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The danger of a nuclear Iran

By Douglas Davis

Iran has made very clear the likely target of its potentially nuclear-tipped missiles: Israel

The Middle East is on the brink of going nuclear, and the rest of the world is fiddling or looking the other way. The United States is draining its energies in Iraq, the Europeans are fussing over "soft power" diplomacy, and the UN monitoring agencies are dithering. "We are not asking the tough questions," a senior official in the Vienna-based UN nuclear-monitoring industry told me this week. "We are not being persistent. We are too afraid to offend. We are failing."

One of the problems is that the Americans have lost credibility over Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction. But my Vienna source is less concerned that Washington was wrong in Iraq than that the UN monitoring agencies are afflicted by creeping paralysis in Iran. At a moment of global crisis, relations between America and the UN nuclear inspectorate are poisonous, with George W. Bush actively seeking to curtail the tenure of Mohamed el-Baradei, the largely ineffective head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

All this has complicated the attempt to deal with the clutch of states in the Middle East that are understood to be rushing headlong down the nuclear route.

Israel's senior intelligence and military officials have already produced a chilling countdown to Iran's imminent emergence as a nuclear power: by spring 2005 Iran will have acquired a fully independent research and development capability; by 2007 it will have reached the "point of no return", and by 2008 it will have produced its first nuclear weapon.

Israeli officials appear particularly well qualified to judge these developments: their secret signal-intelligence Unit 8200 is reported to have cracked the sophisticated Iranian code that enabled Israel to eavesdrop on communications between Iran and its nuclear suppliers over several years.

Israel itself is a veteran of the nuclear club, but its weapons are labelled "deterrence-only" and would not be rolled out unless Israel faced a doomsday scenario. Some of its neighbours might be less inhibited. Senior Israeli intelligence sources I spoke to this week have no doubt that Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. And while his masters dither, my source in Vienna is equally adamant that the world is facing a real and present danger. "You only switch off the monitoring systems, as Iran did in 2002, if you have something to hide." But he, like the Israelis, is also worried about what might be going on in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, just three of about 18 countries - mostly Muslim and ore-rich African states - where nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan has left his fingerprints.

A.Q. Khan, who delivered the "Islamic bomb" to Pakistan, ran a vast global network of front companies, manufacturers and middlemen to facilitate his entrepreneurial activities, now regarded as the most serious case of proliferation in history. He was eventually rumbled by Western intelligence agencies in October 2003 when a Libya-bound freighter stuffed with Malaysian-made nuclear products was seized.

Confronted with the evidence, Muammar Gaddafi fessed up, and the Americans found themselves with a trove that included tons of nuclear equipment, including 4,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, the blueprints for a 10-kiloton atomic bomb and enough information about the good doctor to further whet their collective appetite. After a partial admission - that he had also dealt with Iran and North Korea - A.Q. Khan disappeared and President Pervez Musharraf refused all requests, including those from Washington, to question him about his dealings in other states.

The reason he is incommunicado - and that President Musharraf shields him so zealously - is a matter of intense speculation, not least because it is unlikely that A.Q. Khan could have ploughed such a sensitive field, on such a scale, so lucratively and for so long without attracting high-level attention at home. But President Musharraf is an American ally in the war on terrorism and the CIA must restrain itself. As with Libya, A.Q. Khan is said to have provided Teheran not only with equipment for enriching uranium, but also with actual designs for the bomb.

The Russians added the icing. Their contribution has gone far beyond helping to construct Iran's ostensibly peaceful Bushehr reactor. It is clear, said one Israeli intelligence source, that without the transfer of nuclear technologies from Russia, Iran could not have achieved the pace of progress that it has in developing nuclear weapons. Would Teheran use them? Iran is not the only country in the world that is governed by Islamic law, actively nurtures Islamic terrorists and has a problem relating to the non-Islamic world. Uniquely, though, it has pledged to destroy a fellow UN member: Israel. The rhetoric of the mullahs was encapsulated in a five-word slogan inscribed on Iran's Shehab-3 missiles when they were paraded through Teheran on Revolution Day in 2003 - "Israel must be wiped out."

This is a danger which my Vienna source - neither Jewish nor, indeed, Western - believes is most acute. Israel is facing a very serious threat, he says, and the nuclear-monitoring industry has "utterly failed to address the profound and legitimate concerns it has about its national security". A senior Israeli intelligence source echoes the anxiety. With the characteristic caution of his craft, he estimates that "since the Iranians are so bent on the destruction of Israel, there is a probability that they will use their nuclear weapons aggressively against Israel".

