It has been clear for several years that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran claims that its nuclear programme is “peaceful” but it has long been investing substantial resources in enriching uranium, a crucial material for making a nuclear weapon, to a level for which it has no civilian use. Iran’s only nuclear power plant, Bushehr, came on line in September 2011. It was built by Russia and uses Russian-supplied fuel rods. Bushehr cannot use the enriched uranium that Iran is producing in ever larger quantities. Nor is Iran building any other nuclear power stations that could use this material.
Iran has defied multiple United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolutions regarding its nuclear activities and failed to cooperate fully with inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body tasked with ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In fact, Iran has consistently sought to conceal its activities from the IAEA by hiding them in series of clandestine sites, in contravention of the international agreements to which it is a party. Despite Iran’s evasions, the IAEA has uncovered considerable evidence of its development of nuclear weapons technology.
The only plausible conclusion from this evidence is that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability. This is of great concern to most of the world because Iran is a militant theocracy with a record of exporting its ideology and conducting terrorist actions overseas. It has adversarial relations with several of its neighbours and its acquisition of a nuclear capability would trigger an arms race across the Middle East, a region that scarcely needs any further destabilisation. The increasingly acrimonious split in the region between the Shia (of which Iran sees itself as the leader) and Sunni traditions of Islam would be exacerbated by adding nuclear weapons to the equation.
The country with the most direct grounds for concern about a nuclear armed Iran is Israel. Various Iranian leaders, including the President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, have issued existential threats against Israel and Iran has long backed Israel’s most violent opponents. This has encouraged the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to declare that he might soon order the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu’s posture, however, does not attract widespread support in Israel. A recent poll showed that 61% of Jewish Israelis oppose a unilateral strike against Iran.
Netanyahu’s posture, however, does not attract widespread support in Israel. A recent poll showed that 61% of Jewish Israelis oppose a unilateral strike against Iran. Prominent opponents of precipitous military action range from the predictable, such as the internationally celebrated, left of centre novelist, David Grossman, to the unprecedented, like the hard-line former Director of Israel’s famously ruthless Mossad intelligence service, Meir Dagan.
Netanyahu’s domestic opponents have voiced various suspicions about his reasons for being so bellicose about Iran. One is that it serves as a useful way of distracting attention from his obstruction of the peace process with the Palestinians. More esoterically, Netanyahu is accused of harbouring a “messianic complex” and seeking to seal his place in Israeli history by defeating the threat from Iran. He also has a terrible relationship with US President Obama and has scarcely hidden his preference for a Republican victory in the November Presidential election. Many of his critics suspect that his demands for a US commitment to join Israel in attacking Iran are an attempt to influence the election outcome. If true, this would be a risky strategy in the extreme because Israel is heavily politically, militarily and financially reliant on the US and can ill-afford to poison the relationship.
The US and its other allies, including the UK, are keeping the military option open. But they are scrupulously avoiding setting deadlines for Iran and getting locked into commitments to attack. For them, military action against Iran is the last resort because it would be extremely complicated, bloody and costly. There is no guarantee that a military attack would do anything more than delay, rather than eliminate, Iran’s nuclear programme. Even if – and it is a big if - all of the carefully concealed physical sites, some of which are buried deep underground, could be hit successfully, the nuclear knowledge already acquired by Iran cannot be bombed out of existence.
Some of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located close to major population centres and bombing them would almost certainly cause numerous civilian casualties. Iran is also a much bigger country than, for example Iraq or Libya. It has larger, much more capable military forces and surrogate organisations such as Hezbollah that could be used to foment widespread chaos. In addition, conflict with a nation that has the capacity to block the supply of 20% of the world’s oil resources would cause fuel prices to sky rocket. That prospect is deeply unappealing to global leaders at a time when the world is still struggling to emerge from the economic crisis.
The US and its other allies, including the UK, are keeping the military option open. But they are scrupulously avoiding setting deadlines for Iran and getting locked into commitments to attack.
As a result, most of the world remains committed to pursuing a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, led by the “E3+3” group (the UK, France and Germany plus the US, Russia and China). Fortunately, many analysts believe that Iran is not as close to successfully manufacturing a nuclear weapon as Netanyahu claims. International sanctions are exerting ever greater pressure on Iran’s economy in an attempt to persuade the country that its nuclear programme is not worth the cost. The programme is also being disrupted by computer viruses and a series of mysterious deaths of important participants in it. These pressures may eventually induce Iran to engage seriously in negotiations with the E3+3.
Notwithstanding the possibility of unilateral action by the Israeli government, this pattern of Iranian defiance, increased international pressure short of open warfare and stalled negotiations is likely to continue for some months yet. The huge risk thereafter is that the Israeli government’s patience will snap or that the Iranians will underestimate the ultimate determination of the US and its allies to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon. The consequences of a military conflict, if it comes to that, are difficult to predict but could make the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look like minor scuffles.
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