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Why we must stop Iran

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Colin Rubenstein

The cost of allowing Tehran to go nuclear is far greater than the price of prevention

The Age - March 22, 2006


UNITED States senator and former presidential candidate John McCain said recently: "There is only one thing worse than the US exercising a military option (against Iran), and that is a nuclear-armed Iran."  

McCain is quite correct. A military attack on Iranian nuclear installations could have some very bad consequences — in terms of international terror, oil prices and hopes to reform the corrupt and undemocratic regimes of the Middle East. But allowing Iran to defy the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it signed, and build nuclear weapons would be catastrophic.  

Some commentators are now trying to argue that a nuclear Iran, if not desirable, is not such a big deal, and we should just learn to accept it. They argue that, like any other state, Iran can be deterred from using any such capability, and anyway, other regional players, such as India and Pakistan, have been allowed to develop nuclear weapons.  

There are several reasons to reject these arguments. For starters, it is not at all clear that deterrence will work with Iran. The regime is run by mullahs who are motivated primarily by an extremist religious worldview. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shown signs that he believes it is his destiny to bring about a final battle between his version of Islam and the West, which will usher in the messianic era. Moreover, Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be destroyed and denied the Holocaust, views that Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also echoed. Ahmadinejad has suggested that a nuclear exchange with Israel would be worth it, even if millions died, provided it wiped out the Jewish state.  

There is good reason to accept the US State Department view that Iran remains the world's number one sponsor of terrorism. The regime is harbouring al-Qaeda elements, it promotes Hezbollah's global terror network, it foments violence in Iraq, and it pulls the strings of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the primary perpetrator of suicide bombings in Israel over the past year. If Iran had nuclear weapons, the regime could conceivably give them to terrorists to use, believing they could not be traced back to Iran. Or rogue elements, such as the increasingly powerful and radical Revolutionary Guards, might see to it that their favourite terror groups had access to nuclear weapons.  

Moreover, even if Iran gained nuclear weapons and was deterred from using or proliferating them, the consequences would still be dire. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, abused by first North Korea and then Iran to illegally develop nuclear weapons, would be as dead as a doornail. A chain of proliferation to states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and the central Asian republics would probably follow, creating an arc of nuclear weapons states in the world's most unstable region. And an emboldened Iranian regime, safe from any military consequences behind their own nuclear deterrent shield, would probably vastly increase its support for terrorist groups and attempts to destabilise neighbouring regimes.  

Fortunately, we are not quite yet at the point where the only possible alternative to Iranian nuclear weapons is military force. Despite the recent boasting of Iranian leaders that the world needs them more than they need the world, there are ways that sanctions can significantly harm the Iranian regime, provided they are genuinely observed.

First, despite being awash in oil and natural gas, Iran imports almost a third of its refined oil products, including petrol, because of its limited refining capabilities. Second, Iran's oil industry is in poor shape, and dependent on maintenance from outside companies.

Sanctions on Iran's refined petroleum imports or oil industry maintenance and equipment could bring about a change in one of two ways. It may prompt the majority of Iranians, who clearly oppose the theocratic regime, to finally find a way to change it. Or, if that does not happen, discontent and declining oil revenues may allow elements in the regime opposed to the populist ultra-radical Ahmadinejad to convince the clerical powerbrokers to withdraw their support for his confrontational policies.

Despite the regime's public bravado, on show again with threats from Ahmadinejad this week, there are signs that some in Iran are starting to realise their vulnerability. Iran has, since 1979, always rejected direct public talks with the US "Great Satan", but last weekend accepted a month-old US offer of talks on Iraq.

The only way to avoid the choice between bad and worse posed by McCain is to mount effective action to pressure Iran in the UN Security Council as quickly as possible. The Australian Government is already expressing the right sentiments in this regard, but should be using whatever diplomatic levers are at its disposal to make sure this happens. Above all, this means using some of the capital that we have carefully built up with China over recent years to persuade Beijing to agree to real and effective sanctions on

Iran if it does not reverse course and start co-operating fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and agree to forswear enriching uranium in Iran, which would make producing weapons very easy.

Iran is a major oil supplier for China, which also hopes to sign significant contracts with the Iranian oil industry and, for this reason, has been resisting any talk of sanctions against Iran. But it is not in China's interest either to have a nuclear Iran, with the chain of proliferation it would likely bring among China's neighbours, nor an oil crisis. Australia needs to do everything it can to remind China of this disturbing scenario.

There is no hope that further diplomacy will in itself budge Tehran — that has been made amply clear. There now must be serious UN sanctions on Iran, or within a period of no more than a year or two we are very likely to face the stark choice posed by McCain.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He taught Middle East politics at Monash University.