Israel Rafalovich
Israel Rafalovich

Iran: Nuclear ambitions and options

In what seems as a move away from previous calls by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran made a conditional offer of dialogue to the new American administration in Washington saying it was ready for “talks based on mutual respect and in fair atmosphere”.

This statement comes following American overtures towards Iran saying the US is looking for openings that will make it possible to begin a constructive dialogue. But, at the same time the new administration would take a nuanced approach towards the Iranian regime.

The change in the American attitude towards Iran comes as Washington realises that it underestimated the staying power of the Iranian regime.

Furthermore, it is hard to see any other Iranian regime, be it moderate as it will, foreclosing the nuclear option.

Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is a matter of fact and the challenges the US and Europe have to face, is to face the reality that Iran’s atomic ambitions will continue no matter whatever regime will hold power in Tehran.

A nuclear-armed Iran would change the strategic situation in the Middle East and accelerate regional proliferation. Iran is now operating 7 000 centrifuges inside its underground plant in Natanz, which could be used to produce fuel for civilian power stations or for the essential material for nuclear weapons.

A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February found that Iran possessed 3 936 operational centrifuges, with another 1 601 in various stages of preparation.

The options for action against Iran are limited. The latest experiences taught us, that the effectiveness of military strikes is disputed and according to international law there is no legitimacy for use of force at the current circumstances.

For the mean time the option of an American strike against Iran is politically not viable. Militarily, it is doubtful that a bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities would end Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The American military is, as a matter of fact, not an option.

The debate about a military strike against Iran’s nuclear programme has been taking place mainly in the US and Israel. The Israeli General Staff is divided about the practical chances of an Israeli military campaign if Israel goes it alone, without coordination and assistance from the US. The risk of a military strike is that it will only strengthen the hardliners in Iran and make them more determined to build nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, the crisis could spin out of control and Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz and attack critical oil facilities in the Persian Gulf, revive the fight against the international forces in the Middle East and fire missiles at Israel and instigate global terrorist attacks.

Iran could take it a step further and expel IAEA inspectors as well Russian engineers for it to use the Bushehr plant to make nuclear bombs.

Those experts who support a military attack against Iran are the opinion that Iran’s retaliatory capabilities are less strong than Tehran proclaims and expect that any crisis in the Strait of Hormuz could be limited in scope and time. They, also express the opinion that the threat to Israel would be limited due to the fact that Israel recently upgraded its missile defence.

Israel’s fear of a strategy of rapprochement towards Iran’s grasp for the bomb has triggered, in recent months, an intense discussion about unilateral air strikes. Israel’s threatening rhetoric is aimed at accelerating the diplomatic process, but this could change, especially now, as a right-wing government has come into power.

The danger of losing its strategic dominance in the region, Israel, which has nuclear capabilities of its own, feels more directly threatened by the nuclear crisis than other states.

The Israelis say that it is of existential importance to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Well, it is also of existential importance for the peace and development in the Middle East to be a nuclear-free zone.

It is also questionable whether the dual strategy of diplomacy and sanctions, which until now had only little success, will persuade Iran not to develop a nuclear capability and become a nuclear power.

The diplomatic efforts have been at an impasse. Neither incentives nor sanctions passed by the UN Security Council have brought about a change in Iranian policy so far.

It should be underlined that the leeway for the European Union to act as mediator has been reduced because of the fact that they closed ranks with the US. The negotiating position of Europe has hardened because of the inclusion of the US preconditions such as the suspension of uranium enrichment.

Iran’s refusal, until now, to go along with the “freeze for freeze” proposal is because of two factors. The first one is that under the current version of the proposal the suspension of uranium enrichment remains an explicit precondition for formal negotiations rather than the outcome of pre-negotiations, which limits Iran’s face-saving potential.

The second one is that some incentives offered to Iran are phrased in very vague wording.

What is most needed at this stage is creative diplomacy as it is more probable that there will be more leeway at the diplomatic level.

The first steps in the direction of a creative have been taken. Iran’s invitation to the Afghanistan Conference 2009 in The Netherlands and the invitation for a new phase in the talks with Iran are moves to find openings that can create diplomatic opportunities to engage Iran on the international stage.

This creative diplomacy is going to be a long and slow process and will have to strike a delicate balance. Both sides will be required to exercise patience and creativity so that a new diplomatic approach can be made.

Iran wants to gain nuclear threshold status and there are good geopolitical reasons for doing so, comparable to that of other countries and expects that this achievement by itself will increase its political standing as well as its deterrent capacity.

Achieving a “threshold status” does not mean that Iran is poised to field nuclear armed aircrafts or missiles. Staying at the “threshold status” may suit Tehran’s purposes for now and fulfils many of Tehran’s goals in the region.

Let us be clear about a basic fact. The objective of a total nuclear disarmament in the Middle East will not be achieved as long as it excludes Israel.

As long as one other country has the potential to make and use nuclear weapons it makes no sense for any country to give up altogether its own nuclear capabilities.