The Problem is: Iran Does Pose a Threat in Every Way Iraq Did Not
Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian:
Here's the thing that people often forget about the boy who cried wolf: he did see a wolf eventually. Could that be how things are turning out in the Gulf? Did Britain and the US point to a false threat in Iraq, only to be left exposed when the real menace came along, in Iran?The left in Britain are starting to understand the threat of the Iranian regime.
That the Iraqi peril was a phantom, all but the pro-war diehards now concede. On the current menace posed by Iran, there is no such consensus. Some cannot help but feel sceptical as they hear London and Washington warn of Tehran's nuclear ambitions: yeah, yeah, that's what you said last time.
Opinion may harden this week, though, as Mohammed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency reports on Iran to the UN security council. For the nostalgically minded, it will be a Blix moment all over again - with the words of the world's nuclear watchdog weighed carefully.
It will be hard for him to say Iran's doing nothing. Tehran officials, from the president down, bellow their nuclear efforts from the rooftops; on Monday an Iranian official posed with a vial of uranium gas, to confirm his boast that enrichment had occurred. This is not happening quietly.
True, the Iranians claim that all this work is merely in pursuit of civilian nuclear power. But it's hard to believe that a country drowning in oil is running short of energy. I spoke this week to an expert in the field, who estimates that Iran will have the technology to make nuclear weapons "before the year is out". Then it will be able to begin the lengthy process of making fissile material, putting it on schedule to have a nuclear bomb by 2009.
Even if ElBaradei confirms that view, it doesn't necessarily make Iran a threat. As Tony Blair taught us so patiently three or four years ago, threat can be described mathematically - as the sum of capability plus intention. Iran may be on its way to having the capability, but what of its intentions?
That, inevitably, is a more subjective matter. But it is surely relevant that Iran is led by a man who cannot let a week go by without issuing an annihilationist threat to one of his regional neighbours. Last year Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Less than a fortnight ago he warned that Israel was a "rotten tree" that could be blown away in a single storm. This week's musings restated his desire to see Israeli Jews resettled in Europe, warning them: "This fake regime cannot logically continue to live." READ MORE
Even the most ardent opponents of Israel recoil at some of this language, not least because there are other grounds for wondering about Ahmadinejad's grip on reality. Last November he told a cleric he believed God had entranced world leaders when he addressed them at the UN general assembly; he had felt a halo upon his head as he spoke. Others note his devotion to the Hidden Imam, revered by Shia Muslims as a messianic figure, and regularly invoked by the president as he urges his countrymen to prepare for the imam's return.
Put it together and it forms an alarming picture: a state galloping towards a nuclear bomb, led by a messianist bent on destroying a nearby nation. Undenied, too, are Iran's links with terrorist organisations beyond its borders. For every way in which Iraq did not pose a threat, there is one in which Iran does.
And it is not just Israel that is endangered: a nuclear Iran would immediately trigger a rapid Middle Eastern arms race. Saudi Arabia would be quickest off the blocks, with Egypt and Turkey not far behind. Some of the smaller Gulf states would demand protection too. It's true that these nations have lived with a nuclear Israel without racing to catch up, but most observers believe that an Iranian bomb would be intolerable in the eyes of its Arab rivals. Determined to prevent Iran from emerging as the Muslim superpower in the region, they would stop at nothing to match it.
If that kind of nuclear free-for-all ensued, then countries that have historically held back would suddenly reconsider their options, among them even unlikely players such as Japan, Brazil and Germany. The relatively limited nuclear club that held for most of the cold war and after it would be dramatically expanded, the goal of international disarmament receding to a distant dream.
If all that persuades a reluctant world that a nuclear Iran poses a danger, what can be done about it? The chief obstacle is that Iran has good reason to want to become a nuclear power. For one thing, it can justifiably claim to be encircled by hostile forces, with US troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, it has been alarmed since 1998 by next-door Pakistan's possession of a nuclear bomb. Third, and most importantly, recent events have confirmed the value of a nuclear arsenal: after all, Iraq, which had no WMD, was attacked by the US, while North Korea, which has nukes, was left alone. The message is clear: stay safe, go nuclear.
Those reasons alone would make Iran resistant to pressure. But there are others. With the oil price soaring, it has leverage: it doesn't need to be bullied by anyone. It can flex its muscles immediately, either by attacking Israel via the groups it funds, Hizbullah in Lebanon or Islamic Jihad in the occupied territories, or by hitting US troops through Shia forces in Iraq. Worse still, confrontation does not frighten Tehran: it shores up Ahmadinejad to have an external threat to face down. It even fits his religious notions of a great battle preparing the way for the return of the Hidden Imam.
None of this offers much hope for a way out. But the challenge for those who do not want another war, and are terrified by talk in Washington of military, even nuclear, options against Iran, is to start thinking now about a solution. The window is just a few months; by the end of the year Iran's march towards the bomb could be unstoppable.
The first justification for hope is that Iran does not want to become a pariah state: that's why recent talk of keeping the country out of the World Cup is not as barmy as it might seem. It's the kind of sanction that could work. There is also a Tehran business class that would be threatened by international isolation: I'm told that Iran's oilmen are frustrated that they cannot buy the exploration technology they want. They need Iran to come in from the cold.
The international community could exploit these conditions, but only if it is united. There can be no Iraq-style divisions on the security council: China and Russia, as well as France, will have to be on side. And diplomats have to devise what one calls "a ladder for the Iranians to come down". That could mean a green light for civil nuclear energy in Iran and security guarantees that the country will be free from the threat of US-led regime change.
This, surely, should be at the top of the agenda when the G8 meets in St Petersburg this July. Our leaders invented the wolf last time. But they mustn't miss this one - it's all too real.