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Iran: The Best Course Is to Stay the Course

Iran: The Best Course Is to Stay the Course

Mark Hibbs, the former long-time Europe correspondent for Nucleonics Week and all-round specialist on global nuclear commerce, comments today on the IAEA’s Iran report. He notes that the agency has been unable to ferret out the line of command connecting Iran’s nuclear weapons program with the country’s political leadership, and speculates that the program may have got its impetus primarily during the 1989-98 presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who reportedly was appalled by Saddam Hussein’s use of poison weapons against Iranian soldiers in the previous decade.

That may be so, and given Rajsanjani’s continued role as a major player in Iranian politics, it’s interesting. What’s also striking, however, is Iran’s persistent and unwavering quest for atomic weapons through several changes of government, including a reformist interlude. That kind of cross-partisan determination has been characteristic of most serious proliferators, from the UK and France to Israel and Pakistan. (Russia and China only had one government and leader during the relevant periods, and so they don’t count; India may be the exception that proves the rule.) The conformity of Iran to the classic proliferator profile suggests it will be very hard to stop, and perhaps impossible.

That said, Hibbs and is quite right to stress that the IAEA report “draws no conclusions about how far along Iran’s nuclear weapons program is” and therefore is “irrelevant to Israel’s calculus of whether to attack Iranian nuclear installations.” Nothing in the report shows or suggests that preemptive military action by anybody would be warranted at the present time.

What to do? Anna-Marie Slaughter, the former dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and former head of Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff, cautiously suggests a revival of the fuel-swap plan that Turkey and Brazil tried to broker last year. But she concedes that this, even if President Obama could sell the idea domestically, would still leave Iran with enough uranium feedstock for atomic bombs and might tend to legitimize its enrichment efforts.

Condolleeza Rice, in at least one of her many recent television appearances, rightly emphasized that UN sanctions on Iran–as well as the Stuxnet computer virus–have visibly impaired Iran’s nuclear efforts and produced considerable economic distress. She suggests that an oil embargo might be the next logical step. But the oil market is notoriously hard to control, China certainly would not go along, and inevitably a lot of Iranian oil would find its way to Northeast Asia and the Subcontinent. The likely end result would be higher global oil prices and higher revenues for Iran.

An idea I haven’t seen seriously floated–though I may have missed something–would be for the United Nations to declare Iran to be radically out of compliance with its NPT obligations and to eject Iran from the IAEA and Nonproliferation Treaty. Of course that would end any ongoing effort at constructive engagement, but as Slaughter notes, that effort appears to be failing; the end result of the effort is almost sure to be a nuclear armed Iran. Ejection of Iran from the NPT and IAEA would make the country a nuclear pariah and fair game, which might sober its leadership’s mind wonderfully.

Of course it also might not. And so, in the final analysis, the prudent course may be to stay the course: To keep on the pressure, maximizing it at all times, in the hope that either there will be dramatic change for the better in Iran itself or that something will change in the constellation of Mideast politics that prompts a change of heart.



William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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