Should The World Accept a Nuclear Iran?MARCH 13, 2012 AT 9:10 AM
With Iran’s uranium enrichment program in progress, the possibility of a high profile military crisis lurks around the corner in the Middle East.
With Iran’s uranium enrichment program in progress, the possibility of a high profile military crisis lurks around the corner in the Middle East. Iran has been one of the biggest threats to Middle East stability.
Reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows the extent of work to which Iran has expanded its main enrichment plant, close to Natanz city. Although the country claims fuelling of its nuclear power plants as a reason for enriching uranium, the West however believes if the uranium is further refined, it could provide material for making bombs. This has raised concerns for both the West and Israeli leaders, as it has also been confirmed by the IAEA, that Iran is refining uranium at a level close to becoming a potential bomb component.
Iran’s posture as an enemy to Israel has led to Israel’s growing concerns of accepting a nuclear Iran. Due to his anti-Israel views, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadijenad has constantly made open threats to Israel. “Israel must be wiped off the map. Anyone who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury” he says. Israeli officials have tried unsuccessfully to alert the West on the dangers of a nuclear Iran. The argument is simple: Having a nuclear Iran would cause a multiplication of the technology to terror cells like Fatah, Hamas and Taliban. This would in turn create multiple centers of nuclear influence, thereby paving way to strategic horror in the Middle East.
Israel also reckons that since Iran lends its support to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it would have no conscience or moral constraints discharging a nuclear device in a European or American soil. In a Gallup poll, “nineteen percent of Americans see Iran as an immediate threat to the U.S and another sixty-five percent say Iran is a long-term threat.” If the U.S is thought to be under threat by Iran, what then is the fate of the rest of the world?
With the IAEA’s reports on Iranian enrichment activities which certainly do not toe the line of a civilian program, the European Union together with the U.S has passed a nuclear sanction on Iran. For Israel however, the intervention may have come too late as Iran is believed to have reached an advanced stage of its nuclear program. Israel however makes one thing clear. It will not stand to see Iran enter a ‘zone of immunity,’ in which Iran’s nuclear materials cannot be stopped by Israeli air power. This implies that if Iran continues to amerce its weapon of mass destruction, Israel would engage in a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s main nuclear facility.
It is almost certain that if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites, Iran would be forced to retaliate by any means possible. This would in turn drag the U.S into a Middle East conflict. “Israel can commence a war with Iran, but it may well take the U.S involvement to conclude it,” says Karim Sadjadpour, Middle East Specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Only recently, the assassination of Iran’s top three (3) nuclear scientists’ was announced. Could this have been a plot by Israel to stop a nuclear Iran? A planned attack by the U.S to stop the building process before it stops the world? Or better still, a mere coincidence? Whatever the case, the fate of the world lies in the decisions that would be made by the world itself.
Should the U.S be encouraged to launch a military strike on Iran? Would a nuclear Iran bring the world to the precipice? Or should the world tolerate and accept a nuclear Iran?
Q&A: Iran nuclear issue
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that medium-level uranium enrichment had begun at the Fordo plant near Qom in northern Iran.
Tehran has said it plans to carry out uranium enrichment there for purely peaceful purposes. The West argues Iran is building a nuclear weapons capacity.
In November 2011 the IAEA released its latest report on Iran's nuclear programme, presenting new evidence suggesting that Iran is secretly working to obtain a nuclear weapon. Iran has dismissed the claims as fictitious.
What does the IAEA report say?
The IAEA has long expressed concern about Iran's nuclear programme, but its latest report (November 2011) lays out the case in much greater detail than before.
Drawing on evidence provided by more than 10 member states as well as its own information, the IAEA said Iran had carried out activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device".
It said that some of these activities could only be used to develop nuclear weapons - though it did not say that Iran had mastered the process, nor how long it would take Iran to make a bomb.
The report documents alleged Iranian testing of explosives, experiments on detonating a nuclear weapon, and work on weaponisation - the processes by which a device might be adapted and hardened to fit into the nose-section of a missile.
There are some allegations that are listed openly for the first time, including the claim that Iran has used computer modelling on the behaviour of a nuclear device.
Previously, the IAEA complained that Tehran had not fully co-operated with its inspectors, though it did say that Iran had displayed "greater transparency" during an inspection visit in August 2011.
