By Martin Woollacott (THE GUARDIAN, 17/11/07):
The Bush administration’s predictable reaction to this week’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency has been to say that it demonstrates conclusively that Iran’s nuclear cheating continues, and that there will be consequences. Israel has been even more severe, while Britain, France, and Germany all support the American line to one degree or another. One has to hope that, in private, there are at least elements of a more nuanced understanding of the situation. If not, we could soon find that the consequences for us are every bit as serious as any that may be borne by Iran.
The danger is not yet of an immediate American or Israeli attack, but of a sundering of the lines of communication between the various countries concerned, and a loss of control over events in a region already primed for reckless acts. If the US government took a step backwards to assess the scene coolly, instead of pressing on toward a deadly date with Iran, what would it see? Pakistan’s future, and with it the whole western effort in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region, in the balance; Turkey ready for military action in northern Iraq; Israel bombing a Syrian target in what can be seen as a warning to Tehran that the same, writ large, could happen to Iran, even if the US itself does not attack; the Annapolis peace conference discredited in advance, while the conflict between Fatah and Hamas worsens, with many in the region discerning an American hand in that deterioration.
And, outside the region, a parting of the ways over Iran looms for western countries with Russia and China, which could lead to a broader alienation. This is a bad direction. When things are slipping, a big power should not add to the confusion in which anxious and fearful governments are taking decisions – decisions on which they increasingly may fail to consult not only other countries, but wiser heads in their own countries.
That is clearly as true of Iran as it is of anywhere else. A serious argument over nuclear policy, and over foreign policy generally, is under way in Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who – in the absence of positive achievements in other fields – has made a talisman out of nuclear defiance of America, is not necessarily the winner. It is probably true that there are few in the ruling elite who do not want Iran to have at least a nuclear weapons option; but there are senior figures ready to go slow and to push the issue into the future when, if relations with the United States were on a better basis, there might be less reason to pursue it. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, may soon have to take a bigger hand in the internal power struggle, and where he will come down is of critical importance.
The last thing outside powers should be contemplating is any action that makes the most desirable internal resolution less possible. And we should be taking public note of what Iranian dissidents are repeatedly saying, which is that they “categorically reject a military attack on Iran”. Whatever happens, America and its supporters need to consider, reconsider and then consider again their long view. Would it be absolutely disastrous if Iran acquired a few nuclear weapons a few years earlier than would be the case if its facilities were bombed now? For that is what the issue comes down to – a delay, and maybe a pretty short one.
The Israeli military analyst Martin van Creveld recently noted that there has hardly been a year since 1945 in which there has not been heated talk of the terrible consequences of additional countries going nuclear. But the countries in question have either not done so or, when they have, the consequences have proved bearable.