The crisis over Iran's decision last week to break the IAEA seals on its nuclear research facility at Natanz continues. While the U.S. is hell-bent on a policy of dragging the Iranian nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council, there remains some opposition to referral, notably from veto-wielding Russia and China. The preference, even in Europe and despite U.S. pressure, is to go back to negotiations to ensure that Iran doesn't become a nuclear power.
Iran's case is rarely made in the media. It is seemingly a difficult case to make, partly because the president of Iran has stuck his finger in the eyes of the West with outlandish pronouncements such as calling for the destruction of Israel and denying that the holocaust took place, and partly because the Ayatollahs who rule Iran lack a certain, how shall we say it, charm? But that doesn't mean that there isn't a case to be made, however much we may find President Ahmadinejad's views to be abhorrent. In the run up to the Iraq war, there were few who were willing to make Iraq's case (other than perhaps Hans Blix, who was vilified by the U.S.), mainly because making Iraq's case would have seemed to be making Saddam Hussein's case, and Saddam was not a person anyone wanted to defend. In the case of Iran, the same pattern is emerging. But one doesn't have to like Ahmadinejad, nor even excuse his ridiculous notions, to advance the case that Iran is not, as George Bush called it, a "grave danger" to the security of the world.
It might be good to re-visit the chain of events that led to Iran's decision to move ahead with nuclear research and to the EU-3 decision to break off talks. In October of 2003, the EU-3 signed a Tehran agreement that stated "While Iran has a right within the nuclear non-proliferation regime to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, it has decided voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA." The Paris agreement that followed in November of 2004 (the very same agreement that the Europeans and the U.S. claim Iran is violating) stated that Iran's moratorium on nuclear research, uranium conversion and enrichment was "a voluntary confidence-building measure and not a legal obligation." As such, in the absence of a legal obligation, it's hard to see how the Iranians have violated any treaty they are a signatory to by breaking seals (under the supervision of the IAEA, mind you) that they voluntarily asked the IAEA to place on their facilities in the first place. This is true of both the conversion activities in Isfahan re-started in August of 2005 which led to censure by the IAEA, and to the re-starting of research at Natanz. But why are they ending voluntary measures now, measures that will clearly remove "confidence-building" from the equation? Because as frustrated as the West is with the glacial pace of negotiations on Iran's nuclear future, the Iranians are equally if not more frustrated. A long drawn out negotiating timetable, as long as enrichment and research is suspended, benefits only the West. The West can be secure that with IAEA seals on Iran's facilities, Iran is in a holding pattern vis-à-vis development of nuclear weapons and talks could go on for years, if not decades, as far as it is concerned. Not so for the Iranians. Estimates are that within 30 years Iran's oil will be depleted. As such, Iran will not only be deprived of revenue, but will have to rely on the other countries for its own energy needs. One might argue that in that case it would behoove Iran to look to wind (and alternative forms of) energy, but nuclear reactors are at present the most efficient large scale method for producing energy, which is why Western nations are keen to keep their own reactors running and even build new ones. As for the European offer to guarantee supply of enriched uranium to Iran in exchange for the Iranians to forgo producing their own, the reason it won't fly is that Iranians are loathe to rely on external sources of fuel, as we in the West rely on their oil. Energy sources controlled by foreign governments could, if those governments disapprove of Iran's behavior, be cut off at any time. So much for independence, the Iranians argue.
Iran, in all probability, will not develop a nuclear weapon any time soon. It will, however, have that capability, as the Ayatollahs well know, if they master the fuel cycle. Working centrifuge cascades can be monitored by the IAEA to ensure that Iran doesn't enrich uranium beyond peaceful applications, but the Iranians could conceivably kick inspectors out and withdraw from the IAEA at any time, should they feel the urgent need to build a nuke or two. This is the reason the West is so concerned that Iran not even have the technological know-how. But what about Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD? Surely the Iranians know that Israeli submarines patrol the Gulf and could launch a nuclear missile on Tehran the second they launch one on Tel Aviv? No, the Iranian leadership has no intentions of committing mass suicide. Rhetoric aside, the Iranians have no desire to start a war with the far more powerful Israel any time soon, and even less of a desire to start one with any other nation.
As Simon Jenkins said in an earlier post and in The Guardian, he would sleep happier if the Iranians didn't have an atomic bomb. So would I, and probably most other people on the planet (except those Ayatollahs who actually want one). But I would also sleep happier if the Pakistanis didn't have nukes, if India and Israel didn't have them, and even if Britain, France, the U.S., China and Russia didn't have them either. But we have to ask ourselves what makes sense in terms of what our government means to do about Iran's nuclear program. Since the Bush administration has refused to rule out war (and refused to give security guarantees to Iran during the drawn-out negotiations with the Europeans), it is incumbent upon Americans (and Congress) to question under what circumstances we would be willing to commit to another war, or even a major military strike. It cannot be that Iran is enriching uranium that might one day lead to their ability to make a bomb; at least not as long as Iran is willing to talk, and not as long as the IAEA has inspectors inside Iran.