In March 2012, it was announced that Iran had agreed to take part in fresh six-party talks and allow IAEA inspectors to visit its key military research site at Parchin, under certain conditions.
The UN Security Council has ordered Iran to stop enrichment. Why?
Because the technology used to enrich uranium to the level needed for nuclear power can also be used to enrich it to the higher level needed for a nuclear explosion.
Iran hid an enrichment programme for 18 years, so the Security Council says that until Iran's peaceful intentions can be fully established, it should stop enrichment and other nuclear activities.
Under international law, an order from the Security Council is held to supersede rights granted by other international organisations. The Council has ordered sanctions under Article 41 of the UN Charter, which enables it to decide "what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions". The Council has also called on Iran to ratify and implement an arrangement allowing more extensive inspections as a way of establishing confidence.
How does Iran justify its refusal to obey the Security Council resolutions?
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a signatory state has the right to enrich uranium to be used as fuel for civil nuclear power. Such states have to remain under inspection by the IAEA. Iran is under inspection, though not under the strictest rules allowed because it will not agree to them. Only those signatory states with nuclear weapons at the time of the treaty in 1968 are allowed to enrich to the higher level needed for a nuclear weapon.
Iran says it is simply doing what it is allowed to do under the treaty and intends to enrich only for power station fuel or other peaceful purposes. It says the UN resolutions are politically motivated. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said: "The Iranian nation will not succumb to bullying, invasion and the violation of its rights."
What does Iran say about developing nuclear weapons?
It says it will not make a nuclear bomb. Following the IAEA report, President Ahmadinejad declared: "We do not need an atomic bomb. The Iranian nation is wise. It won't build two atomic bombs while you have 20,000 warheads."
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is reported to have issued a fatwa some time ago against nuclear weapons, has said: "We fundamentally reject nuclear weapons."
How soon could Iran make a nuclear bomb?
This would depend on Iran taking the decision to make a nuclear device and Iran says it will not do so. But experts believe that technically it could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb within a few months. A US general said in April 2010 that Iran could still take several years after that to make a device. Former CIA chief Leon Panetta said in June 2010 that it could take two years. Israel's retired intelligence chief Meir Dagan has said it could take until 2015.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January 2011 that sanctions had slowed down Iran's nuclear work. She also said that Iran had faced technical difficulties, possibly a reference to a computer virus said to have affected its centrifuge machinery. But in July 2011, Iran said it was installing new, faster centrifuges to speed progress in uranium enrichment. If successful, it could shorten the time needed to stockpile material that can have civilian as well as military purposes, if processed much further.
In theory Iran could leave the NPT with three months notice and it would then be free to do what it wanted. However, by doing that it would raise suspicions and leave itself open to attack. If, while remaining in the treaty, it enriched to nuclear weapons level or was found diverting material for a bomb in secret, it would lay itself open to the same risk.
But what about the US intelligence assessment issued on Iran in 2007?
The National Intelligence Estimate played down any early threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It assessed "with high confidence" that Iran did have a nuclear weapons programme until 2003, but this was discovered and Iran stopped it. The NIE added: "We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."
However, Israel did not accept the conclusions and there was also doubt elsewhere. In 2008, the then director of US National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, appeared to backtrack, saying: "Tehran at a minimum is keeping the option open to develop nuclear weapons."
What sanctions has the UN imposed on Iran?
The UN has imposed four sets of sanctions, in Security Council resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803 and 1929.
These seek to make it more difficult for Iran to acquire equipment, technology and finance to support its nuclear activities. They ban the sale to Iran of materiel and technology related to nuclear enrichment and heavy-water activities and ballistic missile development, restrict dealings with certain Iranian banks and individuals, stop the sale of major arms systems to Iran (Russia has cancelled the sale of an anti-aircraft missile system) and allow some inspections of air and sea cargoes.
However, they do not stop the trade in oil and gas, the major source of Iran's income.
What about additional sanctions by the US and EU?
The US brought in restrictions on trade with Iran after the taking of American hostages in 1979, which it tightened in 1995, and in 2010 additionally targeted Iranian finances, shipping and the Revolutionary Guard.
In January 2012 the US imposed sanctions on Iran's central bank and against three oil companies that trade with Iran, including China's state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp. The sanctions prevent the companies from receiving US export licences, US Export Import Bank financing or any loans over $10m from US institutions.
