In the last weeks we have witnessed a media campaign – which at least seems to some extent orchestrated – demonising the Islamic Republic of Iran and describing its leadership as an imminent threat to stability in the region and most of all toIsrael. In the centre of the debate is the allegedly imminent capability by the Iranians to build a nuclear device. What is more – it is argued that the ‘Hitler-like President Ahmadi-nejad’ was about to make use of weaponized nuclear devices for the annihilation ofIsrael, thus committing a second holocaust.
In this utterly emotionalised debate assessments by both politicians, the media and parts of the scientific community are somewhat out of proportion. Indeed, Iran is governed by a repressive authoritarian regime that limits basic freedoms of its citizens and is weak in providing modest prosperity due to incompetence, inefficiency, corruption and graft. Furthermore, Iran does pursue an aggressive and subversive regional strategy stirring sectarian strife in Iraq, undermining the Lebanese government and arming the Sunni Hamas in the Palestinian lands. Having such a regime acquiring nuclear weapons does raise concern. But is this threat of a rogue regime with nuclear weapons at its hands imminent?
First of all, Iran is not about to have a nuclear device, let alone a nuclear warhead on top of a medium-range ballistic missile anytime soon. It will take at least 3-5 years for this to happen. This means, however, that there is no reason for an aggressive rhetoric of urgency and rush. There is still time for a negotiated solution.
In addition, why are we so sure, that Iran were to immediately use its nuclear weapons to annihilate Israel? Iran will be wiped off the map in a retaliation strike by Israel and/or the US if it were foolish enough to attack Israel. If we consider the collective Iranian leadership as rational, this scenario will never take place. Achmadi-nejad is an appalling fool, but he will never have the power to press the button. So even if Iran were to have atomic weapons we could very much think of a regional system of deterrence coming into existence.
The real threat of a nuclear Iran is not about this country having a couple of nuclear weapons. It is about horizontal proliferation of nuclear technology and expertise to other (rogue) regimes and probably non-state actors. And it is about triggering a regional arms race, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey developing nuclear weapons by themselves. These are the threats that should urge the international community to act.
The NPT regime has turned out to be inefficient to tackle with Iranian moves of deception and non-reporting. But how is the international community best to respond? Actually, its current strategy is quite adequate, except for some important details. It’s a strategy of both incentives and sanctions which offers the best chance to engage Iran in intense, long and difficult negotiations. Detrimental, however, is the fact that negotiations on the incentive package are made dependent by most western countries on Iran suspending all enrichment and reprocessing activities, including research activity. Given the fact that the nuclear programme of Iran is a matter of national pride it is not wise to ask them for a disgraceful suspension BEFORE negotiations on a comprehensive deal are going to start. In addition, however, smart multilateral sanctions are still weak – due to the prolonged opposition against tougher measures by Russia and the PRC.
In the best case scenario – and it is by no means sure that this strategy will work out – negotiations will result in allowing the Iranians to obtain and preserve the full fuel-cycle with checks and control by the IAEA under the framework of the Additional Protocol. Iran thus will acquire a nuclear option but not a nuclear weapon. The advantage to the international community would be a system of strict controls minimising the threat of horizontal proliferation, which is of greater urgency that to keep Iran non-nuclear.
In a worst case scenario the negotiations will fail, Iran does acquire a few nuclear weapons. Should Israel and/or the US or anyone else preventively take military action to prevent such a development? The answer is negative.
A decapitation strike aimed at regime change would be disastrous. US forces, already stretched thin by the Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, do not have the forces to invade Iran, they would not have the means to control an occupied Iraq. As not even the neocons – except for some religious radicals – are proposing such a plan, this scenario is highly unlikely.
Far more likely is a limited military operation aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities – something large parts of the Israeli politicial and military forces are pushing for, supported by AIPAC lobbyists in Washington. However, preventive air strikes do not destroy nuclear expertise and technology, maybe not even all nuclear facilities – given the fact that the US may not know about all facilities and will not be able to deal with underground production sites with conventional weaponry only. Launching such an attack, however, would trigger Iranian retaliation by military means – against Israel and/or US allies in the region, create economic shockwaves by oil export disruption through the Hormuz Streets and will trigger terrorist activities by thousands of jihadis.
Engagement and negotiations thus seem to be the most promising of all options – which all are not very promising to say the least. If negotiations are to fail and Iran acquires nuclear weapons, containment and deterrence will be enough to deal with it. Preventive action or military regime change however would result in useless bloodshed. There is still time though to proceed with the diplomatic process. Hysterical rhetoric about a nuclear holocaust being imminent does not adequately address the real problems and might just be the moral camouflage for an impending ill-advised military strike against Iranian soil. At the end of the day, Israel’s security has to be preserved, if it is threatened. Launching another war, however, to improve its regional security status and preeminence should be avoided at all cost.