Thursday 25 November 2004    


The Week


Andrew Gilligan says that Iran will probably have a nuclear bomb within five years, but that does not make the country a threat to us


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Issue: 27 November 2004
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The case for not attacking Iran

Do the last few days remind you of anything, by any chance? Presidential heavy breathing about a ‘rogue’ Middle Eastern state; a supporting chorus of exiles with dramatic new claims; and a senior member of the US government bearing intelligence which turns out to be more spin than spine-chilling. Less than a month after the presidential election, the Bush White House has begun its campaign against Iran. In the week that Americans break for Thanksgiving, it might seem that, for Washington, the festival of the moment should really be Groundhog Day.

Yet while the methods and timing are about as surprising as a delay on the Tube, and while we may be tempted to say that all the neocons have done is to change the ‘q’ to an ‘n’ in the name of the target, there are excellent reasons not to dismiss the latest American sabre-rattling.

This time there really can be very little doubt that Iran has weapons of mass destruction, chemical and probably biological, and that it wants to obtain something even more destructive, a nuclear weapon, in fairly short order. In 2002, Tehran was forced to own up to enriching uranium, an important prerequisite for the development of a nuke, at a secret plant called Nantaz. Not incontrovertible proof of anything: indeed, the Iranians said it was for civil use. But Iran has the Middle East’s third largest oil and gas reserves, and does not need nuclear electricity. Why, also, was Nantaz kept secret, in defiance of Iran’s international treaty obligations, if its purpose was entirely peaceful?

Since that dramatic discovery, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear inspectorate, has had several other unpleasant surprises in the Islamic Republic. Inspectors have been repeatedly misled, sometimes directly, sometimes by omission; other secret facilities have not been declared; promises and undertakings have been broken; and the history of the last two years has been of constant Iranian brinksmanship, with agreements we thought we’d signed having to be re-agreed later. Even this week, as the Iranians agreed to suspend enrichment under the threat of referral to the UN Security Council, they insisted that it would only be temporary.

An obscure substance, polonium 210, may become as familiar to us in the next few months as were the now-forgotten Iraqi buzz words of the Tuwaitha weapons plant, the al-Dawra vaccine factory and the al-Hussein conventional missile. Polonium 210 is an unstable element whose only real use is as an initiator for a nuclear weapon. The UN has discovered that it has been produced in Iran. (Tehran says it is for nuclear batteries to be used in the country’s space programme, which is not yet operational.)

Buoyed by high oil revenues, Iran’s nuclear programme has seldom been so flush. The Israelis say that Iran could have the bomb within a year. It is unlikely to be that early, but most experts agree that if the programme continues, the mullahs will be nuclear within five years. The striking thing, really, is no longer the concealment; it is Iran’s relative openness, even brazenness, about its atomic ambitions. It knows exactly the calculations which we in the West are making, and it wants us to carry on making them.

Politically, the picture is equally bleak. Iran is no Saddam-style tyranny, but the reform movement which gave such hope of a rapprochement with the West in the 1990s is at a desperately low ebb. The moderniser, Mohammad Khatami, remains as Prime Minister, but has effectively lost his struggle with the religious conservatives. In this year’s parliamentary elections, they managed to get a quarter of the candidates — and 87 of the sitting MPs — disqualified for being too progressive. A mass reformist boycott, a sullen electorate and a low turnout saw substantial conservative gains. Iran’s hardline rulers have now embarked on what some call a ‘modified China model’. Petty social restrictions on things like women’s dress have been eased, to reduce pressure for change — but political repression remains as strong as ever.

Iran continues to sponsor terrorism, although not against the West. It was an Iranian-made arsenal that was found on the Karine A, the ship caught by Israel on a smuggling run, allegedly to the Palestinian Authority, possibly to Hezbollah. The arms had been loaded at an Iranian port. As far as the Israelis were concerned, the Karine A wrote the death warrant for the Palestinian peace process.

Yet should this mean that Iran is just Iraq with one of the letters changed? Absolutely not. Except in the minds of the most hysterical hawks, a capability does not constitute a threat. A threat arises when there is capability plus intention. And there is no evidence that Iran has the intention to attack us. Iran’s relative flaunting of its nuclear ambitions may even, in one sense, be reassuring: it suggests that the bomb is regarded as a deterrent, or perhaps even a bargaining chip, rather than as an offensive weapon.

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