Andrew Gilligan

The case for not attacking Iran

Andrew Gilligan says that Iran will probably have a nuclear bomb within five years, but that does not make the country a threat to us

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Do the last few days remind you of anything, by any chance? Presidential heavy breathing about a ‘rogue’ Middle Eastern state; a supporting chorus of exiles with dramatic new claims; and a senior member of the US government bearing intelligence which turns out to be more spin than spine-chilling. Less than a month after the presidential election, the Bush White House has begun its campaign against Iran. In the week that Americans break for Thanksgiving, it might seem that, for Washington, the festival of the moment should really be Groundhog Day.

Yet while the methods and timing are about as surprising as a delay on the Tube, and while we may be tempted to say that all the neocons have done is to change the ‘q’ to an ‘n’ in the name of the target, there are excellent reasons not to dismiss the latest American sabre-rattling.

This time there really can be very little doubt that Iran has weapons of mass destruction, chemical and probably biological, and that it wants to obtain something even more destructive, a nuclear weapon, in fairly short order. In 2002, Tehran was forced to own up to enriching uranium, an important prerequisite for the development of a nuke, at a secret plant called Nantaz. Not incontrovertible proof of anything: indeed, the Iranians said it was for civil use. But Iran has the Middle East’s third largest oil and gas reserves, and does not need nuclear electricity. Why, also, was Nantaz kept secret, in defiance of Iran’s international treaty obligations, if its purpose was entirely peaceful?

Since that dramatic discovery, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear inspectorate, has had several other unpleasant surprises in the Islamic Republic. Inspectors have been repeatedly misled, sometimes directly, sometimes by omission; other secret facilities have not been declared; promises and undertakings have been broken; and the history of the last two years has been of constant Iranian brinksmanship, with agreements we thought we’d signed having to be re-agreed later. Even this week, as the Iranians agreed to suspend enrichment under the threat of referral to the UN Security Council, they insisted that it would only be temporary.

An obscure substance, polonium 210, may become as familiar to us in the next few months as were the now-forgotten Iraqi buzz words of the Tuwaitha weapons plant, the al-Dawra vaccine factory and the al-Hussein conventional missile. Polonium 210 is an unstable element whose only real use is as an initiator for a nuclear weapon. The UN has discovered that it has been produced in Iran. (Tehran says it is for nuclear batteries to be used in the country’s space programme, which is not yet operational.)

Buoyed by high oil revenues, Iran’s nuclear programme has seldom been so flush. The Israelis say that Iran could have the bomb within a year. It is unlikely to be that early, but most experts agree that if the programme continues, the mullahs will be nuclear within five years. The striking thing, really, is no longer the concealment; it is Iran’s relative openness, even brazenness, about its atomic ambitions. It knows exactly the calculations which we in the West are making, and it wants us to carry on making them.

Politically, the picture is equally bleak. Iran is no Saddam-style tyranny, but the reform movement which gave such hope of a rapprochement with the West in the 1990s is at a desperately low ebb. The moderniser, Mohammad Khatami, remains as Prime Minister, but has effectively lost his struggle with the religious conservatives. In this year’s parliamentary elections, they managed to get a quarter of the candidates — and 87 of the sitting MPs — disqualified for being too progressive. A mass reformist boycott, a sullen electorate and a low turnout saw substantial conservative gains. Iran’s hardline rulers have now embarked on what some call a ‘modified China model’. Petty social restrictions on things like women’s dress have been eased, to reduce pressure for change — but political repression remains as strong as ever.

Iran continues to sponsor terrorism, although not against the West. It was an Iranian-made arsenal that was found on the Karine A, the ship caught by Israel on a smuggling run, allegedly to the Palestinian Authority, possibly to Hezbollah. The arms had been loaded at an Iranian port. As far as the Israelis were concerned, the Karine A wrote the death warrant for the Palestinian peace process.

