This article first appeared in the 12 June 2008 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
It is time for the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear programme – if Tehran obtains nuclear weapons, the Middle East will self-destruct.
President Bush and EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso emphasised the use of diplomacy to tackle the nuclear threat from Iran at their summit in Slovenia this week. The EU signalled its support for the US tactic of putting pressure on Iranian banks – which worked well for the United States in its dealings with North Korea.
Barack Obama’s pledge of June 4th to use “all elements of American power” to eliminate Iran’s nuclear threat shows that there will be no presidential interregnum for Iranian neo-conservatives to exploit. The threat is serious. Last month’s report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog expressed “serious concern” about Iran (extraordinarilyy strong words, by its standards), mentioned potential Iranian work on nuclear warheads for the first time, and said that “contrary to the decisions of the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities”.
The report highlighted the possibility that Iran was learning to make faster and more efficient centrifuges, following secret research and development. This means that Iran may be producing enriched uranium – needed to make nuclear weapons – sooner than expected. At a briefing of the IAEA board, the head of safeguards, Olli Heinonen, presented detailed documentation suggesting Iran was involved in studies that would not make sense for conventional weapons.
The tragedy is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which has been slowly eroding for some time, due to the activities of North Korea and Iran, a core flaw itself which enables a country to get within six to eight weeks of having a nuclear weapon while still observing the strict provisions of the treaty, and the absence of progress on Comprehensive Nuclear Disarmament, is now receiving some positive boosts.
Unfortunately, if Iran continues on its nuclear path, the NPT will be buried in the sands of the Middle East. A report published last month Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East In the Shadow of Iran brings us up to date on a worsening situation, as seen by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “In the span of 11 months between February 2006 and January 2007, at least 13 countries in the Middle East announced new or revised plans to pursue or explore civilian nuclear energy.”
Why? The single most salient factor, however, is Iran. Although Iran claims to seek only peaceful applications of nuclear energy, the historical secrecy of its nuclear programme, its multiple violations of IAEA safeguards, the military connections, the illogic of uranium-enrichment for a small fledgling programme and Iran’s insistence on pursuing sensitive technologies in the face of UN Security Council mandates to suspend them lead most of Iran’s neighbours, like much of the rest of the world, to assess that it is attempting to acquire at least a nuclear-weapons capability. The prospect of a nuclear Iran is unwelcome, albeit to different degrees, to other Middle Eastern states – whether Arab, Jewish or Turkish – most of which lie within the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles . . . If Iran’s nuclear programme is unchecked there is reason for concern that it could in time prompt a regional cascade of proliferation among Iran’s neighbours.”
The IISS’s overall conclusion on Iranian activities is sobering: “All signs indicate that Iran is moving towards an advanced latent nuclear capability by openly mastering industrial-level enrichment and claiming that there is a peaceful programme under the NPT”.
The NPT will collapse if Iran’s neighbours respond with nuclear weapons programmes or if Israel declares its own nuclear weapons or actually attacked Iran. The Arab League announced on March 5th, 2008, that if Israel acknowledged having nuclear weapons then all Arab states would collectively withdraw from the NPT Treaty. Preventing such an announcement by Israel, or a possible attack by it on Iranian nuclear facilities is therefore crucial.
The Bush administration has become mainly passive on this issue and is unlikely to take any major action. Some observers worry about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran between November 4 when the US presidential election is held and January 20, 2009 when the new president is inaugurated. The international community would be unwise to assume that Israel will not act. In a poll published in Israel in September 2006, 79% of Israeli Jews believed that Iran posed a genuine threat to Israel’s existence while another poll published two months later found that 66% of Israeli Jews were convinced that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon and would try to use it against Israel.
In these circumstances it is vital that the international community act now. In this effort it can be led by Ireland (a strong supporter of the NPT), France (a strong opponent of nuclear proliferation) and Germany (with its commitment to the state of Israel and connections with Iran). This group of states, with the support of the UN Security Council, needs to encourage and pressurise Iran and the US to reach an accommodation through the dialogue as recommended by Barack Obama.
Any deal with Iran is going to require a “grand bargain” with the US focusing on regime security” as opposed to “regime change”. This approach, however unpalatable, is supported by Iranian pro-democracy opposition groups. It is the only real option remaining – a military or nuclear strike would not be successful due to the large number of sites involved, the likely existence of unknown, secret or underground targets, and the likelihood of unacceptable collateral damage in every sense of the word.
While the Iranian ruling neo-conservatives may eventually say No to any deal whatsoever, continuing the current ineffectual effort is the equivalent of the international community fiddling while ongoing Iranian uranium enrichment slowly but surely turns the NPT into ashes. Doing nothing is not an option now.