It's time to see Iran's nuclear plan for what it is


OPINION:Iran’s determination to become a nuclear power by any means is moving towards a tragic endgame, writes RICHARD WHELAN

THE PLAY is called Nuclear Negotiations with Iran, 99th Round, October/November 2009, and it is taking place on the international diplomatic stage.

Act 1. Iran agrees a groundbreaking breakthrough agreement on nuclear energy with the international community in Geneva and Vienna. “A solution is at hand.”

Act 2. Iranian spokesmen immediately challenge key parts of the deal and refuse to accept the deadline set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

Act 3. Iran apparently makes a counter-offer which totally undermines the agreement supposedly reached.

Act 4. Various Iranian spokesmen (they are never women) make comments on the deal, some contradictory, mainly negative, and with a variety of unusual counter-proposals. The complexity and ever-changing nature of the proposals and counter-proposals ensures that all but the most expert are effectively “clueless” on what is really going on by now.

Act 5. The Iranians drag out the timescale and eventually respond with their own ideas (in essence unrelated to the supposed agreement), indicating a desire to discuss with the international community world peace, universal nuclear disarmament, a new international order, etc.

Act 6. The IAEA director, Mohamed ElBaradei (soon to retire), remains positive. The international community loses interest, hopes for the best, doesn’t really understand the complexities. Meanwhile, Iranian enrichment and other nuclear weapons-related activities continue.

You’ve seen this show before?

This tragedy/comedy/farce has been going on since the mid-1980s. Since then, the international community has been trying to stop first North Korea and now Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The harsh reality is that these efforts won’t succeed.

The international community, the two Clinton administrations and the two recent Bush administrations, the other powers negotiating with the US and North Korea (China, Japan, South Korea and Russia) and the IAEA all tried to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. They failed. North Korea is today negotiating to be recognised by the international community, particularly the US, as a nuclear weapons state.

This is complete failure by any definition.

The second harsh fact we should now face up to is that Iran (a close ally of North Korea, with many nuclear, missile development, military and other connections with that state) is playing the nuclear game with the international community using exactly the same tactics North Korea used. Why wouldn’t they – they know they will be successful.

The Iranian game plan goes like this. Ostensibly agree to what the international community wants, raise questions and doubts, make counter-proposals, drag out the timing, ensure details are complex and ever-changing, and the attention and understanding of the international community will move elsewhere, and never focus on the big picture.

Add to this toxic brew the short timelines of democratic administrations, short attention spans for complex ever-changing issues, and the unwillingness of UN Security Council veto holders (China with North Korea and China and Russia with Iran) to back tough sanctions, and the result is a foregone conclusion.

A regime with single-minded purpose easily outmanoeuvres the international community. What worked for North Korea will work for Iran. Iran will soon have nuclear weapons.

A logical conclusion, but is it accurate? Consider two pieces of evidence. Firstly, from the IAEA itself.

Most likely generated due to frustration with the successful tactics adopted by North Korea and Iran, parts of an internal 67-page working paper by the IAEA’s safeguards department, entitled Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s Nuclear Program, were leaked recently. The paper indicated that the department “believed that Iran had the ability to make a nuclear bomb, and was working on developing a missile system that could carry a nuclear warhead”. It said Iran had established a high-explosives industry capable of manufacturing nuclear-weapons triggers, and concluded Iran “has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device” using HEU (highly enriched uranium).

Secondly, what do Iran’s Arab neighbours, who are focused on long-term political and military implications, think? “I think the Gulf states are well advised now to develop strategies on the assumption that Iran is about to become a nuclear power,” according to Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at United Arab Emirates University. “It’s a whole new ball game. Iran is forcing everyone in the region now into an arms race.”

According to Abdulaziz Sega, former Saudi diplomat and current chairman of the Gulf Research Centre in the United Arab Emirates: “Israel can start the attack, but they cannot sustain it; the United States can start it and sustain it. The region can live with a limited retaliation from Iran better than living with a permanent nuclear deterrent. I favour getting the job done now instead of living the rest of my life with a nuclear hegemony in the region that Iran would like to impose.”

What is to be done? In my opinion, the international community needs to face up to its failures and adopt a much more robust policy, using targeted financial sanctions in particular, to attempt to dissuade Iran from its current course. This will involve Russia and China agreeing to harsh sanctions against a regime that China is developing strong trading relationships with (particularly with respect to energy), and that Russia sees as a good neighbour, to whom it wishes to sell advanced armaments. This will take time. Waiting in the wings is Israel, which is crystal clear on what Iran is up to.

Israel is “targeted” by Iran in all kinds of negative ways. There has to be a reasonable possibility that Israel will adopt the “Sadat Option” – that is, launch an attack on certain Iranian nuclear facilities. In 1973 the then president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, did as much against Israel not in the expectation that it would succeed, but to force the international community in general, and Israel in particular, to consider the policies they had been adopting and to change the strategic landscape on the issue. This policy succeeded.

Israel could well judge that a focused strike on a known Iranian nuclear facility would wake up the international community and force it to take real action. Such an attack would change everybody’s strategic calculations, including those of Russia and China, and might lead to a better outcome for Israel than waiting for the inevitable.

Israel could assume after an attack on Iran that “something could come up” in the three to five years’ breathing space that such an attack could provide. At the very least the international community would start treating the threat posed by another rogue state acquiring nuclear weapons seriously.

Either way, the last act is shaping up to being quite a tragedy.

Richard Whelan is a commentator on international affairs. His website is