Later that month European Union foreign ministers formally adopted an oil embargo against Iran. This involves an immediate ban on all new oil contracts with Iran, while existing contracts will be honoured until 1 July 2012.
What are the chances of an attack on Iran?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constantly stresses what he sees as a potential existential threat from Iran, so the possibility of an attack, by Israel at least, remains.
In March 2012, Mr Netanyahu said that time was running out to stop Iran developing a nuclear weapon, before any such programme became too advanced or went underground. He said he would never allow Israelis to "live in the shadow of annihilation".
Wikileaks revelations have shown that Gulf Arab states have urged the US to attack Iran.
American officials have stressed the instability that would result from any attack on Iran. They appear to be hoping that even if Iran continues to develop its nuclear expertise, it will not try to build a bomb.
US President Barack Obama said there was "still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution". He warned that "loose talk of war" was playing into Iran's hands, but has stressed that all options remain open.
How does the nuclear plant at Bushehr fit in?
This reactor was started in the 1970s under the Shah but then put on hold until recently when the Russians finished it. The Russians will provide raw fuel and take away the spent fuel, which could potentially be used to make a plutonium-based nuclear bomb.
Bushehr is technically separate from the issue of enrichment. However, the US says that because Russia is providing the fuel, Iran does not need its own enrichment programme. Iran says that the reactor shows that it does have a civil nuclear power plan and that it needs to develop enrichment to serve this in the longer term.
What about fuel for the Tehran research reactor?
There is a small research reactor in Tehran making medical isotopes, installed by the Americans many years ago. This is running low on fuel, which has previously been provided from abroad. The US, Russia and France proposed taking Iran's stock of low-enriched (3.5%) uranium out of the country and return it as higher-enriched (20%) fuel rods. The idea was to get the low-enriched stock out of Iran and prevent it from being potentially used for a nuclear device.
On 17 May 2010 it was announced in Tehran that, after talks with Turkey and Brazil, Iran had agreed to ship low-enriched uranium to Turkey. However, Iran also said it would continue to enrich other uranium to 20%. Western governments rejected the deal and said it did not solve the basic enrichment issue.
What about Iran's enrichment plant at Qom?
A new and previously secret enrichment plant being built underground near Qom was revealed in 2009. The IAEA said it should have been declared much earlier and is demanding that construction stop. Iran says it broke no rules - there is a dispute about its obligations to the IAEA - and stated that it was constructing the plant in a mountain in order to safeguard its technology from an air attack.
Iran said the plant, known as the Fordo fuel enrichment plant, would enrich uranium up to 5% and would have 3,000 centrifuges.
In June 2011 Iran said the purpose of the plant was to enrich uranium to 20%, as well as carry out research and development.
In January 2012 the IAEA confirmed that Iran had started the production of uranium enriched up to 20% at the plant.
Don't existing nuclear powers have obligations to get rid of their weapons under the NPT?
Article VI commits them to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament". The nuclear powers claim they have done this by reducing their warheads, but critics say they have not really moved towards nuclear disarmament. Critics also argue that the US and UK have broken the treaty by transferring nuclear technology from one to another. The US and UK say that this is not covered by the NPT.
Doesn't Israel have a nuclear bomb?
Yes. Israel, however, is not a party to the NPT, so is not obliged to report to it. Neither are India or Pakistan, both of which have developed nuclear weapons. North Korea has left the treaty and has announced that it has acquired a nuclear weapons capacity.
On 18 September 2009, the IAEA called on Israel to join the NPT and open its nuclear facilities to inspection. The resolution said that the IAEA "expresses concern about the Israeli nuclear capabilities, and calls upon Israel to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards... "
Israel refuses to join the NPT or allow inspections. It is reckoned to have up to 400 warheads but refuses to confirm or deny this.
How Iran might respond to Israeli attack
Iran has made it clear that if it is attacked either by Israel or the United States it will respond in kind. But just what could Iran do to strike back?
What would be the consequences, both in the region and inside Iran itself?
Indeed, could the potential consequences of an Israeli strike be so serious as to make military action the least preferable option in terms of constraining Iran's nuclear programme?Long-distance missiles
"Iran's ability to strike back directly against Israel is limited," says Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
"Its antiquated air force is totally outclassed by the Israelis and it has only a limited number of ballistic missiles that could reach Israel."
