When the 35-member Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency meets next week to consider the case of Iran’s nuclear program, it will convene against the background of rather alarming statements made by two Presidents of nuclear-weapons States: Chirac, who threatened to launch a nuclear strike against any country that sponsors a terrorist attack against French interests and Bush who stated that “the world cannot be put in a position where we can be blackmailed by a nuclear weapon” in reference to what he asserts to be Tehran’s ambition to develop nuclear weapons. And when the Israeli Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz states that “Israel will not be able to accept in any way an Iranian nuclear capability”, there is ample reasons for Iran to get jittery even if it boasts a serene confidence in the face of direct treats of military action against its nuclear facilities –however well protected these may be.
Truth is that a concerted missile attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will reverberate throughout the Moslem world, and boost the nuclear ambitions of states that will come to the conclusion that the only credible deterrent against nuclear and conventional strikes (with the yield of tactical nuclear weapons however) is…a nuclear arsenal. So whether the Board of Governors refers Iran to the Security Council next week –the odds are against it as the Director General of the IAEA Mohammed El Baradei has resisted pressure to issue an incriminating interim report —or later in the year, does not appear to be a decision that will alter the course of events. In the short term, it may simply shape the legality, or lack thereof, of the framework in which major powers will seek to control Iran’s nuclear program. In the event of a referral of Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council, it would seem unlikely that veto-wielding China and Russia will be persuaded by Washington, London and Paris to authorize the use of force against Iran. Short of an outright Council mandate to threaten the use of force against Iran, the Council may find itself yet again in an Iraq-type situation: imposition of sanctions and intrusive inspections. But unlike the case of Iraq in 1991 in the aftermath of its invasion of Kuwait when it was brought to its knees by a glaring military defeat, sanctions and intrusive inspections will be rejected outright by the Iranian leadership.
Having drawn lessons from the protracted cat and mouse game with Saddam Hussein’s regime, Washington’s goal to bring Iran before the Security Council must thus derive from a different objective: it must hope that by stepping up international pressure on the regime, it would not coerce it into abandoning an alleged nuclear weapons programme but rather foment widespread internal dissent that would bring about the regime’s downfall. But that may be a process that Washington and Tel Aviv are not ready to wait for. Hence, the military option –with, or more realistically without Security Council mandate. Because even if Tehran were to give in on all demands and subject itself to an UNSCOM-like regime, Washington and Tel Aviv will remain convinced that somewhere in a bunker in Iran, a nuclear bomb is being made.
Back in 1981 when the Israeli air force destroyed the Osirak reactor, the Security Council condemned the attack which it viewed as a serious threat to the entire IAEA safeguards regime and the foundation of the non-proliferation Treaty. And it indeed shook the NPT regime, as the destruction of Osirak only shaped, or strengthened Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons aspirations – and probably also the proven nuclear ambitions of Pakistan and the DPRK.
Today however, in the event of a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Council would not even agree on whether to condemn, or as some may like to have it, condone a so-called pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear “ambitions”. And whether Iran is pursuing, or would like to pursue a nuclear weapons programme, this question remains, short of hard evidence, the matter of speculations. Even if the evidence were to be laid before the IAEA’s Board of Governors or the Security Council, we will all think back and ask ourselves the question “didn’t Secretary of State Powell dangle a tube and display ‘the evidence’ of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destructions in front of the entire world a few years ago? And where are we today?”
So when leaders of the United States, France and Israel –who all have the power today to launch nuclear weapons– make public threats and step up a dangerous rhetoric aimed at an already volatile region, I am afraid that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s absurd and politically gratuitous statement to “wipe Israel off the map”, which is unbecoming of a Head of State, seems far less threatening. And at any rate, even if the new Iranian President were to truly seek the physical end of the State of Israel, he well knows, and so do Bush, Chirac and Mofaz, that given the landmass of the Jewish State, it’s physical destruction in a nuclear mushroom that would obliterate the Holy Land is not an option. At the end of the day, who is threatening who?