Iran’s nuclear program is back at the top of the international agenda.
On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected to release a report which according to media leaks will say that the evidence in its possession suggests that Iran has been conducting research in areas which could only be used for producing a bomb. Iranian scientists have reportedly been working on a trigger device, conducting work on a nuclear-capable warhead design, and carrying out covert explosions and computer simulations. Not all of the information is new, and it will be important to know what work is recent, and how much dates back to past programs about which the IAEA has been seeking clarification from Iran in vain for years. According to the Washington Post, Iran was helped by a former Soviet weapons scientist, as well as Pakistan and North Korea, to overcome technical hurdles.
Obama administration officials appear convinced that Iran is acquiring the elements for a nuclear weapons capability. Most western experts say that although Iran is not known to have taken the decision to actively pursue a weapon – which would involve breaking out of UN and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty constraints or accelerating clandestine work – it could be that the leadership wants to keep its options open.
Thanks to the impact of international sanctions which have slowed Iran’s progress, there is time to marshal a concerted global response. But Israel – the only Middle East power with an (unacknowledged) nuclear arsenal – believes that the window of opportunity is closing, a view underscored by saber-rattling from Jerusalem last week. Meanwhile, if an alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington was indeed authorized by the Al Quds faction of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran is likely to be planning its own retaliation. Iranian officials have accused President Obama of being a “terrorist” for authorizing the covert actions that have led to the assassination of three Iranian nuclear scientists.
In the light of the IAEA report, the Obama administration is expected to press its case for stronger sanctions to isolate Iran, while resisting calls for military action. The United States launched such a campaign in the wake of the revelations about the alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador. US weapons systems are being moved into the Gulf States, as part of a containment strategy.
But there are signs that Obama has retreated from targeting the Iranian central bank with sanctions which could have prompted Iranian retaliation causing a new spike in oil prices that would tip the global economy further towards recession.
The bottom line is that Iran has remained adamant in the face of economic hardship and has refused to yield to the UN Security Council’s demands to halt its uranium enrichment program which has become a source of national pride. It seems that sooner or later, the world will have to accept Iran’s enrichment program which has produced a stockpile of sufficient fuel for at least four nuclear bombs if enriched to weapons grade.
The key in the next few months will be to persuade Iranian leaders – who insist that Iran has only peaceful intentions and is not developing a weapon – from going to the brink. They must accept international controls aimed at guaranteeing the program’s civilian nature. The Obama administration should continue to work through its international coalition, using all the tools at its disposal short of military action which would be a “cure” far worse than the disease.
These are the personal views of the author