Iran's nuclear ambitions: let's not do anything rash

Should the US seek to destroy Tehran's atomic sites? No. The security case is not made and the risks are disproportionate

Is it too late to ask why Iran should not be allowed to waste its hard-earned savings developing its own nuclear weapons without having them destroyed in advance, as Nick Hopkins reports in today's Guardian?

No, it isn't too late. As with the Greek debts, it's never too late for a people to exert themselves in their own perceived interests – especially ones with such ancient and distinguished pedigrees as Greece and Iran, formerly Persia, which fought each other to the death so long ago.

The question in both cases is this: is it a good idea and, if so, for whom? As Plato remarked in the good old days, there is a difference between what is good for the state and what pleases the people.
> Map of Iran
But the Greeks, at least, are poised to put the choice between the euro and its debts to a plebiscite of the people (well, that remained the policy at breakfast time).

In sharp contrast, the Iranian Islamic Revolution took the fateful step away from the last vestiges of popular consent when it cooked the 2009 presidential election and turned to violence against the opposition, although tensions between the politicians and the ayatollahs mount by the day.

So we don't know if the woman in the Iranian street feels pleased at the prospect that her leaders in Tehran have the bomb or whether she'd prefer more food in the shops, and more liberty.

But that's not the issue for us. According to Hopkins' report (Julian Borger gives the technical background here), the Ministry of Defence is gearing up its contingency planning just in case the US seeks British diplomatic and military support to target Iranian nuclear sites, heavily protected beneath mountains though they are.

US-UK solidarity is always a good doctrine – more or less compulsory since 1940 – but it got us into a lot of trouble You Know Where.

Why now? This one flares up from time to time, sometimes on the basis of disturbing new facts, sometimes to suit the domestic political agenda of Iran's enemies – Saudi Arabia, Israel or the US, to name but three.

And boy, does that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chap make it easy for them. Can you imagine – a nuclear-armed cross between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson?

As Ewen MacAskill and Harriet Sherwood report, the Israeli cabinet has been discussing its military options (again) "in private" – ho ho – but it's a good rule of thumb that sensible people avoid doing whatever it is that the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, wants them to do apart from clean their teeth at night. He's got a bit of Ken and Boris egotism, too.

With an election looming a year away this week, the Obama administration seems to be trying to hose the usual hotheads down. "It's not going to happen" seems to be the message from Washington. I'm sure that's right, and distinctly remember finally deciding I no longer needed to read the Spectator regularly after ploughing through a column that recklessly assumed the Bush crowd were about to do it. Oh no they weren't!

But it's not that easy. Amid renewed concern among western intelligence agencies (don't laugh at the back of the class), the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) is poised to issue a new bulletin that may be a game changer because it provides unprecedented detail of the experiments now being done despite years of sabotage that have included the assassination of Iranian weapons scientists.

Not very nice, I agree – though we are dealing with a pretty foul, as well as self-righteous, regime in Tehran, one that hangs its own citizens in batches from cranes on grounds that are usually spurious even to loyal Tehran housewives and indulges violent and destructive terrorist strategies to help destablise neighbouring states.

If the IAEA – whose monitoring has sometimes been pretty complacent (is it related to the Moodys credit rating agency, by chance?) in the past – has decided things are getting serious, they probably are. But does that justify a pre-emptive strike like Israel's against Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant – nicknamed "O'Chirac" in honour of French technical assistance – in 1981?

As the Guardian's editorial points out, such a move would almost certainly lead to a wider war with uncertain results for all concerned. Uncertain, that is, except for still higher oil prices and renewed recession.

On balance, I don't think it does justify such an attack – and that it won't happen. The Israelis would do it if they could, but this time they probably can't. Washington won't let them. The Saudis are always tempted to "cut the head off the snake". Ditto.

In any case, Israel already has unacknowledged nuclear weapons, and the international community turns a blind eye to the fact. In addition to the five official nuclear weapon states – the US, Russia, Britain, France and China, in that historic order – India, Pakistan and North Korea have developed some form of capability since the non-proliferation treaty was signed in 1970. Uniquely, South Africa abandoned its modest arsenal in the post-apartheid era.

What is striking about all eight (plus Israel and South Africa at the time) is that they felt, or feel, uniquely vulnerable. Attacked without warning by Japan in 1941, the US has always nursed a paranoid streak (another surprise attack in 2001 reinforced those feelings) and did not feel obliged to waste millions of lives defeating Japan the sporting way when it could go hi-tech.

Russia had to get what the US had because it feared the kind of pre-emptive attack that some cold war idiots actually advocated. It had also been attacked without warning in 1941. Yes, I know both the US and the Soviet Union were warned, but they could not believe their enemies – Japan and Germany – could be so stupid since both were almost certain to lose in the end, as they did.

Hitler hastened the process by declaring war on the US, perhaps the stupidest decision of our time.

Britain and France feared the US would leave them at the mercy of Russia (as it yet might) or the treacherous mercy of each other. Israel fears another murderous attack on its tiny territory by what it sees as an encircling, threatening, antisemitic Arab world. India and Pakistan fear each other. North Korea fears both its own shadow and the outside world.

So it is easy to see why, even apart from domestic vanity and paranoia, the Islamic Republic of Iran might want its own bomb to play with. It, too, feels surrounded – by menacing Russia, a threat for centuries and now back in expansionist mode to the north, the Arabs to the west, and the Americans entrenched in central Asian bases to the south and east.

It is paranoid about Israel for essentially racist reasons and paranoid about us for past interfering – a fear that is well past its sell-by date.

They, of course, all fear Iran in return. That's so often the case – both sides feel themselves a beleaguered minority; they are a double minority, as Arabs and Jews feel within Israel and assorted minorities feel within the patchwork of states that rose from the ruins of Yugoslavia.

None of it is progress in my book – I imagine Alex Salmond feels differently – but it's where we are.

Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, as its critics (rightly, I think) assume it is seeking to do? No – it's a developing state with better things to do with its money, and is blessed with oil and gas. It is also an unstable, untrustworthy political state, with the relationships between church, politics and the military unclearly defined.

It is a scary prospect, but Pakistan is arguably a far more volatile nuclear-armed state, and one in which terrorists are an established fact. Scarier still. The paranoid Saudis may seek to buy nuclear capability in retaliation. Scary, too, in a state with an uncertain future. So much for non-proliferation.

So should the US therefore seek to destroy Iran's prospective capability? No. The security case is not made and the risks are disproportionate. Iran thinks it is protecting itself from invasion, and it may be right. But any nuclear threat – or worse – against Israel would guarantee similar threats against Iran with widespread international support.

But the most damning case against pre-emptive over-reaction is that, for all the horror that underpins the nuclear military option, not one of the 50,000 or so warheads held by the two superpowers at the insane height of the cold war was ever fired in anger.

The deterrent worked, unloved and unlovely though it was. It works for us, so why not for the ancient civilisation to which modern Iran is heir? They have a lot to lose.

It may not prevent war for ever. Some nihilistic fool somewhere is probably plotting a suitcase bomb this very day.

But let's not start any more avoidable wars until we have to. Greece's debts are more urgent and, as the cold war showed, patience works. It's best to play the Iranians at the long game.
The Guardian