Yet should this mean that Iran is just Iraq with one of the letters changed? Absolutely not. Except in the minds of the most hysterical hawks, a capability does not constitute a threat. A threat arises when there is capability plus intention. And there is no evidence that Iran has the intention to attack us. Iran’s relative flaunting of its nuclear ambitions may even, in one sense, be reassuring: it suggests that the bomb is regarded as a deterrent, or perhaps even a bargaining chip, rather than as an offensive weapon.

British officials accept that there are no easy options for dealing with Iran. With or without a nuclear bomb, a full-scale Iraq-style invasion is clearly impossible. Iran is twice the size, more mountainous, far better armed and with a government, however unpopular, that enjoys far greater legitimacy among its own people than Saddam’s ever did. Clandestine efforts to change the nature of the regime also seem unlikely to work. If Iran’s own reform movement could not manage it from within, the United States is most unlikely to manage it from outside.

A bombing raid, perhaps an Israeli bombing raid, on Iran’s nuclear facilities, before they are ready to produce a weapon, might sound like the easy option. It would be the least bad if negotiations fail, and we are determined that we cannot live with a nuclear Iran. But if one weapons facility can be kept secret, so can others. Bombing could never hope to guarantee that all the nuclear sites had been destroyed, and the entire programme had been stopped. And it would risk killing off all possible hope of reform, and turning Iran into a genuine outlaw state — something it is not quite at the moment.

According to Ken Pollack, the highly respected Washington Middle East analyst, Iran’s current status as a fully-fledged US hate-object is partly the result of an accident. Since the embassy hostage-taking in 1979, relations have not been warm. But there have been several attempts at rapprochement since. And, by Pollack’s account, Iran only ended up in President Bush’s famous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech as little more than ‘padding’. Bush’s speechwriters ‘had come up with this great line, and they needed a third country to make up an Axis’, he quotes one administration official as telling him.

Unlike Saddam, the Iranians do not have a recent history of grossly aggressive, reckless behaviour. They have never invaded another country or launched WMD against their own people. Despite ample capabilities, they have not been implicated in an act of terrorism against the West since 1996. Their decision to stop the practice back then, in response to a serious US warning, shows a most un-Saddam-like capacity to learn from their mistakes. The mullahs know that any attempt to pass WMD technology to terrorist groups would result in their annihilation.

In an episode that deserves to be better known, Tehran even gave substantial support to the Afghanistan phase of President Bush’s war on terror. There was genuine sympathy, and spontaneous candlelit vigils, in the days after 11 September — perhaps the only such demonstrations in the entire Muslim Middle East. US transport aircraft were allowed to refuel at airfields inside Iran during the war against the Taleban, and Tehran weighed in wit h its Northern Alliance allies to persuade them that the US was serious about overthrowing Mullah Omar’s regime.

Much is made in neocon circles of the presence of some senior al-Qa’eda leaders in eastern Iran, where they fled after the Afghan war. But the Iranians have offered to hand over these men to the United States or to a US ally, if Washington agrees to give Tehran members of a pro-Saddam, anti-Iranian militia, the MEK, whom it holds in Iraq. So far, this offer has been refused, amid suspicions that the United States may want the MEK for its own purposes if it ever gets round to organising some sort of regime change.

And it is in Iraq where Iran has been most important. Tehran’s conduct there has not been perfect. But it has ordered its various Iraqi proxies not to obstruct the reconstruction process. And Iran, with its substantial influence in Iraqi Shia-land, can make the US occupation untenable if it chooses. It can massively boost the killing power of Iraq’s Shia insurgents. It has not done so. This, as much as any other reason, is why, whatever the rhetoric, the United States will have to be cautious about taking on the Iranians.

In discussions with journalists and British officials over the last six months, Iran has discreetly made it clear that if it should be attacked, it has the power to turn the current mess in Iraq into a Lebanon-in-the-1980s-style calamity, and send a lot more men of the British and American armies back home in boxes. That is the main reason why the current policy of negotiation, coupled with threats from each side to make life difficult for the other, will probably continue for some time, however tough the rhetoric from Washington.

Ironically, by our pursuit of an unnecessary enemy in Iraq, we have limited our options for dealing with a rather more dangerous one in Iran.

Andrew Gilligan is the diplomatic and defence editor of The Spectator.