Like others in the field, he is contemptuous of Iran's claim to be pursuing nuclear energy for strictly peaceful purposes. It simply does not add up. Iran possesses among the largest proven oil and gas reserves in the world, more than enough to fuel its domestic needs. Why would it opt for nuclear energy, which is far more complicated to develop and far more expensive to produce?

Further, the Israeli source links Iran's quest for nuclear weapons to its greater ambitions for leadership, not only in the region, but throughout the wider Islamic world. In other words, while existing nuclear powers acquired their devastating capability for defence and deterrence, Iran might intend using its nuclear weapons to project its power in the cause of its geopolitical objective - Islamic dominance and, ultimately, a global Islamic state.

The problems with Iran, says my Vienna source, are compounded by an acute inferiority complex. Iran does, indeed, labour under two inherent disabilities: firstly, it is a non-Arab state in a predominantly Arab region; secondly, it is rooted in Islam's minority Shi'a stream. But these handicaps are unlikely to inhibit its march to power. The combined strength of its other assets - its vast oil and gas reserves, its uncompromising religious zeal, its driving political ambition coupled with a nuclear-capable military machine - would make it an irresistible force. The mullahs would be propelled to centre stage in the Middle East, the wider Muslim world, and also in the international arena. My Vienna source cautions that "when Iran has the bomb, it will not have respect for anyone".

 

Can Iran's race to nuclear weapons be halted? The experts shudder and look with alarm at the dithering IAEA and the naive efforts of a detumescent European Union. So far, the earnest applications of "soft diplomacy" by Britain, France and Germany have achieved negligible results. As with the weapons inspectors, duplicity is the name of the game for Iran's skilful negotiators, who run rings around the European infidels sent to buy them off. Agreements that are locked up on Monday night somehow escape by Tuesday morning. The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, acknowledges that "the nuclearisation of Iran will have consequences for the whole region - and for European security". But he concedes that "up to now, Europe has delivered nothing".

The grim reality is that Iran provided the test-bed for a European-style solution, complete with high diplomacy, economic incentives and multilateral institutions. Having been handed a mandate by Washington to stop Iran, Europe appears to have comprehensively failed. Iran not only continues to use its hundreds of centrifuges to enrich uranium in breach of "agreements", but it is also using laser enrichment and it is processing plutonium, an alternative nuclear fuel source.

The fatal mistake that the European negotiators appear to have made is to project their own values on to Iran's leaders, assuming that revolutionary mullahs share the aspirations and impulses of rational decision-makers in the West (would it ever occur to any Western leader to send waves of children running through minefields, as Iranian children did in the Iran-Iraq war, in order to clear the danger?).

Iran's political compass is fixed on a symbiosis of ideology and religion, which imbues its decisions with a mystical, transcendental supernaturalism, beyond the experience and understanding of conventional Western political thought and practice. No surprise, then, that the clutch of economic carrots dangled by secular, democratic, liberal Europe cuts little ice in revolutionary Teheran, which has its sights set on divine destiny.

"We try to engage them as far as we can," says Joschka Fischer, "and if the Americans joined us, that would make it much more powerful." But it is clear that the Americans have their hands full. And in any case, George W. Bush is contemptuous of Europe's enthusiasm for a "critical dialogue" with a side-serving of containment-lite which, in Mr Fischer's view, should not be supported by military or economic consequences. While the hapless Fischer insists that "we must do everything to contain the threat", what he really seems to be saying is that we must learn to live with the Iranian bomb.

But is the German foreign minister right to imply nothing can be done? It is true that economic sanctions will have the effect of driving oil prices through the ceiling. It is also true that military action, like Israel's 1981 air strike, which destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor - and, with it, Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program - will not be easy. The Iranians have learned the lesson of Osirak. Their nuclear facilities are widely dispersed in scores of sites throughout the country - above ground, underground and, most problematically, in civilian population centres. It would be hideously difficult to destroy them all. But nothing less will do. For a military strike to be successful, all Iran's nuclear installations must be taken out, says my Vienna source - who notes that Iran's nuclear production facilities have been duplicated and, in some cases, triplicated.

 

Between sanctions and air strikes, there might be a third way. According to some reports, covert action by American and Israeli special forces may already be underway to sabotage Iran's nuclear facilities from the ground. It is a long shot, but long shots are the last resort of desperate nations.

It is difficult to imagine that either Israel, facing an existential threat, or America, facing its most daunting challenge, would sit calmly by and await the fateful announcement from Vienna that Iran has tested a nuclear device. It is equally difficult to elicit a response from intelligence and security officials about how and where they might act to prevent such an eventuality - although one former Israeli intelligence agent did return the question with a rather pointed one of his own: "Who says nothing is being done?"

Stay tuned.

Douglas Davis is London correspondent of The Jerusalem PostThe Review. © The Spectator, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.