No need to panic over Iranian nukes
United Nations sanctions won't work but there's still plenty of
time for patient talks.
By Gwynne Dyer
Hamilton Spectator" -- -- When the International
Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last Tuesday that Iran had broken
the seals on its nuclear research facility at Natanz, many
people reacted as if the very next step was the testing of an
Iranian nuclear weapon.
In the ensuing media panic, we were repeatedly reminded that
Iran's radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared just
months ago that Israel should be "wiped off the map." How could
such a lethally dangerous regime be allowed to proceed with its
But talk is cheap and not to be confused with actions or even
intentions. Ahmadinejad was quoting directly from the founder of
Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. But neither
during Khomeini's life nor in the 16 years since his death has
Iran made any effort to wipe Israel off the map, because to do
so could mean the virtual extermination of the Iranian people.
Israel has held a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East
since shortly after Ahmadinejad was born and now possesses
enough of them to strike every Iranian and every Arab city of
more than 100,000 people simultaneously.
Ahmadinejad's comment was as foolish, but also ultimately as
meaningless, as Ronald Reagan's famous remark into a microphone
that he didn't know was open: "My fellow Americans, I am pleased
to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will
outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."
Nobody doubted that Reagan wanted the "evil empire" to be wiped
from the face of the earth, but nobody seriously believed he
intended to attack it. Russia had nuclear weapons too, and the
U.S. would have been destroyed by its retaliation.
Ahmadinejad was not joking about wanting Israel to vanish, but
he was expressing a wish, not an intention, because Iran has
been thoroughly deterred for all of his adult life by the
knowledge of those hundreds of Israeli nuclear warheads.
And Iran would still be deterred if it had a few nuclear weapons
of its own, just as Reagan was deterred from striking the Soviet
Union even though the United States had thousands of the things.
So why would Iran want nuclear weapons at all? Mostly national
pride, plus a desire to keep up with the neighbours.
For Iran, nuclear weapons fall into the class of "nice to have"
rather than life-or-death necessity. Israel cannot invade it,
and even the United States would be reluctant to do so: It is a
very big, mountainous and nationalistic country.
So, the Iranians have chipped away at the task of building the
scientific and technological basis for a nuclear-weapons program
in a desultory way for several decades, without ever getting
really serious about it.
That is still the pattern. When the IAEA demanded that Iran
explain certain irregularities in its nuclear power research
program three years ago, the regime did not respond like North
Korea, which immediately abrogated its membership in the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty and went all out to build nuclear
weapons as soon as possible.
Instead, Iran voluntarily allowed the IAEA to put seals on its
nuclear research facilities.
Now it has removed those seals and plans to resume its research
on nuclear power. This will also enhance its capacity to work on
nuclear weapons eventually, but that can't be helped.
The current American campaign to impose United Nations sanctions
on Iran is doomed to fail, because it is not breaking the law.
As a signatory of the NPT, it is fully entitled to develop
nuclear power for peaceful purposes, including the technology
for enriching uranium, even though that also takes it much of
the way to a nuclear-weapons capability. In any case, it is
practically unimaginable that all the veto-holding powers on the
UN Security Council would agree to impose sanctions on a major
oil-producer on the mere suspicion that it ultimately intends to
break the law.
And there is no need for such a dramatic confrontation. Iran has
never been in a great rush to get nuclear weapons.
Even if the CIA is unduly optimistic in assuming that Tehran is
still 10 years away from a bomb, there is still plenty of time
and room for patient negotiation. And no need for the current
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose
articles are published in 45 countries.
Copyright 1991-2005, The Hamilton Spectator
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