Iran is a “short distance” from securing all it needs to make a nuclear warhead. This is the conclusion of a long-awaited report prepared for the French National Assembly (parliament) and submitted to President Nicolas Sarkozy in the last days of 2008.
The report is the fruit of a bipartisan effort headed by Jean-Louis Bianco, a prominent Socialist Member of Parliament, and senior advisor to President Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of the report is based on the in-depth research done by a number of leading French experts on international politics and nuclear proliferation, among them Francois Heisbourg and Therese Delpeche.
Because it came in the dying days of 2008, and with the world preoccupied with the financial crisis, the report did not attract the attention it deserved.
Analysing Tehran’s strategy, the report asserts that the Islamic Republic will be an effective member of the nuclear club by the end of 2011 at the latest. Moe importantly, perhaps, it makes it clear that 2009 may be the last year in which the major powers would be able to persuade the Islamic Republic not to cross the threshold of making the bomb.
What distinguishes the French report from many other speculative essays trying to guess Tehran’s intentions is that it uses facts officially acknowledged by the Islamic Republic itself. The aim here is not to sensationalize the debate in the hope of inciting world public opinion against Tehran.
It is not clear what impact the report might have on French, and beyond it the broader, Western strategy for dealing with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. The official discourse has always been based on the assertion that the West would not allow Tehran to become a nuclear power. President George W Bush said it as early as 2002. Sarkozy repeated it last month. Barack Obama, the US President-elect, has made similar noises on days when he was not talking of cuddling the mullahs without preconditions.
The French report presents the Western powers, and the incoming Obama administration, with a different rhythm and tempo as far as the Iranian nuclear challenge is concerned. The report removes two previous assumptions: that Tehran was many years, perhaps even more than a decade, away from the threshold point, and that the Khomeinist leadership had not yet made the final decision to build a nuclear arsenal.
With those assumptions gone, the powers that do not wish to see a nuclear-armed Iran are left with two options: to accept what looks inevitable, or to try to prevent the inevitable.
In either case, the current policy of diplomatic gesticulation is no longer a viable option. If the option of accepting Iran as a nuclear power were chosen, the passing of further punitive resolutions and the imposition of additional sanctions would make no sense.
On the other hand, if it is decided that Tehran should be stopped before the threshold at all costs, bolder diplomatic initiatives and/or military action might be needed.
At first glance, it looks as if the US is tilting towards accepting the inevitable and trying to manage its consequences. One sign came last month when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered her Arab counterparts an American “umbrella” against a nuclear-armed Iran.
Rice’s discourse echoed the position of Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State-designate in the incoming Obama administration.
Here is how Clinton put it: ” I think deterrence has not been effectively used in recent times. We used it very well during the Cold War when we had a bipolar world, and what I think the President should do and what our policy should be is to make it very clear to the Iranians that they would be risking massive retaliation were they to launch a nuclear attack on Israel. In addition, if Iran were to become a nuclear power, it could set off an arms race that would be incredibly dangerous and destabilizing because the countries in the region are not going to want Iran to be the only nuclear power. So I can imagine that they would be rushing to obtain nuclear weapons themselves. In order to forestall that, creating some kind of a security agreement where we said, no, you do not need to acquire nuclear weapons. If you were the subject of an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran, the United States and hopefully our NATO allies would respond to that.”
The approach of both Rice and Clinton to the issue is in sharp contrast with the French, and the broader European, position that remains geared to preventing Tehran from crossing the threshold.
Americans may dismiss the French toughness on this issue as mere bluster that cannot be backed by meaningful action. After all, France and the European Union as a whole, lack the military muscle without which tough diplomacy is worth than useless.
Nevertheless, France’s position, which has already aroused Tehran’s anger, could provide the basis for a new framework of joint action by all those interested in stopping the Islamic Republic from crossing the threshold. Obama may still seek direct talks with Tehran, but should make it clear that he is not prepared to embark on an open-ended dialogue. The French report includes a time guillotine: the point of no return will be reached within a year or so.
The mullahs, of course, will use all the dilatory tactics they have developed over the past three decades. It will flatter and insult Obama alternately, making him dance to their tune. There will be talks about talks, then pre-preparatory talks followed by confidence-building talks. Good TV footage will come out of these exercises, proving Obama’s strategic vision and profound wisdom in contrast with George Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy.”
All the time, however, the real clock will continue to tick towards the Khomeinist nuclear bomb. This is what Bianco’s chilling report is telling the world.