Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled – and expressly told Revolutionary Guard commanders – that nuclear weapons are against Islam, and cannot be used in war even for self-defense. For all practical purposes – and with International Atomic Energy Agency confirmation – Tehran is pursuing a civilian nuclear program. Virtually the whole country is behind the theocratic nationalist regime in this effort.

Moreover, the regime knows that both China and Russia will oppose any excessive action by the administration of US President George W. Bush. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said recently that both countries had “officially” informed Iran about “their opposition to sanctions and a military attack.”

On Sunday, Iran’s parliament threatened to force the government to withdraw its agreement to allow unannounced inspections of its nuclear facilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The move follows pressure from Washington and its allies for a binding United Nation Security Council resolution demanding that Tehran suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

The United States is behind attempts by Britain and France to draw up a UN resolution that would declare Iran in violation of international law if it does not suspend uranium enrichment. They want to invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter that would authorize economic sanctions or even military action. Russia and China, the other two permanent Security Council members, oppose such action.

Iran has important links with Moscow. The Russian-Iranian contract for the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant was signed in 1995. Their geopolitical concerns in the Caucasus and Central Asia – to fight both US influence and Sunni fundamentalism – coincide. Iran is a preferential client of Russian weapons – including anti-aircraft systems capable of protecting Iran’s nuclear installations from US strikes.

The Iranian regime does not take Bush’s “regime change” rhetoric seriously (see What’s really happening in Tehran, April 26). But even if there were a military attack, the regime is sure it would make Washington pay a very heavy price – in Iraq, Palestine and the oil markets.

Western accusations aside, most observers assert that Iran would not be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon for at least the next five years. But the Revolutionary Guards, which are in operational charge of the nuclear program, may believe Iran could approach this development without incurring excessive risk. They, but not necessarily the theocratic leadership, may be convinced that only as a nuclear-weapons state will they be able to counter a US attack.

Is there a way out of this fatalistic scenario? Yes, there is.

The way out would depend on Iran’s theocratic nationalism reaching an agreement among the factions vying for power in Tehran. In essence, there has to be a consensus that for the national interest, Iran does not need a nuclear bomb; what it needs is to export its wealth of natural gas. And no customer would be happier to buy it than Europe.

Enno Harks, a senior fellow on energy and resources at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and Friedmann Muller, head of the research group Global Issues at the same institute, were both in Tehran recently for an energy conference. Their studies and conclusions are important to understanding what’s at stake in the convoluted relationship between the European Union and Iran and how ostracizing and sanctioning Iran may turn out to be yet another case of the EU shooting itself in the foot.

Muller emphasizes that 10 of the current 25 EU member states depend on Russia for more than 50% of their total natural-gas supplies, and five of them for 100%. France, Germany and Italy import between 25% and 50% each. Muller is doing nothing but echoing a fierce ongoing debate in Brussels on whether the EU’s dependence on Russian gas is desirable and sustainable – in terms of security as well as politically.

Harks points out how Europe today is by far the world’s biggest natural-gas import market – and will remain so at least until 2030. According to projections by the International Energy Agency, by 2030 North America will import just less than 200 billion cubic meters of gas a year, China/India some 85 billion cubic meters and Europe more than 530 billion cubic meters. “Europe thus amounts to almost double the two regions added together,” said Harks.

Muller notes how Russia is fiercely pushing a so-called Eurasian Natural Gas Alliance, “the purpose of which is to channel as large a portion of natural-gas supply as possible via the post-Soviet pipeline network and thus to monopolize the European natural-gas market.”

Harks said that “according to the optimistic scenario in the Russian energy strategy to 2020, gas exports to Western Europe will rise by only approximately 30 billion cubic meters over the period.” And even these projections are not assured because they involve the successful development and financing of at least one of two giant northern Russian fields.

Then there’s the intractable problem of Russia’s grip on Central Asian gas. As Harks explains it, “Long-term gas-supply contracts between Russia and Turkmenistan at far below market price give Russia some leeway concerning their own production decline and export contracts. But at the same time, they will delay domestic gas-market reform – a situation that will seriously constrain necessary investment in Russia and reduce its export potential to Europe.”

In short, Russia by itself will not solve Europe’s gas thirst, especially because Russia also wants to export heavily to both China and Japan.

So Europe will have to find the gas it needs somewhere else – North Africa and the Caribbean, for instance. But most of all it will need Iran. Iran holds 15% of total world proven gas reserves – positioned only behind Russia. It is much closer to Europe than the West Siberian gas fields, and eventually it could share a border with the EU itself (should Turkey be accepted as a member).

Iran and Qatar hold the second- and third-largest reserves in the world. This means that in tandem they have more natural gas than Russia. For the moment, as a practical matter, they do not export to Europe. There are no pipelines – at least none yet; and liquefied natural gas (LNG) has to be transported by long sea routes or aboard expensive small tankers.

Muller is adamant; natural-gas production is cheaper in Iran, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and even North Africa (in other countries apart from Algeria) than in Western Siberia. As Muller explained, “The excessive infrastructure linking Siberia to Europe is a product of the Cold War. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this argument no longer carries any weight.”

The smoking (gas) gun

Harks is convinced Iran is the best solution for Europe’s energy problem, diversifying supply sources that up until now have in essence been Russia (65% of imports) and Algeria (25% of imports). Together, Russia and Algeria hold barely 30% of the worlds’s natural-gas reserves – “while around 80% of reserves are located within a 4,000-kilometer radius of Central Europe,” said Muller.

The Holy Grail is a branch of “Pipelineistan” from Iran to Europe: the Nabucco Gas Pipeline Project, sponsored by an Austrian company, OMV (which is a small European player in the business), and tentatively scheduled to start operating in 2011. What is needed above all is “greater political will on both the Iranian and European sides,” said Muller. An enlarged Nabucco pipeline could transport not only Iranian but also Azerbaijani, Turkmen and even Qatari gas to Europe.

Harks warns that such an approach would “contradict long-term US containment policy on one side and Russia’s inherent dreams of a Central Asian gas alliance on the other.” But it could be a win-win situation for both Europe and Iran. Brussels has to act fast – otherwise China will spare no effort to get all that gas for its own gargantuan needs. And Tehran has to act fast – otherwise the Bush administration’s war logic may prevail.