Alex Massie

The Persian Problem

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The news that Iran has a second, secret nuclear installation can hardly be considered a surprise. Nor, alas, is there anything surprising about Charles Krauthammer's reaction to Barack Obama's decision to make nuclear proliferation an issue at the UN General Assembly:

What did he accomplish? Nothing. This is really quite surreal. As we speak, the Iranians are spinning thousands of centrifuges and developing uranium. The American delegate at IAEA announces that Iran already has enough uranium to construct a bomb. It's testing its missiles, flouting all U.N. resolutions, as are the North Koreans.

And the response of America?

The president of the United States — on camera, of course — presides over a perfectly useless meeting of the Security Council and passes a perfectly useless resolution airily declaring the end of nuclear weapons.

OK! I'm far from a UN-groupie but isn't it possible that the Americans have decided that, if they expect the rest of the world to take Iran's nuclear ambitions seriously then the US also needs to lead by example. That is, there are an awful lot of countries who, whether one likes it or not, are of the opinion that there's more than a whiff of colonialism about western demands that other countries abandon their nuclear ambitions while, of course, doing little to nothing by way of dismantling their own stockpiles.

Krauthammer is right to argue that North Korea and Iran want nukes so that they can say they have them and to bask in the enhanced prestige such terrible weapons afford. It is indeed a kind of weapons-grade machismo. But much of the world doesn't necessarily see it like that. They see a high-handed west laying down the law and arguing that while it's fine for us advanced countries to have the bomb it's not at all fine for you dusky-hued types to possess nuclear weapons.

One may disagree - strongly - with that analysis but that doesn't change the perception in other parts of the world. We need to deal with the world as it is, not as if it were how we might like it to be.

And so, in terms of presentation at least, Obama has pulled off a neat trick this week: by raising the general issue of nuclear weapons he has been able to concentrate minds upon the particular problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

It's still too soon to say where this will end and I'm far from convinced that stronger sanctions against Tehran will have much of an effect. But the last ten days - including the manoevering on missile defence - may have made it more likely that such sanctions will be imposed and, perhaps, be given time to work.

In the longer-term, however, the biggest Iran-related question has not been answered. At some point the US and other coutnries are going to have to decide whether Iran's nuclear ambitions are more important than the nature of the Iranian regime.

If that is the case then we may find ourselves taking action that is more likely to entrench the regime than challenge it. That is, we may decide that strengthening the mullah's grip on power is a price worth paying for delaying, at least potentially, Iran's successful acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps bombing will work but it remains an extremely high-risk course of action the case for which remains, at best, unproven. It's not impossible that military action would undermine the regime (cf Serbia, though the circumstances are not really so very comparable) but the balance of probability must surely be that however much the regime might be discomforted by military action the consequences of such would be even worse for the opposition.

Regime change (from within) or No Nukes? You might be able to have one, I'm not sure you can expect both.

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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