Western diplomats dealing with Iran have expressed surprise at the Islamic republic's decision to launch a new program aimed at doubling its capacity to enrich uranium.
The real surprise, however, is the fact that Western diplomats and politicians claim to be surprised. For the Islamic republic is doing exactly what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised it would do during his election campaign last year.
Ahmadinejad had criticized the decision by his predecessor President Muhammad Khatami to suspend Iran's nuclear program for two years at the behest of the European Union as "an act of surrender" to imperialist powers. He had then made the pledge to re-start and speed up the nuclear program a key feature of his election manifesto.
Ahmadinejad's critique of Khatami, and his mentor Hashemi Rafsanjani, was based on three assertions.
The first was that by allowing the European Union to dictate a key part of Iran's nuclear program, Khatami was kowtowing to "infidel powers" ultimately linked to the United Sates. The second was that the more a developing nation such as Iran gave concessions to the Western powers the more they were likely to intervene in its domestic affairs. Iran was lucky not to depend on the West for aid or on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for loan guarantees. Therefore, there was no reason for Khatami to behave as if he were president of the Congo.
Finally, Ahmadinejad is sincerely convinced that the Western powers are in decline and that their dominant position in history is nearing its end. In contrast, he thinks that the Muslim world is destined for world leadership in the coming decades.
By ending the moratorium on Iran's nuclear program Ahmadinejad wanted to signal a new grammar for relations between the Islamic republic and the Western powers.
This is how he put it during the campaign: Just as we do not ask the European Union to change or rearrange this or that aspect of their domestic policy to please us, they should not try to dictate the Islamic republic's energy policy.
Ahmadinejad also claims that the major powers are determined to maintain their monopoly of nuclear technology as means of preserving their dominant position in the global economy. And that, in turn, would impose limits to the independence and sovereignty of nations such as Iran that are bound to need nuclear energy once the reserves of fossil fuels are exhausted. By breaking the agreement with the EU, and indirectly with the US, Russia and China, the Islamic republic would, in fact, reassert its independence and sovereignty.
In other words, Ahmadinejad is doing exactly what he had promised to do. Western politicians who are used to promising things that they cannot deliver might be surprised. But those who know Ahmadinejad closely say that he is acting in character.
So much fog has been generated around the Islamic republic's nuclear program that it is always necessary to recall the strategy behind it. That strategy was, in fact, developed under the Shah in 1970 and abandoned by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 only to be revived by then President Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1989. It is aimed at producing for Iran the scientific, technological and industrial means necessary for "mastering the full nuclear cycle". In plainer language, this means putting Iran in a position not only to generate electricity from nuclear power stations but also to have the capacity to produce and deploy nuclear warheads if and when it so decided.
Thus "mastering the full scientific, technological and industrial cycle" is the matrix of Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy. This does not mean that the Islamic republic has decided to build a bomb. It is quite possible that such a decision has not even been discussed at the highest level. What is certain, however, is that the decision has been taken to acquire all that is necessary for making a bomb if and when required. All that makes it much more difficult for the International Atomic Energy Agency and beyond it the United Nations to develop a position vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program.
Russia, China and to some extent France insist that no sanctions should be imposed against the Islamic republic until and unless a "smoking gun" is found. But there is no such smoking gun. Nor is one likely to materialize in time for the next Security Council session on the subject.
By doubling Iran's capacity to manufacture centrifuges needed to enrich uranium in industrial quantities, Ahmadinejad hopes to shorten the time-span required for acquiring the capacity to produce nuclear warheads.
Western estimates, based on Iran's earlier limited capacity to manufacture centrifuges, was that the Islamic republic would have enough enriched uranium to build a small nuclear bomb within the next five to eight years. The cascading effect of the increased capacity to build centrifuges could cut that time span in half.
Thus the Islamic republic may be in a position to test its first nuclear device in less than three years, which coincides with the end of Ahamdinejad's first presidential term.
At that time Ahmadinejad could announce Iran's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) before ordering the nation's first nuclear test.
Those who fear and oppose Iran's accession to nuclear weapons have few options.
One is to recognize the Islamic republic as a regional superpower and try to draw it into a new pattern of stability based on its position of leadership. Choosing that option, however, would involve eating a great deal of crow by the Western powers, at least as long as Ahmadinejad is in the driving seat in Tehran. Another option is not to wait for the smoking gun that can only come when it is already too late. This would mean taking pre-emptive action to delay the Islamic republic's nuclear program or even bring about regime change in Tehran.
All other measures, such as economic sanctions that would hurt the people of Iran without delaying the nuclear program, are sure to play into Ahmadinejad's hands by proving his central point that the West is a "sunset power" and that the Islamic republic has both the right and the duty to offer its own agenda not only for the Middle East but for the whole world.