Euro meltdown upstages Iran's nuclear bomb
It is well-established that in a world of 24-hour news cycles certain issues will entirely dominate the agenda, only for others – often just as deserving of exposure – to fall by the wayside. With Italian bond yields rising, Franco-German emergency summits taking place and Greek motions of no confidence passing, reporters are simply chronicling events as they unfold. It is of little surprise, then, that news of Iran’s imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons has been mentioned only fleetingly in recent days. Following the breaking news that Iran has been enriching its uranium supplies, the issue has been sidelined. Nuclear proliferation is gathering pace and yet engagement with the potential consequences has been wholly absent. There has been no mention of Iran colluding with the North Koreans, or that its nuclear programme has reached such an advanced stage that it could have at least one workable nuclear weapon within a year. It is enough to lead one to question the mainstream media’s grasp of the magnitude of this issue, and the very real prospect of untold catastrophe that accompanies it.
We should be under no illusion as to Iran’s intentions: to rid the Middle East of Israel and to grant itself unquestionable ‘major player’ status in the international arena. For many years Ahmadinejad has set out his position on the matter with alarming forthrightness; readers will recall his promise in 2005 to wipe Israel “off the map”, whilst even in recent days (in a flagrant dismissal of the threat of US intervention) he described the Jewish state as "a kidney transplanted in a body that rejected it", unflinchingly asserting that the United States may want to "save the Zionist entity, but it will not be able to do so." (His brash statements portend an ever-more belligerent Iran, and certainly do not support the idea that Ahmadinejad’s nation is enriching its uranium for peaceful purposes as he still incredulously maintains. He understands that nuclear weapons are “the great equaliser”, the short cut to credibility and to relative immunity from the perceived hegemonic tendencies of US foreign policy. He comprehends, in other words, that a nuclear Iran is one to which the West would have to pay close attention.
After all, how do you diplomatically sideline a country with both the capacity and the desire to launch a nuclear-ready Shahab-3 missile deep into the heart of Tel-Aviv at any moment?
In the face of such a threat it is useful to consider for a moment the remarkable success that the West, led by the United States, has had in reducing the nuclear threat and to see that Iran is one of a small few exceptions to the rule. Ambitions for nuclear disarmament are almost as old as nuclear technology itself - since Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech to the UN in 1953 in which he pledged America’s “determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma” successive US presidents have sought to progressively rid the world of nuclear weapons. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 convinced John F. Kennedy of the intolerable threat that nuclear weapons pose to the world, and his 1968 Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty has since become the founding document in a series of international agreements to reduce nuclear arsenals in both the US and Russia, as well as to dissuade rising powers from ‘going nuclear’. At present the NPT has the commitment of 184 nations around the world; four countries (Kazakhstan, South Africa, Belarus and the Ukraine) have given up nuclear weapons altogether, whilst many others – notably Libya – abandoned plans to begin nuclear programmes. Indeed, there are no more nuclear powers now than there were at the end of the Cold War.
In spite of this success, however, there are several countries which have decided that the need to guarantee their own national security prevails over the need to adhere to international treaties. Why, they argue, should we enshrine the right of existing nuclear powers to maintain their arsenals and to simultaneously castigate others for merely seeking to level the playing field? North Korea’s primary aim is to neutralise perceived US and South Korean aggression and to elevate the nation’s status as a military force. Its decision to expel IAEA and UN inspectors from the country in 2002 and 2009 respectively, to pull out of the six-party talks and to recommence its nuclear programme at Yongbyon were symbolic – carried out principally to demonstrate that the nation will not be pushed around by heavy-handed, Western-backed international agencies. Essentially, Kim Jong-Il propounds the belief that it is unacceptable for the US to dictate to the world that certain approved countries may possess nuclear weapons but countries outside this exclusive club may not.
In the case of Iran, the issue runs much deeper than a desire to make a point of the West’s hypocrisy. Its motivation is religious, it is historical and it is geopolitical. Before the 1979 revolution relations between the two nations were amicable – Iran was one of the first Islamic nations to recognise Israel after its creation and the two maintained strong diplomatic links, held together owing in no small part to a mutual distrust of neighbouring Sunni states. The game changer was Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who paved the way for the imposition of anti-Zionism and for all existing ties between the two nations to be severed. Khomeini’s Revolution flew in the face of centuries of Persian-Jewish alliance, the strength of which is epitomised by the support that the Iranian state offered to Jews fleeing persecution in Europe at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War. In marked contrast, the story in recent decades has been one of suspicion and mutual disdain, and it is abundantly clear that for the modern incarnation of the Iranian state all roads lead to Israel’s destruction. Iran’s wish to see Israel perish has given rise to Israel’s own desire to pre-emptively strike Iran should relations deteriorate sufficiently, a fact that has muddied the already desperately complex waters of Middle East relations. It therefore comes as no surprise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have refused to rule out Israeli military action in relation to this latest Iranian transgression of various international treaties, though this is a reality that simply cannot be allowed to come to fruition.
It is, of course, easy to say this – what is far more difficult is to say what should be done instead.
In the face of Iran’s defiance the West has two choices: economic sanctions or military intervention. The problem with the former is that many countries – notably China – would simply refuse to adhere to any such policy; attempting to withhold resources without the support of China would be an exercise in futility, causing little disruption to Iran and certainly doing nothing to persuade it to desist with its nuclear ambitions. The problem with the latter is that it is impossible to tell where military intervention would lead or, indeed, how effective it would be. Would US raids on Iranian targets elicit a response? Ahmadinejad has already promised to respond to Western aggression by harming US interests in the Gulf region, whilst Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke on state television in recent days to affirm that “[military] action will be firmly responded to”. Would military strikes, as the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta argues, simply delay the inevitable and fail to actually halt Iran in its tracks? The worry in the White House is that Iran would simply pick up where it left off; the best that the West could hope for would be to delay Iran’s nuclear project by three years.
John F. Kennedy once stated that "the world was not meant to be a prison in which man awaits his execution". Words which for many decades held a particular resonance for anybody living within the range of Moscow’s missiles are, for the Israeli people, far too accurate a depiction of the present state of play in the Middle East. The West was not tough enough on Iran when it counted, and now there is little it can do but sit back and prepare for the country to go nuclear. With one course of action unlikely to deter Iran and the other likely to force it to retaliate militarily, the West’s choice is one of its own making, namely that between ineffectiveness and recklessness.