The developing crisis over Iran’s decision to resume its nuclear fuel cycle program is potentially very dangerous.
The present hardline government in Teheran came to power after elections which can hardly be described as either free or fair. Only candidates approved by the Shi’a hierarchy - which, since the Islamic revolution, has had a powerful position written into the country’s constitution - were permitted to stand.
In the first years of this century, it appeared as though the clerical grip on the country might be slipping, but in the end supporters of a more secular and liberal regime (not to be confused with a pro-western stance, unpopular across the Iranian political spectrum) lost heart, due to persistent clerical interference in the political process. Many of these people failed to vote at the last elections because candidates they might have supported were prevented from standing.
The rhetoric of new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Israel and the alleged non-occurrence of the Holocaust has been widely noted and is certainly unhelpful in the Arab-Israeli conflict (especially because Iran wields influence among Lebanon’s significant Shi’a population). But it is the renewed pursuit of nuclear energy which is the real cause for international concern.
Iran insists that it wishes to develop nuclear power for civilian applications only, and that it has the same right to do so as anyone else. For many countries one could accept that this is a credible, if not necessarily welcome, choice. But not for Iran, which has major oil reserves and therefore has less reason than most states to turn to the dubious benefits of civilian nuclear power. Coupled with the advent of a clerically-influenced and approved government, the resumption of nuclear activity in Iran can only fuel deep concern as to the country’s intentions.
The US also couples the nuclear issue with Iran’s relatively modest ballistic missile development program. Both Iran and Iraq used missiles in their bloody 1980s war. Iran has developed short and medium-range ballistic missiles, but (American claims notwithstanding) there is little real evidence that it is anywhere near achieving a functional intercontinental-range missile (ICBM), the only type that could credibly threaten the US or other western states with the delivery of nuclear warheads.
Though shorter-range missiles could threaten Israel, it is not easy to envision circumstances in which Iran could safely employ nuclear weapons there. For one thing, given the small size of the Jewish areas of Israel, high delivery accuracy is required: an “on the cheap” missile will not be good enough. For another, even accurate delivery would inevitably create nuclear fallout which would likely impact on Palestinian areas and neighbouring states. Finally, if Israel were attacked with nuclear weapons, it has the capacity to respond in spades, even if the US refrained from doing so.
I have pointed out in On Line Opinion before that one need not be an especially paranoid Iranian to feel hemmed in at present. There is a large American army in Iraq, on Iran’s western border and a smaller US force active in Afghanistan, on the east. In these circumstances a wide spectrum of Iranian opinion rightly or wrongly sees nuclear weapons as insurance.
In fact, for Iran it is the kind of insurance that carries risks greater than those it is supposed to guard against. While it is most improbable that Washington would even contemplate an Iraq-style invasion and conquest - the US forces are already overextended - Iran is a big country and would (as Hitler was told about Sweden, when he toyed with the idea of invading that country) “fight like hell”. Such an operation would most likely be a bloody disaster for the US. But the option of American strikes specifically against Iranian nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out.
Like the famous Israeli strike against the main Iraqi nuclear facility over 20 years ago, strikes on Iranian nuclear plants would need to be executed before these plants (especially breeder reactors and weapons-grade enrichment facilities) came on stream. This is so because of the risk of massive pollution if functioning facilities were destroyed and also to prevent Iran creating a stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear material.
It will be apparent that this situation dovetails all too well with the Bush administration’s attachment to “pre-emption”, even where the reasons (as with Iraq) prove to be spurious, if not indeed deliberately exaggerated. Thus, beyond the diplomatic option of referral to the UN Security Council - a course I suspect will produce much heat but no effective results in terms of deflecting Iran from its chosen course - there is a very real danger that Iran may find its nuclear facilities attacked by the Americans. The regional and global consequences of such an act are hard to predict in detail, but it should be clear that they will not include enhanced stability.
Quite literally, in pursuing the nuclear option - even if, as it claims with limited credibility, its motives really are purely peaceful - Iran is playing with fire. It is highly unlikely that this course will enhance the country’s security, and much more probable that it will provoke pre-emptive US action to the detriment both of Iran and of the entire region. The hardline regime would therefore be well-advised to find less dangerous ways of asserting its independence and sovereignty. Resources used for nuclear programs could, for example, go into further strengthening Iran’s already formidable conventional military defensive capabilities, making the country an even tougher nut to crack than it already is and enhancing its regional political and diplomatic influence. This may be a very “conventional” approach, but it is far safer for all concerned than the present flirtation with the nuclear genie.
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