Alex Massie

Iran’s Red Line? A Case for Caution, Not Action

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As is customary, James and I disagree about Iran. Or perhaps we merely have different ideas about what constitutes the most important Persian questions. James, I think (and I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong), places the nuclear issue above all others. I'm more agitated by the nature of the regime in Tehran.

That is, I doubt that we can prevent Iran from acquiring a nulear capability at some point and that, while it would certainly be preferable if Iran didn't have the bomb, we might have to get used to the idea that it will.

It's also quite possible, perhaps even probable, that a new regime in Tehran (if and/or when that happens) will also want nukes. This would make sense, given that Iran feels it is being threatened by outside, hostile powers. On the other hand, a new regime might be open to some kind of Grand Bargain that would, in return for welcoming Iran back into the international fold, persuade it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

So I'd argue that the nature of the regime matters more than the nature of the weapons it holds. Will tougher sanctions help resolve either issue? I can understand the argument that tougher sanctions will weaken the Iranian regime and make the people realise that the combination of the mullahs and their nuclear ambitions are crippling Iran, leading to further unrest that will undermine the regime still further and eventually persuade it to abandon nukes. Unfortunately I'm not sure I buy it.

That's because, in the first place, nuclear weapons can be a badge of patriotic pride. They mark a nation's technological development and prowess. More significantly, the blame for the pain caused by sanctions tends to be apportioned to the people doing the sanctioning, not the presumed or stated targets of those sanctions.

With the arguable exception of South Africa - which was, in any case, a wholly different, scarcely comparable case - how many sanctions efforts have actually worked? Not too many. Now that doesn't in itself mean it's folly to take a tougher line with Tehran, merely that one ought not to be confident that doing so will actually have any great impact. And that's supposing you can impose sanctions that achieve their stated aims.

So, in the end, the question may not be whether or not Tehran has a nuke, but whether we can avoid a regional nuclear arms race and whether Iran can be deterred from using its bomb. Neither of those are attractive propositions, but then nor is pursuing policies that actually shore up the regime and boost its fraying credibility.

Riven by internal dissent and faction, the Iranian regime might well consider concerted international pressure a blessing. What else could do more to unite Iranians against their common "enemy"?

Increasing Iran's isolation might bring the country closer to boiling point at which point anything could happen. But a still-more isolated Iran would also seem likely to have the opportunity to crack down still further on internal dissent. That would bring a kind of "stability" for sure. But only for a while and at what eventual cost?

Like everyone else, I don't pretend to have the answers to these questions. But I can't help but suspect that the regime would benefit and the people suffer if "tougher" action is taken against Iran. Whether that's in our own long-term interests, nevermind the Iranians', seems a moot point at best.

PS: Forgive me if I'm also scpetical about the Times' claim that Iran is "ready" to build a nuclear bomb and could complete it within 12 months. Perhaps this is true - though it is , I think, a minority view - but the Times' source is pretty clearly Israeli intelligence. Now the Israelis may be right, but it's certainly in their interests to hype the imminence of a Persian bomb. As I say, that doesn't mean their analysis is wrong, let alone that they're wrong to be concerned, but it's something to be borne in mind.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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