Mr Fitzpatrick says Iran's missile arsenal includes "a modified version of the Shahab-3, the Ghadr-1, which has a range of 1,600km (995 miles), but Iran only has about six transporter-erector launchers for the missile".
"Iran's new solid-fuelled missile, the Sajjil-2, can also reach Israel, but it is not yet fully operational," he adds.
But, Mr Fitzpatrick argues that "both of these missiles are too inaccurate to have any effect against military targets when armed with conventional weapons".
"Nor are they a very effective way to deliver chemical or biological weapons, and Iran does not have nuclear weapons."
In summary, he believes that "an Iranian missile strike would be only a symbolic gesture".Enlisting allies
Mr Fitzpatrick believes Iran is more likely to respond against Israel "asymmetrically, and through proxies". Its ally, the Shia Islamist group Hezbollah, has more than 10,000 rocket launchers in southern Lebanon, many of them supplied by Iran.
"These are mostly 25km-range (16-mile) Katyushas, but also Fahr-3 (45km; 28 miles), Fajr-5 (75km; 47 miles), Zelzal-2 (200km; 124 miles) and potentially Fateh-110 (200km) plus about 10 Scud-D missiles that can pack a 750kg (1,653lb) payload and hit all of Israel."
He says that the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, could also attack Israel with shorter-range rockets.
The great danger here is of a more extensive conflict breaking out either between Israel and Hezbollah, or Israel and Hamas.
With so much instability in the Middle East - not least because of the Syria crisis - there is a very real risk of an Israeli strike sparking a much broader regional conflagration.Naval action in the Gulf
The Iranian Navy, and especially the naval arm of its Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), are well-equipped with small, fast craft capable of laying mines or swarming attacks against larger vessels.
Iran also deploys capable land-based anti-shipping missiles.
These could all be used to close off the vital oil artery - the Strait of Hormuz.
The US Navy is confident that it could re-open the Strait. But this risks an extended naval conflict between the US and Iran, and in the short term, there could be a significant impact upon oil prices.Covert action
Daniel Byman, a counter-terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says there is also "considerable concern that Iran and groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah might engage in terror attacks in the wake of an Israeli air strike".
"Iran has at times used such attacks to strike out at enemies, particularly those it cannot hit by other means," he adds.
There is already, he points out, a kind of clandestine war under way.
"Israel and Iran are already striking at each other (Israel with more success and doing so in a way that is more targeted)," Mr Byman explains, referring to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
"I'm not sure Israel would increase attacks in the wake of a strike," he notes, "but Iran would."
Mr Byman is uncertain about how effective such Iranian operations might be.
"Iran's reported attempted attacks in India and Thailand show it remains determined to strike at Israel, presumably in retaliation for Israeli killings of Hezbollah figures like Imad Mughniyeh and the suspected attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists."
"However, these recent attacks were not well executed, suggesting that Iran's services' professionalism is uneven," he argues.
Overall, experts believe that the Iranian government is going to have to calibrate its response to any attack carefully.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me: "If they respond too little, they could lose face, and if they respond too much, they could lose their heads."
"Iran will want to respond enough to inflame the regional security environment and negatively impact the global economy - in order to bring down international condemnation of the US or Israel - but stop short of doing anything that could invite massive reprisals from the United States."
"Frankly," Mr Sadjadpour says, "I'm not sure how they do that. If Iran tries to destabilise world energy supplies - whether launching missiles into Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province or attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz - the US isn't going to stand aside idly."
In the wake of any attack on its facilities, Iran might well, of course, go to the UN to seek some kind of diplomatic redress. This highlights a crucial set of legal questions relating to any military operation.International law
For all the uncertainties as to whether Israel would attack Iran and indeed how Iran might respond, one thing is clear - in terms of international law, such a strike would be illegal.
Professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, says for it to be considered legal, "the UN Security Council would need to authorise such a strike, because Iran has not launched an armed attack on either Israel or the United States".
"The UN Charter," she says, "makes clear that the use of force is generally prohibited unless a state is acting in self-defence to an armed attack occurring, or has Security Council authorisation."
