Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Telegraph | Opinion | The scariest prospect of all: Iran with the bomb

By Edward Luttwak
(Filed: 23/01/2005)

President Bush, during his inauguration speech last week, promised that he would "spread freedom to the darkest corners of the world". There were some among his world-wide audience to whom that sounded like a threat: we will invade your country unless you change your government to one which we think supports freedom.

The Iranians probably head the list of those feeling threatened. Relations between the United States and Iran, never exactly warm, have been freezing since 2002 when the Iranians were caught concealing from the International Atomic Energy Authority large parts of their programme to build a nuclear bomb. Vice President Richard Cheney followed up the President's address by insisting that Iran was "at the top of the world's trouble spots". He added that "everybody would be best suited if we could deal with [the problem of Iran] diplomatically". But he left the strong impression that if diplomacy failed, military action would follow.

There are certainly good reasons for believing that the Bush administration is considering the possibility of air strikes. Iran is ruled by fiercely reactionary clerics under the "supreme guide" Ayatollah Khameini. Between them, they have reduced the elected civilian government of President Khatami to almost total impotence. Khameini is pushing Iran down a more radically fundamentalist path than even Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic revolution in Iran, ever contemplated. Ayatollah Khomeini tolerated civilian government. He was not so restrictive in deciding who could stand for election in Iran's parliament. He never persecuted the hundreds of thousands of Iran's Muslims who practise a different variety of Shi'ism to that aproved by the ruling orthodoxy. Khameini, however, has declared all those people heretics, and started bullying them mercilessly. Abroad, the clique around Khameini funds suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq.

None of this would matter, however, if Ayatollah Khameini wasn't also determined to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Some members of the government have even boasted how they would use them: to destroy Israel. "Islam could survive the retaliation," they insist, "but Israel would be gone forever." The thought of ayatollahs with nuclear bombs should terrify everyone – especially in Europe, because the Iranians could soon put those bombs on the top of rockets that could reach European capitals.

The French, the Germans and the British have been trying to use diplomacy to persuade the Iranians to stop their nuclear programme. They have offered Iran technological help (building non-nuclear power plants, for example) if only it will abandon its project to build a bomb and agree to unannounced, on-site inspections from the IAEA. Khameini's men have indignantly responded that it would be "against our principles" to acquire a nuclear bomb – but refuse to agree to unannounced inspections or to allow the IAEA to enter their "research reactor" at Parchim near Teheran.

In fact, the Iranians already have a plant which will produce weapons-grade uranium under construction at Natanz. They have a heavy water facility, a large "nuclear technology centre" at Isfahan, and another at Parchim. The mullahs are still negotiating a deal with the Europeans to end their nuclear programme, but the bellicose rhetoric from America is probably all that keeps them talking.

If Iran is to be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, effective diplomatic or military action will have to come soon. Production facilities can be bombed but once actual weapons are assembled, locating and destroying them will become next to impossible. And Iran will then be in a position to threaten not just Israel, but all of our oil-producing Arab allies.

When the Israelis bombed Saddam Hussein's nuclear research centre at Osirak in 1981, they were universally condemned. The Americans showed their displeasure by cancelling arms sales. But the raid on Osirak prevented Saddam from acquiring a nuclear arsenal, a fact that the Americans and the world fully recognised when weapons inspectors went into Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. If Saddam had had nuclear weapons in 1991, it would have been impossible to dislodge him from Kuwait. Able to intimidate Saudi Arabia, he would have had decisive power over Middle East oil. That propsect persuaded America, and most of the world, that Israel had done the right thing in bombing Osirak in 1981.

Unless European diplomacy obtains real guarantees from Iran, President Bush will soon have to decide to do to Iran what the Israelis did to Iraq. If he decides to attack, he will not announce it in advance: just a television broadcast the following morning announcing a job done. The "international community" will denounce the raid hysterically in public while approving of it whole-heartedly in private.

Conventional wisdom says that bombing Iran would lead to Iranians rallying round their government. I am not sure that would happen in today's Iran. Its rulers' bizarre combination of rigid religious conservatism, blatant corruption and economic incompetence has made them exceptionally unpopular. Half of the population is not Persian – and many of them would view an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities not as an attack upon them, but on their imperialist rulers. Even the Persian majority may not want their hated clerical despots to control nuclear bombs. A raid on nuclear sites, nearly all of which are in remote locations, may not provoke the population to rally round their rulers but, of course, the Iranian government would not collapse. Some form of retaliation would be inevitable.

The second Bush Administration wants to repair relations across the Atlantic. Joint action with Europeans – who offer the carrot, while the US threatens the stick – is part of that. If European diplomacy fails to persuade the clerics to abandon nuclear weapons, the American threat might. And if the Americans end up wavering, the Israelis might well step in and do the job. The truth is that nuclear- armed ayatollahs are unacceptable in Europe, America and Israel. Even the clerics, in their calmer and more rational moments, must know that accepting rewards for freezing Iran's nuclear programme is a better deal than getting bombed. But Iran will elect a new president on June 17. The campaign has just started. It is not the best of times for calm rationality.

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# posted by International@jomhouri.com @ 10:18 AM
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