Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Give Sabre-Rattling a Chance

You know the Iranians are in serious trouble when even the New York Times is willing to recognize that it's well past time to take a more resolute stance against their nuclear ambitions. Now is not the time for European-style "constructive engagement" with the Iranian regime.

If international treaties to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons have any power, now is the time to flex it on Iran. Last week the United States, Europe, Russia and China jointly condemned Iran's refusal to explain how it got blueprints and equipment usable for making nuclear bomb fuel. That criticism must be followed up with concerted pressure to keep Iran from joining the growing list of states armed with nuclear weapons.

Tehran has been defying the spirit, and probably the letter, of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in order to acquire the technology and fuel needed to build nuclear weapons. If it is allowed to continue down this path, it could begin building bombs in two to five years. If Europe, Russia and China now toughen their stands, as Washington is urging, Iran, unlike North Korea, can probably still be stopped.

Tehran has been concealing suspicious nuclear activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency since at least 1985, testing how far it could go in developing the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium while insisting it was only interested in low-enriched uranium for power reactors. Its deceptions were discovered more than a year ago. Last fall Tehran promised Britain, France and Germany that it would suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and cooperate more fully with the I.A.E.A. The nation's active reform movement, with a solid parliamentary majority, encouraged hopes for further dialogue. Since then, conservative clerics have crushed the reformers, taken over Parliament and hardened Iranian policies. In recent days, Tehran has threatened to resume work on uranium-enrichment equipment.

In light of this new belligerence and Iran's failure to cooperate with the I.A.E.A., Europe should overcome its qualms about referring the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council is designed to deal with threats to international peace and security. A potential Iranian breakout from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty clearly qualifies.
Unfortunately the NYT continues to cling to its multilateralist hopes well after they've been discredited by 11 years of inaction over Iraq (and ongoing inaction over Darfur). It is simply nonsense to say that "The unhappy experience of Iraq showed that unilateral military action is not a very useful antiproliferation tool"; as Israel's 1981 strike on Osirak demonstrated by delaying Saddam's nuclear ambitions for an entire decade, unilateral military action can be extremely effective if done right. Besides, whatever other challenges Iraq may present for the immediate future, one consequence of the recent war is that a clandestine nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programme will not be one of them.

What form might military action take against Iranian nuclear ambitions? It's true that the American military is too stretched at the present time to undertake another Iraq-scale operation, but military action about Iran's weapons programme need not mean an all-out invasion. An air campaign seems to me to be the best bet: while an Osirak-style single strike is clearly out of the question, as Iran's nuclear programme is scattered over several sites - some of which are heavily reinforced against bombing - the fact is that American troops currently are just across the border, which eliminates many a logistical obstacle that might have otherwise stood in the way of a sustained delivery of B-52 heavy ordinance. The Iranian air-force would be quickly wiped out once the shooting started, and once the US owned the skies Iran's nuclear facilities could be bombed so sustainedly and so heavily that the country's nuclear programme would cease to exist as anything more than a nostalgic memory in the minds of a few mullahs. If any good can come of the Iraq war, the destruction of Iran's well-advanced nuclear hopes would clearly be one worthwhile accomplishment.