Iran's nuclear goals threaten us all
Published 29/01/2012 | 05:00
It may want nuclear arms like its neighbours but Iran's aggression will only end badly, writes Ivor Roberts
IT'S fair to say that there will be a crisis in Iran this year. What shape it will take is hard to gauge. But the EU's decision to place an embargo on oil imports from Iran (it takes about 20 per cent of Iran's oil exports) in response to Iran's determination to press ahead with its nuclear enrichment, and ultimately, weapons-producing programme has already prompted a run on the Iranian rial and a huge hike in interest rates in an attempt to staunch the collapse. Iran has threatened to respond to the EU's action by closing the strategically key Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of all the world's oil passes. The US and other western countries have, in turn, made clear that they will not allow the closure of what are international waters.
The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now called for talks but this is widely seen as a procrastinating move which will cut no ice with the international negotiators, and which is merely designed to allow Iran time to continue enriching.
And so the tension is ratcheted up. The US Fifth Fleet has doubled the number of aircraft carriers in the area and the French and British have sent warships. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) will be sorely tempted to make some defiant gesture. The opportunity for miscalculation on both sides is great, and the precedents are not encouraging. The USS Vincennes downed an Iranian civilian airliner by accident in 1988 with the loss of 290 innocent lives over the Strait of Hormuz.
Any military confrontation is unlikely to end well for the Iranians, but sorties by the small gunboats used by the IRGC from islands in the Gulf could surprise and at least embarrass the US naval presence. Nevertheless, one senior Nato commander I spoke to recently believed that the US Fifth Fleet would vaporise any Iranian military opposition.
Once military action is engaged in, it might well escalate. You may start a war when you will but you may not end it when you please, wrote Machiavelli. Once escalated, the real targets will be Iranian nuclear facilities. Some are already buried deep under mountains and possibly impregnable even to the Americans' ultra-sophisticated hardware. If they are not yet impregnable, the US might be tempted to act sooner. This would be high risk and somewhat out of character for a president who has shown himself to be cautious where foreign adventures are concerned. But he equally would not want to be seen as soft by his Republican opponents. If Iran takes any military action to close the strait or to attack western vessels passing through, he will certainly have to act. But the Republican candidates have been vying with each other to sound tough over Iran.
"Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon," is the basic and consistent message. The real test of Obama's nerve will come if Iran reaches its goal of producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel at the same time as the US presidentials reach their climax this autumn.
To some degree, it's possible to understand if not sympathise with the Iranian argument that they have several neighbours or near neighbours with a nuclear weapons programme. India, Pakistan and Israel for starters, and Iraq certainly had ambitions in the Nineties. So why shouldn't they also as a regional power of significance with a long, proud history have access to nuclear weapons?
The short answer is that they are bound by their signature of the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to develop nuclear power for military purposes. The longer answer is that they are victims of their own rhetoric. If your president repeatedly calls for Israel to be wiped from the face of the earth, you can't be surprised if others are reluctant to allow you the means to bring that about. Moreover, once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, others, notably the Saudis, will agitate probably successfully to acquire them as well. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, already fraying at the edges, would be in tatters.
What of the situation in Iran itself? Economic or military pressure is unlikely on its own to topple the regime. Reports abound of divisions between President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Khamenei but with the ultimate power in the latter's hands, these divisions will not seriously weaken the regime -- which has shown itself ruthless and determined to resist reforms.
Any Iranian Spring would be suppressed with a ferocity which would make Syria's President Assad look like a kid-glove merchant. Excessive economic tourniquets in the form of sanctions can cause a severe backlash. Look at Japan's reaction to economic embargoes in 1941. And a military attack on Iran by either the US or Israel will unite the Iranians against foreign aggression. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a train crash is coming. Iran will not renounce its nuclear weapons pretensions and the west cannot allow a nuclear-armed Iran. An incident in the Strait of Hormuz may provide the trigger, but the consequences will be felt globally.
Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia