Best to avoid conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions


LAST WEEK, Iran unveiled another accomplishment in its nuclear programme. Both Israel and the United States are speaking openly of possible military confrontation.

The European Union has upped the ante as well, with a new stage of sanctions recently approved. All of this is because “Iran has failed to restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme”.

It will never be able to do so because its programme isn’t exclusively peaceful. So where are we going with all of this?

First, this isn’t another Iraq.

Going on the internationally agreed evidence, there are legitimate concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. Concerns which Iran has repeatedly failed to address when given the opportunity according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a neutral, multilateral body vested with ensuring that nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes.

Serious concerns about a weaponisation programme arose in 2002, when a secret enrichment programme was revealed and, 10 years later, following repeated and thorough inspections, the agency still cannot conclude that Iran is on a purely peaceful path. Neither can Iran – it has experimented with practically every element of the weaponisation process.

And for those who argue that it has a right to do so, Iran forfeited this right when it signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the late 1960s. It has been caught cheating in the most serious area of international peace and security and the case against it is pretty solid. (Take a look at the most recent report of the IAEA’s director general, GOV/2011/65, available on

So what are our options and those of the international community?

As far as we can reliably tell, military action has only ever been employed once to prevent a state from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That was Iraq in 1981, when the Israelis blew up a reactor in Osirak, concerned it might be used for building a bomb.

Iran is much further along the process and its infrastructure is far more diverse and sophisticated. You couldn’t simply blow up the relevant sites because many are buried underground – a lesson learned from Osirak. And we don’t know where they all are. So determining success would be difficult.

Iran has also invested in both tactical and strategic defensive equipment (with defence spending expected to double to over $14 billion this year). To protect one’s own assets and ensure a successful strike, non-nuclear (ie military) facilities would also have to be targeted.

A strike proposed solely against nuclear facilities then would probably escalate into something more. And that is before possible responses from Iran are considered. The list of potential military targets expands again as pre-empting possible retaliation is looked at.

And once areas like the Strait of Hormuz come in to play, as was recently threatened, we are almost certainly talking war. Another war with the Middle East. The third in a decade. And this one after the Arab Spring.

Can Iran be penalised into repenting? Sanctions have never prevented a country from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

A recent and ready example is North Korea, a country in breach of its international obligations from the day it entered into them in 1985. Through very skilful manoeuvring, it strung the international community along for two decades while it developed a weapon. The international community even banned exports of lobsters and luxury yachts to the country in an attempt to bring it back on side. Still it persists.

Sanctions will certainly make it more difficult – they will slow things down. As they slowed down India’s progress in the 1970s, but only after it had already developed a weapons capability.

Given the stage that Iran is now at, the facilities under its control, the experience and the technical know-how already gained, we must conclude that sanctions alone will not keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon if that is what it wants. Many western countries have already concluded this.

Sanctions – even severe ones designed to cripple the country and its people – will not draw Iran back from the brink. They may even exacerbate the situation as further isolation increases Iran’s security fears. You have to wonder if there is anything that we can do. A better understanding is possible if we look at the situation from Iran’s perspective.

In 2002, the US, the greatest military power in the world, labelled Iran a rogue state and part of an axis of evil. Less than two years later, it was camped on both its eastern border in Afghanistan and its western border in Iraq, another member of “the axis”.

Iran’s programme was initiated in part in response to its brutal war with Iraq in the 1980s, when it suffered chemical weapon attacks on its military and civilian populations (attacks the western powers chose to ignore). And the more recent history of the region has only served to underline the importance of the ultimate deterrent. No country possessing a nuclear weapon has ever been invaded.

Whatever one might think of Iran’s president or the country’s confrontation with Israel or its sponsoring of Shia militants in Iraq post-2003, it is hard not to conclude that Iran has legitimate security concerns. And crying “havoc” and readying the dogs of war does not address these concerns.

Talks have been tried before. But with so many preconditions, it was difficult to get people to the table, let alone keep them there.

In addition, terms focused on the nuclear issue when it is clear that this is only one symptom of a much bigger problem in the region.

We must not give up on negotiations – on trying to find a peaceful solution to the current hostilities with Iran across a range of fronts. Because there is quite simply no other way.

Ireland could lend its experience and moral authority here – we are directly responsible for the establishment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of all international arms control agreements since. And yet, somewhat counter-intuitively (and possibly short-sightedly), we have just closed our embassy in Tehran.

We are being led too easily down the sanctions/confrontation route and this will not end well.