This article first appeared in the 12 February 2006 edition of The Sunday Business Post and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
With its role in the global protests over Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed and its ongoing nuclear programme, Iran seems determined to send a message to the west.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s referral of Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear activities has left many in the international community fearing an imminent crisis.
At the same time, public and diplomatic attention has been diverted by the bloody protests over the Danish cartoons – some clearly provoked by Iran.
Non ‘great power’ states seek nuclear weapons either for survival or for prestige and bargaining power. Those which have sought nuclear weapons for survival include Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.
Other states, such as India, have pursued nuclear weapons for political status and to give them bargaining power.
Iran falls into this category and it has pursued its nuclear programme for decades, starting during the reign of the Shah. Though Iran is some years away from having the ability to make a nuclear weapon, the decision to go for a weapons programme is dangerously close to the point of no return.
Iran’s industry and its military will benefit from a nuclear weapons programme and are coalescing around the push to acquire the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon. This bureaucratic pressure is supported by conservatives, moderates and the student movement in Iran.
Once that point of no return is passed, any negotiations are going to be much more difficult.
The best solution to the crisis would be a grand bargain between Iran and the US, supported by the EU, China, India, Japan and Russia.
In return for security guarantees and the promise of no enforced regime change, Iran would be expected to co-operate in the long-term stabilisation of Iraq. It would also be required to modify its nuclear programme to eliminate the international community’s concerns, but it would be allowed to develop nuclear power.
There would also be benefits with respect to the so-called war on terror. However unlikely it may appear, Iran is a natural ally in this struggle. It is a primarily Shiite state targeted by supporters of al-Qaeda, who believe that there is a world conspiracy against them on the part of Jews, Christians and Shiites.
The political will and vision to agree such a bargain appears to be lacking in both Iran and the US at this time. Yet, Iran did approach the US in 2003 for an accommodation, and has co-operated with the Americans on Afghanistan, so an agreement may not be impossible.
The other, more pressing, concern is that time is running out – the closer Iran gets to building a nuclear weapon, the more difficult any bargain will be. It does not necessarily follow that failure to reach a bargain will mean nuclear war between Iran and Israel, the existence of which Iran refuses to recognise.
According to the most recent briefing published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Israel has up to 200 nuclear warheads. It has plenty of time to ensure that they are properly dispersed and stored which, together with Israel’s missile defence systems, would mean that Iran could not be certain of destroying its nuclear weapons.
In those circumstances, the core concept of deterrence would apply – the fear on the part of Iran that any nuclear attack by it would inevitably lead to its own destruction. But there are other dangers – Iran getting nuclear weapons would increase the likelihood of an end to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and Gulf.
Other states in the region which would feel threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf states. If some of these states go nuclear, the possibility of nuclear weapons being used or falling into the hands of terrorists increases dramatically.
To prevent such a scenario, targeted sanctions are likely to be used to inhibit Iran’s nuclear programme. But they would take time to bite and could drive the people of Iran into the hands of their rulers – which would radicalise the region even further.