Don’t downplay the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran

Colin Rubenstein

An edited version of this article appeared in The Age – July 7, 2008

There is international consensus that Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions pose a real and significant threat. Since 2003, the UN Security Council has passed three legally binding resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, while Britain, France and Germany (the EU-3) have led negotiations with Iran to bring a halt to its nuclear program. China, Russia, Australia and many other countries also are concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Lest one believes it is only President Bush or Vice President Cheney concerned in the US, both Senators McCain and Obama recognise the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

All involved, including Bush, have repeatedly emphasised their preference for resolving the crisis diplomatically. The Bush Administration has fully backed the EU-3 negotiations with Iran and has offered wider engagement with Iran if only it suspends its uranium enrichment.

Unfortunately, the Iranian leadership has consistently rejected the package of diplomatic and economic incentives offered by the international community to resolve the crisis. In response to a further sweetened incentives package offered in mid-June, Iran again refused to stop enriching uranium while delaying its official response, clearly stalling for time.

Instead, Iran’s enrichment efforts – which violate Iran’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations – have only accelerated. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proudly announces each new enrichment benchmark, defying the international community.

Iranian claims that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes simply are not credible. The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report, released late May, shows that Iran has not been cooperative and that Iran’s nuclear work involved explosives and ballistic missile research relevant only to nuclear weapons design.

The conclusions of last December’s US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that this work stopped in 2003 were disputed and discredited from the outset, primarily because the document’s definition of “nuclear weapons program” excludes uranium enrichment – the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of such a program. As both the NIE and Iran make clear, these efforts have continued unabated.

A nuclear-armed Iran would completely alter, for the worse, the strategic landscape of the region.

Ahmadinejad appears to be driven by a religious zealotry that welcomes the apocalypse, and has more than once predicted Israel’s imminent disappearance while parading ballistic missiles with “death to Israel” painted on them. He also denies the Holocaust while pursuing the means to inflict a second one. Israel, like any prudent state, must take such existential threats seriously.

Importantly, even if one believes Iran would not actually employ a nuclear weapon, a nuclear-armed Iran would present grave challenges. Iran would use its terrorist proxies Hezbollah and Hamas to increasingly assault Israel, believing the threat of a nuclear attack would neutralise any Israeli response. It could also use its terrorist proxies to increase attacks on Western interests, as it has done before.

The Gulf states and wider Arab world also view Iran as a serious threat. Iran already undermines Lebanese sovereignty by supporting Hezbollah and supports Shi’ite extremists in Iraq, undermining attempts to stabilise that country.

These states fear that a nuclear-armed Iran would be emboldened to act even more provocatively to achieve its hegemonic ambitions.

A nuclear-armed Iran could block the Straight of Hormuz, cutting off the flow of oil in the Gulf. Iran has territorial disputes with the United Arab Emirates and asserts Bahrain is an Iranian province. Iran could use military force and/or its terrorist proxies to “solve” these disputes and spread its revolutionary ideology, calculating that the international community would not risk a nuclear war to confront it.

Seeking a hedge against the spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran, several Arab states, not to mention Turkey, recently announced new-found interest in pursuing their own nuclear energy programs. The prospect of six or seven nuclear-armed states in the world’s most unstable region clearly represents an unwelcome scenario.

Iran possessing nuclear weapons would also be the final crack in the global non-proliferation regime. Despite false parallels drawn to Israel’s alleged nuclear capability, Israel is not violating any international commitments (it didn’t sign the NPT); Israel hasn’t threatened to use nuclear weapons against its neighbours (it doesn’t even confirm it has them); and Israel’s neighbours haven’t sought a similar hedge against it.

The international community – including the US and Israel – prefers to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and sanctions – “carrots and sticks” – as evidenced by five-years of efforts to that end.

Although Iran has thus far rebuffed these efforts, there is still time to resolve the crisis diplomatically. To do so, the international community must strengthen its diplomatic resolve and the economic sanctions, targeting Iranian vulnerabilities, like its oil and financial sectors. Iran’s recent decision to withdraw assets from European banks to evade the sanctions shows such pressure can work.

To be effective, diplomacy and sanctions must be bolstered by the credible threat of punitive measures. Both Israel and the US have properly made clear that the use of force, and its attendant risks, is a last resort. However, the severe risks of inadequate action – allowing a nuclear-armed Iran – also cannot be ignored.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is the executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He previously taught Middle East politics at Monash University.