The recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes clear what observers of Iran’s nuclear program have suspected for many years. Iran is not simply seeking nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but simultaneously readying the components that would be needed to construct a nuclear weapons capacity.
In all the fevered talk of IAEA reports, it is easy to lose sight of why Iran’s actions are so destabilising. Many argue, often with a great sense of certainty, that we have nothing to fear from Iran’s efforts. After all, Israel already acquired such arms. Surely it is hypocritical to hinder Iran’s attempt to do the same? Such challenges are legitimate, but they are not persuasive. The Western world’s deep concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions are well warranted, and cannot be explained away by establishing false equivalence with Israel.
Central to this debate are the Arab states, and the countries of the Persian Gulf. While they may rail against Israel’s nuclear capacity, in part for domestic political reasons, most are quite relaxed about the status quo. States like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt know perfectly well that Israel’s nuclear capacity was created in order to deter a concerted offensive against it. It has always been a defensive capability, and never once employed as part of Israel’s diplomatic efforts, either overtly or implicitly. Indeed, so comfortable are the countries of the Arab world that they have never once sought to check Israel’s capacity through the creation of their own arms. Instead, there has been near broad consensus on the attractiveness of a nuclear free region, something that the Arab states will call for at a regional conference next year.
What really troubles the states of the Arab states is the tide of nuclear proliferation reaching Iran, their perennial rival for dominance of the region. Speak to any Arab diplomat and, privately, and they will share varying degrees of horror at such a prospect of their Persian neighbours acquiring such a powerful weapon. Indeed, we know from the publication of US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is wedded to the idea of military action to prevent such an outcome.
Why the concern? Unlike Israel’s development of nuclear weapons, Iran’s does threaten to unleash another wave of proliferation. Tehran’s crossing of the nuclear threshold would not be a limited event, but the trigger for nuclearisation of the entire Middle East. Saudi Arabia would be first, using its close ties to Pakistan to secure the technology and know-how needed to expedite the establishment of a nuclear counterbalance. Yet the Kingdom would be quickly followed by Turkey, perhaps Egypt, and one day some of the smaller Gulf States. It need not be stressed that an arms race of that kind, at the heart of the most volatile region in the world, would only create additional instability.
Even if these broader proliferation worries were not in play, Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be counter-productive in and of their own right. Iran has embraced a revolutionary foreign policy that seeks to advance Tehran’s interests through force and coercion. It would be far more aggressive were it supremely confident of its ability to deter any reaction. Moreover, Iran has proven to be an unstable country. The Green Movement came close to overthrowing the authorities, and will undoubtedly rise once more. Were the regime to fall, it would be impossible to predict who would take possession of the nuclear arsenal.
What then, should be done to prevent a nuclear Iran? Indeed, what can be done? There are no guarantees, but a combination of carrot, stick, and deterrent is the safest bet. The United States should do more to outline the benefits that would flow from a discontinuation of the program. A package including normalisation of relations and improved economic ties should be stressed at every opportunity. This may not appeal to the Mullahs in Tehran, but it may persuade Iran’s population that the time has come to trade in the nuclear program for something that offers more tangible benefits.
Moreover, sanctions, which have had a considerable effect on the Iranian economy, should be stepped up. The UK’s decision to sever the City’s ties to the Iranian banking sector is a step in the right direction, and other countries should consider taking similar moves. In addition, we must continue to lobby the Arab states to make their concerns public. By limiting their concern to the realm of private diplomacy, Iran is able to portray the dispute as a straight showdown between itself and the United States. Were the countries of the region persuaded to make a co-ordinated stand, it would be that much harder for Russia and China to veto the kind far reaching sanctions that might have a greater effect on Tehran’s calculations.
Lastly, the prospect of military action must be kept on the table. A negotiated settlement would be greatly preferable to the use of force. Yet a credible threat of military action, either by Israel or the US, could convince Iran that any final push for a nuclear capacity would be futile.