Iran's Going Nuclear

March 4, 2011 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections Region: Iran

Iran's Going Nuclear

Revolutions in the Middle East?  No bother for Tehran.  The future couldn't look brighter for the hardliners. 

Amidst the landscape of Middle East tumult, there remains the prospect of Iran—and its blatant evolving nuclear capability.

In retrospect, Iran circa the presidential protests of 2009, may be seen as the first in the series of popular rebellions we’re witnessing today - though the leadership there successfully beat down the protests. Indeed, the Tehran regime now appears to be relatively stable in the region. Suddenly almost every other government in the Middle East is viewed with greater uncertainty. Which ones can withstand internal dissent? These mobs of newly empowered individuals will shake and perhaps remove standing governments. And there seems to be a tendency in the White House to celebrate these expressions of popular will on the one hand, but on the other there is no vision of where all this leads. Sure Mubarak was authoritarian, but what now? It is not easy to run a country with limited resources, but a large and growing population. We may come to reflect on the Mubarak years more kindly if we find the next Cairo government can deliver political candidates, but no food. The prospect of serial revolutions is not the least likely outcome.

How does the world now look from Tehran? Is it better or worse? Is there more incentive or less to push on the nuclear front? Is the Iranian economy going to get stronger or weaker with oil prices topping $100 a barrel?

My guess is that leaders in Iran must be pretty happy. They are probably reinforced in their decisions to crack down hard and continuously on the green movement. They did not lose control of their country. Tehran probably does not see the contagion of uprisings in countries like Bahrain, Oman, or Saudi Arabia as something that undermines their position. They have already inoculated themselves against the effects of the Internet and rapid dissemination of dissent. And the higher price for oil may help them economically.

The prospect for a nuclear capable Iran amidst a collection of states that are suddenly focused inwardly on internal threats may be a dominant feature of the new reality over the next year or two.

Last week while headlines addressed the chaos of Libya, the IAEA released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear activity. It is not good news.

The IAEA inspectors report that Iran continues to expand its activities and, in particular, its uranium enrichment seems to be continuing with plans for expansion. Tehran has not complied with requirements to explain suspected military nuclear work and seems unfazed by Security Council sanctions. Moreover, the IAEA reports that the output of the declared facilities continues—despite the affects of the Stuxnet cyber attack. The evidence is that despite increased sanctions, the effects of cyber attacks (and reportedly the sabotaging of imported equipment) and the assassinations in Iran of top scientists, the program marches on…to the point where it is beginning to look inevitable rather than unacceptable as previous White House statements have declared.

Suddenly, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is not so close to the top of the agenda. The New York Times quoted a spokesman for the National Security Council commenting on the IAEA report of Iran’s obstruction and failure to cooperate as “troubling”. Well that talking point could probably be applied to several hundred issues that waft through the White House.

The combined actions to thwart Iran’s nuclear program may have complicated or possibly slowed it. But, if ultimately the only way of ending the program is through military action, that option has recently become even tougher given the ferment in the region—perhaps even impossible. Our approach of trying to buy time may curiously be congruent with Iranian interests. The longer we put off an increasingly inevitable assessment that Iran has nuclear weapons within its grasp, the better it is for Iran to develop its capability and take advantage of the weakened state of its neighbors.

Over thirty years ago on New Year’s Eve, 1977, President Jimmy Carter visited Tehran. In his toast at the state dinner he said, “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” In less than a year, our embassy had been taken over and he was consumed with the hostage crisis. It would be sadly ironic if, today, the net effect of US regional policies was that Iran is a relative island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world—and with nuclear weapons.

Image by shahram sharif