Analysis: Libya conflict may strengthen Iran nuclear defiance
VIENNA (Reuters) - Western air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's forces could stiffen Iran's resolve to resist U.S.-led demands over its nuclear program, though Tehran's final analysis may depend on when and how the Libyan war ends.
Seeking to mend ties with the West, Gaddafi agreed in 2003 to abandon efforts to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons -- a move that brought him in from the cold and helped end decades as an international pariah.
In contrast, Iran has repeatedly ruled out halting sensitive nuclear activities it says are aimed at generating electricity but which the United States and its allies suspect are geared toward developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Analysts say events in Libya, where Western warplanes hit Libyan tanks on a fifth night of air strikes Thursday, are likely to provide new arguments for those in Iran who believe it would be a mistake to back down over its nuclear program.
Iran's arch foes -- Israel and the United States -- have refused to exclude possible military action against the Islamic Republic if diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute fail.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Reuters on Thursday that Iran and Syria posed a greater security threat than Libya, urging the West to treat those countries in the same way as it has Gaddafi's government.
"I suspect that this is playing into the hands of those who say that Iran has to have a nuclear deterrent because look at what happened to Gaddafi," Shannon Kile, at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said.
Iran is pushing ahead with its uranium enrichment work despite toughening sanctions by the United Nations, United States and Europe on the major oil producer and technical and others woes slowing its nuclear progress.
WEST NOT TRUSTED
Iran says it is refining uranium only to provide fuel for a planned network of nuclear power stations so that it can export more of its oil and gas. But the same material can be used to make bombs if refined much more.
"Even without the operations in Libya the attitude in Iran has hardened over the last 2-3 years," said David Hartwell, IHS Jane's North Africa and Middle East analyst.
He said hardliners were likely to use the air campaign in Libya as a further justification for their position that "we simply can't trust the West."
Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this week said Gaddafi's concessions over its nuclear program showed Tehran was right to continue to reject any curb to its atomic energy development.
Khamenei said that while Libya had given up its nuclear capacities in exchange for incentives he compared to giving candy to a child, Iran "not only did not retreat but ... officials tried to increase nuclear facilities year after year."
While voicing support for demonstrators in the region and condemning government repression, Iran has crushed protests at home and jailed scores of demonstrators since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed presidential election in June 2009.
"Surely the attack on Gaddafi's forces will reinforce the Iranian distrust of the United States," proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said.
"Ayatollah Khamenei already has long believed that if you give an inch to the United States, they will take a mile, that any concession on the nuclear front will only lead to demands on human rights and Israel and other issues."
The U.N. Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions on Tehran since 2006 for refusing to freeze its enrichment program, which can have both civilian and military purposes.
Major powers have offered Iran trade and other economic and political incentives it halts its atomic activities.
But two rounds of talks in December and January between Iran and the six powers seeking to resolve the dispute diplomatically -- the United States, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and China -- failed to make any headway.
Underlining the deadlock, no new meetings have been scheduled, even though both sides insist the door remains open.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the world must make clear Iran would face "credible military action" if sanctions do not shut down its nuclear program.
Iran's reading of the Libyan situation may be that Western powers would not have thought about intervening there if Gaddafi had held on to his weapons programs, said Oliver Thraenert, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"You might argue that possessing a nuclear option means that you will not be confronted with an international intervention, whatever you might do in the future with any opposition within Iran," he said.
But there could also be those in Iran who make the opposite case, that the action in Libya shows that the United States and its allies could do the same in Iran before it "gets its hand on a nuclear option. It is also possible," Thraenert said.
Baqer Moin, an Iran expert in London, said the implications for Iran and its rival factions would hinge on whether the Western campaign in Libya was successful or became a quagmire.
"If it is an easy victory it would enhance the position of those who want to negotiate with the West," Moin said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)