Iraq and Afghanistan may seem problem enough, but this threat is too big to ignore. Only concerted sanctions will work.
By David Aaronovitch
December 1, 2009
The Iranian bomb is beginning to feel like one of those horrible things you saw coming all along, but never felt quite able to stop. It reminds me of the fall of Zimbabwe into its late Mugabe phase — all the elements were there, but you kept hoping that he would see sense, or be deposed or something. In three years or five, maybe there will be pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader reviewing a march-past of his nuclear rocketry, while we wonder how it all happened.
We will get to this place, first, via the “wasn’t”, as in the Iranian regime probably “wasn’t” developing a nuclear weapon, or there “wasn’t” any utterly conclusive evidence that they were. Readers with long memories will recall the relief that greeted the reporting of the publication in 2007 of the US National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE, we were told, seemed to suggest that the Iranians had shut down their nuclear weapons programme in 2003-04 but had been reluctant to prove it to anyone for capricious reasons of their own. Almost all the people who had originally disbelieved the intelligence suggesting the existence of WMD in Iran and Iraq now firmly believed the spooks. And most of those who had trusted their every warning before were now pretty sceptical.
Whatever the truth about the weapons’ existence, it was argued that Iran didn’t have a “weaponisable capability”, so that even if a warhead could be produced out of all this newly and unnecessarily enriched uranium, the mullocracy wouldn’t actually be able — ceteris paribus — to attach a firework to a stick and send it fizzing towards the enemies of the Islamic Republic.
I sense this confidence has taken a knock. Once you have the rider, most experts seem to agree, training the steed is mostly a matter of time. So it was with just about all the other nuclear nations, and now there are suggestions from different sources that Iran is indeed researching a weapons capability. Far more convincing than mere spookery was the forced admission by the Iranians in September of a hidden 3,000 centrifuge mountain plant near Qom. That was followed by their more brazen announcement this week of building plans for another ten enrichment plants. Since Iran has huge natural energy resources and also the promise of Russian nuclear fuel for any nuclear energy plants, this capacity makes little sense, unless it is either for bombmaking, or to make people think that it is for bombmaking.
This brings us, puffing, into the next station along the way, which is “doesn’t” — as in it “doesn’t” really matter that much if Iran gets a bomb. A rhetorical — but irrelevant — companion to this argument is that it is hypocritical to complain about an Iranian bomb when the French and Brits (not to mention the Israelis) have bombs of their own. To which one can only admit that, yes it is a bit, but that (a) there are historical reasons for this that would take some unpicking and (b) the solution, as suggested in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, would be to lose nuclear weapon capacity rather than to spread it to every nation that feels inclined to own H-bombs of its very own.
More relevant is the view that the risk from a mullah missile is much less than the risk of trying to prevent it. This argument tends to emphasise the sophisticated — no, exquisite — system of checks and balances imagined to exist within Iran, which might prevent any wild-eyed fundamentalist getting his millennarian hands on the ultimate millennarian weapon. According to this view President Ahmadinejad and his ilk are either far more pragmatic than his map-wiping rhetoric might suggest, or else are constrained by much wiser, almost invisible forces inhabiting the bodies of unseen grey-bearded clerics.
Like many people, even if I can’t buy “wasn’t”, then I have a desire to go along with “doesn’t”. The feeling of mission fatigue in this country and in the US is palpable. We almost lack the spare mental capacity to consider how to deal with the difficult “other”. We have intervened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. We have agonised over Gaza and Lebanon. We have debated Darfur and Zimbabwe. It is all so difficult, so intractable, that the easiest answer seems to be to withdraw, to let things alone, to hope that they will go away. The hope can direct us towards the preferred answer; it is more comfortable to believe that it won’t matter that much if Iran does get nuclear weapons. No one, after all, has dropped a bomb since Nagasaki.
I could share this feeling but for two things. The first is that there was very nearly a nuclear exchange betwen Pakistan and India on May 27, 1998, and I am far from convinced that we won’t come to regret the South Asian bomb. The second is that the future of Iran is far from clear. Take this straw in the wind: last week the Canadian-Iranian film-maker, Maziar Bahari, who was arrested and imprisoned for 118 days after last June’s protests in Iran, gave an account of his treatment at the hands of the regime. Already we know that “Green” protesters were tortured, raped, made to sign false confessions and to take part in show trials facing concocted charges. What Bahari told us was that his interrogators were not working for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence but for the intelligence division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
The significance of this was that it constituted new evidence that the Revolutionary Guard have become a parallel security state within Iran, their physical pre-eminence compensating for the political weakening of Mr Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Do our calculations about the Iranian bomb survive its effective possession by the Revolutionary Guard?
There is no grand military option in Iran, only the near-fantasy of the “surgical strike” in which the uranium enrichment programme is destroyed and, along with it, almost certainly, the Iranian democratic movement.
But there is still one possibility that could rule out both military action and the spectre of the Guard Bomb. That one possibility is united international action to impose targeted sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and their political backers, and on the nuclear programme. It would mean agreement by the Russians, the Chinese, the Germans, the French, the Americans and us to occupy a single position.
Otherwise we could find ourselves facing some great terrible future Chilcot inquiry in which we seek to answer how it was that we failed to stop the last, worst Middle East war.