Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)
Iran’s Dangerous Quest
Iran’s Nuclear Option: Tehran’s Quest for the Atom Bomb by Al J. Venter
Reviewed by Shalom Freedman
This book is an outstanding survey of the threats the present Iranian regime poses to the world. Although it focuses on the Iranian nuclear threat, it also considers Iran’s other WMD programs and its worldwide terror apparatus. An international war correspondent for thirty years who has written frequently for the Jane’s Information Group, Venter has excellent contacts with a number of intelligence communities, especially that of his native South Africa. In this work he reveals in depth South Africa’s role in helping Iran develop its nuclear capacity.
An ironic element of that story is that South African scientists and technicians who worked with and were in part trained by Israel in another era were, a decade later, busy helping Iran build its missile capacity. Venter’s chapter on Iran’s impressive progress in missile development also highlights another of his themes – how a wide variety of nations, from the Germans and French to the Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Pakistanis, and Indians, have assisted Iran with its nuclear and missile programs.
The Aims of the Iranian Program
From an Israeli and Jewish point of view, the principal point underlined by Venter’s research is no great secret: one of Iran’s major objectives, perhaps even its primary one in building nuclear weapons, is to counter Israel and provide an answer to Israel’s nuclear capability. Beyond the apparent real fear of an Israeli or American attack, Iran’s true goal is, as its leaders have stated on occasion, “to wipe out the Zionist entity.” As Venter points out, Israeli leaders have been aware of this threat for close to fifteen years. During this time Iran, through its surrogate Hizbullah, was not only the main factor behind Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon but also an increasing threat to Israel itself.
In an instructive part of the book, Venter tells about touring Lebanon in the 1980s and encountering there not only the Hizbullah but many Iranians. These Iranians were soldiers and officers of the Pasdaran, the special intelligence and military unit responsible both for regime stability in Tehran and for terror operations throughout the world. Venter’s chapter on this organization combines with his chapters on Iran’s missile development, its nonconventional weapons, the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, and on Iran’s Shiites and their motivations, to give a rich overall picture of the country’s military and political reality.
The Iranian nuclear threat is not only directed at Israel. It was after suffering Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks during the Iran-Iraq War that Iran decided it needed nonconventional weapons. Today Iran is particularly concerned about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Persian Gulf states. Iranian missiles can already strike every U.S. base in the Middle East. The Iranians are rapidly increasing the range of their missiles, and Venter points to intelligence estimates that by 2010 the American heartland will be in their range. Nuclear weapons also play a key role in Iran’s strategy of asserting dominance over its near neighbors and eventually controlling the world’s energy supplies.
The Reality of the Threat
One of this book’s great strengths is how carefully Venter documents Iran’s efforts to obtain parts and personnel for weapons building. If Mohammed El Baradei or any other members of the International Atomic Energy Commission would deign to read this book, they would not make claims so ridiculous as El Baradei’s statement just last February that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons. For twenty years Iran has allocated a vast part of its budget precisely to that purpose. Even its educational programs have concentrated on cultivating personnel who can work in this domain.
Particularly nefarious in the Iranian nuclear story are the Russians, who are continuing to build the nuclear facility at Bushehr. Venter notes that Russia, which has a major Islamic-fundamentalist problem of its own on its southern border, has decided to put the danger aside and follow the diktat of its money- and contract-hungry defense industry by supplying Tehran with technology and personnel both for its nuclear and missile programs. All the Russian promises to the United States have proved of no avail in this regard.
Venter does not consider the feasibility of the military or political scenarios that have been proposed for stopping Iran. He does, however, provide the best documentation yet in book form of the reality and danger of the Iranian nuclear threat.
The dominant impression, the book makes clear, is that Iran has not yet attained a nuclear capability. So military historian Steven Tanner suggests in the book’s preface. Venter, however, emphasizes that he does not know, and does not think either U.S. or Israeli intelligence knows the whole truth about the Iranian program. One real possibility is that Iran already has usable nuclear weapons in one of its secret installations. After all, in late January 2005 the Iranian defense minister said, in response to a Seymour Hersh New Yorker article about U.S. intelligence operations in Iran, that Iran would react with weapons of the most terrible kind to any attack against it.
This book leaves an uneasy sense of uncertainty about where Iran’s nuclear program now stands, and whether it is truly possible to stop it at a reasonable price. Israelis and Jews will learn much from the book that will worry them. Venter shows clearly and convincingly why stopping Iran’s nuclear program is a cardinal interest not only for any particular state, but for humanity as a whole. But he does not indicate how this can, and whether he believes it will, be done.