioned nationalism and a desire to maintain territorial integrity and ensure the Islamic Republic's survival than by a desire to expand Iran's revolutionary ideology, the report says.

Rand also paints Iran as a military paper tiger, with poorly maintained and outdated equipment and shortages of personnel. Tehran exercises less control over militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and its allies in Iraq than popularly believed, the report says.

"Iran has limited leverage over so-called proxy groups," it says. "In the event of conflict between the United States and Iran, the willingness of these groups to retaliate purely in the service of Tehran should not be assumed as automatic."

The EastWest Institute report, a year in the making, says it could take as long as 15 years for Iran to acquire long-range missile technology that would pose a threat to Europe or North America. Only the U.S., Europe, Russia and China have the technology that could help it achieve a breakthrough sooner, the report says.

The reports call on the U.S. to work with Russia and China in addressing Iran's ambitions.

"The U.S. and Russia together can create a much more robust response to any potential threat than the two countries can deal with by themselves," said Sarosh Syed, a spokesman for the EastWest Institute.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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