Israel, of course, would probably claim to be acting in some pre-emptive sense to forestall a future nuclear attack from Iran (though nobody yet believes Iran has a nuclear bomb). But Professor O'Connell says that an Israeli strike would still not be legitimate.
"There is a lively debate among international lawyers as to the point at which a state may respond to an armed attack: must it be under way or merely imminent?"
"There is virtually no support among experts for attacking to 'pre-empt' a hypothetical future attack."
But surely countries do what they believe they have to do when vital interests are seen to be at stake?
For example, Nato attacked Serbia and Serbian forces in Kosovo, and the US and its allies invaded Iraq - both examples lacked UN Security Council approval.
Professor O'Connell says that in both cases, the illegal use of force came with costly penalties.
"Compare those two conflicts," she notes, "to the lawful use of force to liberate Kuwait after Iraq's invasion. The United States came out of that conflict with a financial and moral gain."Casualties
Many will also raise the question of the potential casualties that any Israeli strike might cause, especially since the operation would not be sanctioned by international law.
Without knowing the targets to be hit, the timing of any strikes, and the
likelihood of them being hit again, it is hard to determine potential casualty figures.
Experts say that the functioning nuclear reactor at Bushehr is unlikely to be a target due to the fact that it has nothing to do with a potential military programme and radiation leakage could cause widespread civilian casualties. But, of course, aircraft can be downed and bombs and other air-launched weapons can go astray.
There are, in addition, another set of Iranian reactions to any strike that matter.
How would Iranians themselves respond to any attack? What would be the impact upon Iran's nuclear programme? And what would be the implications for the Islamic regime in Iran itself?
For now, it seems unclear that Iran has actually yet taken any decision to press ahead with a nuclear weapons programme.Domestic factor
But Trita Parsi, author of the recently published, A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy With Iran, says that if Israel attacks, Iran's position will change considerably.
"I have not come across any observer who does not believe that the Iranian government's determination and desire for a nuclear deterrent would increase several-fold if Iran is attacked."
The US assessment, he says, is that in the wake of an Israeli attack "the Iranians will push their program further underground, exit (or threaten to exit) the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kick out the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and dash for a bomb".
"As some senior American military officials have said, bombing Iran is the fastest way to ensure an Iranian bomb," he adds.
Mr Parsi, who is president of the National Iranian American Council, also says that an Israeli attack would have political implications inside Iran too.
"The Iranian regime is deeply unpopular and the wounds from their massive human rights abuses since the 2009 election are still open and bleeding."
The regime, he adds, "has thus far failed to overcome this division with the people".
"However, an attack on Iran, particularly if the bombing campaign also results in high civilian casualties, will likely unite warring factions in Iran against the external aggressor."
"This is what happened in 1980 with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran."
"The attack helped consolidate Ayatollah Khomeini's grip on power, fuel nationalism and revolutionary zeal, and suspend the internal power struggles. The Iranian regime didn't survive in spite of Saddam's attack, but because of it."
That should be a sobering thought for Western and Israeli policy-makers, who from time to time flirt with the idea of regime change in Iran.
It all suggests a stark conclusion - even a militarily successful attack from Israel's point of view will only delay Iran's nuclear programme for a few years.
It might indeed confirm Iran in its desire to obtain a nuclear weapon. It might rally the Iranian population around the regime. And the regional consequences of any air strikes could be considerable; at worst precipitating conflict in the Gulf and on Israel's own borders.Diplomacy
No wonder, then, that the Obama administration seems to be trying to dissuade Israel from any attack - at least for now.
Many experts believe that there is still mileage in allowing sanctions to take their course but also - even now - in reaching out diplomatically to Tehran.
"Diplomacy has certainly not been exhausted," Trita Parsi told me. "The diplomatic efforts in the past few years have been few and short-lived," he notes.
"Political space for the type of sustained talks that are needed to generate a breakthrough has not existed in Washington or in Tehran. Rather than real negotiations, we have seen an exchange of ultimatums."
Karim Sadjadpour also thinks it may be worth another diplomatic push. But he feels the potential results will inevitably be limited.
"How do you reach a rapprochement with a regime that needs you as an adversary for its own ideological legitimacy?" he asks.
"Realistically," he concludes, "I think dialogue with Tehran can at best contain our differences with Iran, but it won't resolve them."