I attended a conference on Iran organised by a think tank earlier this month. The prevailing viewpoint was that Iran was well on its way to developing nuclear weapons capability, and that there were few options left on the table other than to launch strikes against its nuclear installations – so at minimum to start a limited war with Iran. The fact that most of the speakers were from the US, explained the pessimism to some extent but did not tell the whole story.
The discussion as to whether Iran was able to acquire nuclear weapons capability has moved in the last year from speculation about technological knowhow, to one of when Iran will actually be able reach nuclear weaponisation. In other words, it is now accepted that it is a matter of time before Iran is technologically and materially capable of higher grade uranium enrichment, and appears to be working towards that goal, in contravention of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.
What is not clear is whether Iran will stop at a sub-nuclear threshold, which it is expected to reach with the next year or two, when it will have the capability to develop weapons in a matter of months after taking a decision. Alternatively, it could chose to actually move ahead to actually develop weapons and delivery systems – in other words to actually become a full nuclear weapon state. Repeated statements by the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Khamenei are somewhat reassuring in that he states that Islam forbids the use of nuclear weapons. But they do not go far enough as he does not say that Islam also forbids the manufacture or stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
The ambiguity of Iran’s intentions has resulted in pressure from all sides of the international community including the Arab countries for something to be done to stop Iran. Israel, which feels that a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat to its survival is at the forefront to take action – hence its exhortations to the US. The problem with Israel launching unilateral preventative strikes is both military and political: first it does not have the kind of bunker-busting precision hardware that would be need for Iran’s dispersed, underground facilities. For strikes to be even partially successful at disrupting the nuclear programme they would have to be ongoing over several days. This would require the cooperation of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and would raise a fresh set of problems, with their own restive Shi’a populations, and Muslim solidarity in general.
From a broader international perspective, such preventative strikes are illegal in international law, and would elicit widespread condemnation. The risk of Iranian retaliation against Israel would be heightened not least by a reaction from Hizbullah in Lebanon or the Assad regime in Syria. With such a high cost, what would be achieved? Israeli sources openly acknowledge that strikes against an Iran, which has acquired the technological wherewithal, and which would be further alienated by strikes, would simply retard the programme by a year or two. In other words, strikes cannot prevent Iran’s programme, they can set it back.
If military strikes were backed by the US, the UK, as members of the UN Security Council would undoubtedly be involved, particularly if Iran attempted to block shipping lanes in the Straits of Hormuz. All nations are obliged to assist in keeping international shipping lanes open and with UK expertise in minesweeping we would surely be asked to participate in an international effort. A limited war is still war, with loss of life on all sides. It is for these reasons that cautious voices across the West including in both Israel and the US have been trying to buy time.
Several other options to set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been tried with mixed results. Covert attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities and scientists have damaged the programme somewhat. Cyber warfare and the Stuxnet virus has been used. The economic sanctions regime has been biting and the Iranian Rial has suffered significant devaluation, while food prices rise and other commodities become unattainable.
On the political front, President Barack Obama has been re-elected with a fresh focus on foreign policy which is always more evident in a second term US Presidency. On the Iranian front, while democracy is still elusive, fresh Presidential elections this year may see a more pragmatic leader take charge, allowing Khamenei some room for manoeuvre if the fiery rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is toned down.
Yet while these all represent a reduction in tension, the most important option – which is direct talks between the two main protagonists – the US and Iran – represent the only way out. There have been near breakthroughs. Iranian support for the US-led intervention in Afghanistan at considerable risk to Iranian interests was a point when better relations were possible. A further opportunity came with Obama’s early first term speech but which was not followed though. Now we have reports that Vice President Joe Biden and Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s chief negotiator with the P5+I, are both tentatively moving towards direct talks.
It is in all our interests that those talks happen. Iran’s capability to destabilise the Middle East requires us to take its moves towards nuclear proliferation seriously. The failure to secure a nuclear-free Middle East will continue to create instability in years to come. While the re-start of talks in Kazhakhstan on February 25 is an important next step, the normalisation of relations between Iran and the US will provide the only long term solution.
Baroness Falkner is Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrats International Affairs Parliamentary Committee