Iran’s leaders may be crazed and dangerous fanatics, but they are not stupid. That is why President Bush is right to show the Iranian regime that he is serious about containing its undisputed ambition to go nuclear in flagrant defiance of the international community. Nobody in their right mind — including President Bush — wants to go to war, let alone launch nuclear missile strikes, as some overexcited headlines in the American and British media have suggested over the past few days. But the White House, as well as Downing Street, would be delinquent if they were not busily reviewing all possible contingencies to deal with Iran.
That senior generals and officials are studying in detail different scenarios to deal with a hostile Iran is not the proof of some secretive neoconservative plot to control the world; it is merely responsible military planning. In its increasingly irrational hatred of US foreign policy and the Bush White House, it is the liberal-Left commentariat in the West that is guilty of evading the principal problem: that the world faces an immense threat from a militant and increasingly emboldened Iran, and one which must be dealt with as a matter of the greatest urgency.
Those siren voices in the West who still believe that the threat is grossly exaggerated need to acknowledge that Iran, the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism, is the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. It is a fact that the regime is the paymaster of — among many others — the Lebanese Shiite militants of Hezbollah (which Iran helped to found in the 1980s), the Palestinian terrorist group and now government, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and many of the barbaric terrorists who are murdering innocent Muslims every day in Iraq in an effort to destroy its first glimpse of freedom. The spectre of nuclear-armed terrorists is not one that bears contemplating.
Not content with financing and encouraging the world’s worst terrorists, and doing its best to destabilise Iraq, the Iranian regime is also developing an intercontinental missile, the Shahab-3, with an 800-mile range that could hit Israel — all at a time when rabid anti-Semitism is being encouraged in the Iranian media and Holocaust denial is propagated by the Iranian government. Armed with nuclear weapons, Iran would also be much more likely to try to grab control of the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial trading route for oil and gas.
It is not President Bush who is being ‘messianic’ in his determination to prevent an already dangerous situation in the Middle East spiralling out of control, as suggested by sources quoted by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker; it is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s fanatical president. On Tuesday the Iranian media cited Ahmadinejad as claiming that ‘good news’ on their country’s nuclear programme would be imminent. This was widely understood to herald an announcement that Iran has enriched uranium to the 3.5 per cent level needed to fuel nuclear power stations like the one it is building at the Gulf port of Bushehr. Such an announcement would be yet another massive blow to UN efforts to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment work; this and other alarming developments, including a recent show of force by Iran’s military, suggest that the regime is determined to plough ahead regardless of what others think, convinced that the US and the West are too decadent or too weak to thwart its nuclear ambitions.
Israeli officials sometimes claim that Iran could be ready to produce a bomb within three years; others suggest that it could take up to ten years. But in many ways such predictions miss the real point. Once fuel rods are loaded into the Bushehr reactor and it becomes ‘hot’, surgical military strikes simply cease to be a viable option. Bombing an active reactor would result in radioactive fallout, akin to the devastation caused by the Chernobyl reactor meltdown in 1986.
It simply will not do to assert some sort of moral equivalence between Iran’s nuclear programme and that of Israel. The truth is that Israel has been forced to build up a much-needed defensive capability to ensure its survival in an overwhelmingly hostile region, and would never use its weapons except as a last desperate means of preventing its own obliteration. This is qualitatively different from the offensive capability that Iran proposes and could well use to launch an unprovoked strike on its neighbours or hand over to its terrorist surrogates.
There is no magic bullet to solve the mounting Iranian crisis. In the short term, diplomacy must and will be pursued. The US must negotiate directly with Iran, offering a clear guarantee that neither America nor Israel will attack, in exchange for Tehran agreeing to a complete and immediate moratorium on its nuclear programme; Washington should also throw in the offer to resume limited economic and political ties.
But it is equally clear that time is running out for negotiations. The regime must be told in unambiguous language that the West is absolutely serious in its determination not to allow an unreformed Iran to go nuclear; the possibility of military action as a last resort must not and cannot be ruled out. Unless the West is ready to show the mullahs that we are deadly serious, what is now a dire situation will eventually turn into the worst crisis in international relations since the Cuban missile crisis. How to deal with Iran is our biggest test since the Cold War; we must not allow the voices of appeasement or our troubles in Iraq to threaten our clarity of purpose.