Editor’s Notes: Iran: The moment of truth

By David Horovitz February 25, 2005

The nuclear order that has held since the late 1960s is crumbling before our eyes

For a few frenzied hours on February 16, TV news shows worldwide carried hysterical reports of an apparent attack on an Iranian nuclear facility, with speculation focusing primarily on the US and secondarily on Israel as the responsible party. Only hours earlier, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had asserted that Teheran would have the knowhow to build a nuclear bomb within six months.

Within a very short time, the reports were being corrected. The blast, an Iranian government spokesman explained, was a routine detonation related to ‘dam- building operations.’ Iran was not under assault. This was no repeat of 1981, when Israeli planes destroyed Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osirak and punctured his nuclear aspirations forever. The panic, plainly, was over.

Except that the panic isn’t over. It was merely premature. The moment of truth hasn’t yet arrived. But it’s not far off now.

The nuclear order that has held since the late 1960s is crumbling before our eyes. Technological barriers are no longer insurmountable. There are new suppliers – states and individuals – fuelling black markets with sophisticated material to sell. In this regard, North Korea and Pakistan have been what is depressingly described as ‘inhibition free.’ The supply network established by Pakistani bomb- architect AQ Khan has metastasized and is believed to have traded with more than 20 countries in Latin America, Asia and, of course, the Middle East.

There are ever more diverse motivations to buy and sell nuclear capabilities – greed and corruption and nationalism and religious fervor and anti-Western sentiment among them. Nuclear facilities are harder to detect. (Libya hid centrifuges in houses, mosques and schools.) And the free world’s nuclear watchdog, the United States, is overstretched and trying to reconcile conflicting priorities and interests.

Under the outdated 1960s rules on non-proliferation, nations can legitimately get exceptionally close to nuclear arms – three weeks to three months from the bomb. That’s where Japan is right now, for instance. It has the facilities, it has the material, it has the R&D development – all within the confines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What it can’t do, legitimately, is take that material and marry it with a bomb. (North Korea stayed within the treaty until fall 2003 and then, on the brink of going nuclear, simply withdrew.)

Iran is the most dangerous beneficiary of this untenable state of affairs, its secretive drive to nuclear self-sufficiency having benefitted, furthermore, from horrifying negligence on the part of the International Atomic Energy Agency which was aware of concerns throughout the 1990s and chose to do next-to-nothing to address them.

Year after year, Teheran moved steadily closer to the bomb. Its only mistake, from its leaders’ point of view, is that it got publicly found out when it was still a hurdle or two from forcing the world to accept a fait accompli.

International room for manoeuver viz a viz Teheran, therefore, is now incredibly limited. Indeed the fate of the belated, last-ditch European-led diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to rethink its nuclear drive is likely to be resolved in a series of meetings and assessments in the course of March.

THE IRANIANS have a number of options at present.

Experts believe that they have reached the final technological barrier to working enrichment cascades – the point of no return. They have no problem at all with delivery systems. They could follow a declared nuclear program – go ahead in an explicit breach of the rules, defy the European diplomats and the rest of the world, start producing enriched uranium and on very short notice become a nuclear state. And risk the consequences.

They could proceed along a clandestine route, a route they had no need to consider as long as their declared civilian nuclear program had not been exposed for the drive to a bomb that it most certainly was. They were happily producing parts and perfecting ‘civilian’ technology that could always be applied elsewhere. Now, with core elements of the civilian program suspended, they could resort to secrecy and trickery, with the would-be IAEA and international overseers reduced to playing cat-and-mouse detection games. And risk the consequences.

Or, Gaddafi-style, they could turn the current voluntary purported suspension into a full-fledged commitment to dismantle their nuclear program.

Improbable or not, this last possibility has certainly not been entirely discounted, as the European diplomatic effort underlines. The European hope, endorsed by the US, is that there is a faction in the Iranian leadership which can be persuaded that Teheran’s interests are best served by abandoning the nuclear path; that Teheran can be encouraged to use the ‘leverage’ of halting the program to obtain attractive rewards for its ‘responsible’ stance. Such rewards would include conventional arms sales, trade and technology relations, and, most critically, security guarantees – specifically, a promise from the US to lead no effort at regime change.

Between the stick of possible confrontation, regime change, their own deaths, and the carrot of rehabilitation, it’s anybody’s guess as to which path Iran’s leaders will choose. They are constantly reassessing risks and benefits, and probing for weaknesses and divides between Europe and the US.

They have doubtless listened closely to complaints from the likes of Libya and the Ukraine about having been short-changed in ‘coming clean’ – not receiving the anticipated diplomatic and economic rewards. They have doubtless noted, too, that countries including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Egypt prefer to hedge – to let slip a reminder, when their needs demand, that their commitment to forswear nuke weapons is not a foregone conclusion.

But plainly, if Iran, under the guise of ‘engagement’ with the international community and purported voluntary suspension of its declared program, can still make progress, that has to be a highly tempting avenue. And terrifying for Israel, given the public anticipatory musings of Iran’s leaders about their ability, once they have the bomb, to wipe out Israel and still survive, however badly mauled, the worst conceivable preemptive or counterstrike.

THERE ARE those who argue that going nuclear tames a country – that such dramatic empowerment promotes national self-confidence and reduces recklessness, that there’s a socializing aspect. The US and Soviet Union might be considered cases in point.

That’s a thesis hard to sustain in our region, where emboldened powers might more realistically be expected to swagger about beneath their nuclear umbrella, confident that no one would dare touch them, however outrageous their support for terrorism, their trading in WMD technology.

While vaguely signalling its determination to make life as miserable as possible for Teheran should it persist, Israeli has been uncharacteristically astute in playing the lowest-key role possible as Europe has set about reining in Iran by diplomatic means. For one thing, there’s that adage about people in glass houses. For another, far more importantly, Iran is clearly not solely an Israeli problem, and Israel can derive no benefit from expropriating it.

The fact is that if Iran goes nuclear, the Middle East goes nuclear because other countries jump in. The 1960s nuclear order goes down the tubes altogether and the world becomes a hugely more dangerous place.

Already Syria, having given up on the idea of strategic parity with Israel, looks to both terror and weapons of mass destruction as a means to offset Western and Israeli military might – a means to protect and deter and project power and influence and, again, as a potential source of leverage. (What pressure for compromise might Israel come under from an international community worried by Damascene strides toward nuclear capability?)

The Saudis are seeking an umbrella from Pakistan. Gaddafi set out on the nuclear trail after 1986 [when Tripoli was attacked by the US because of its direct role in terrorism], having concluded then that he was vulnerable because he didn’t have New York or even Europe within destructive range.

Unlike with North Korea, Europe, fortunately, evidently recognizes that it has an immense vested interest in keeping Teheran from the bomb. Unfortunately, realization has dawned very, very late.

Israel does believe that the diplomatic track should be fully explored, and even that there is some prospect of its success, although time is plainly running out.

But underpinning that premature hysteria of 10 days ago is the fact that there is only one answer to the question of whether is Israel reconciled to a nuclear Iran. And that answer is no.

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