While the West dithers, the centrifuges spin…

It is now a diplomatic given that the greatest immediate danger to Israel, the Middle East and the West comes from Iran’s determined pursuit of nuclear weapons. An ayatollah regime with hegemonic aspirations, bent on the destruction of Israel and armed with weapons of mass destruction, is a recipe for regional instability, arms proliferation and unending terror.

This certainly appears to be the position among senior western politicians. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, warned yesterday that a nuclear Iran could trigger an unstoppable arms race and that there was a palpable “threat of a new cold war in the Middle East”. Similar sentiments have long been echoed in Washington, particularly after the discovery of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on US soil. There is alarm too in the capitals of Europe where the thought of another Middle East conflict brings undiluted dread.

But acknowledging a problem and presenting workable solutions are two different things. William Hague, who decries military action against Iran, has said that the government is “100% focused to bring Iran to the negotiating table” through “a twin-track strategy” of sanctions and negotiations.  He is supported in this position by all three of the UK’s party leaders.

The EU too favours sanctions and diplomacy over military action. For President Sarkozy, the solution to this crisis ‘is political’ and ‘diplomatic’ while his German counterpart has repeatedly cautioned against Israeli unilateralism.

The Americans have long sought to prevent a lone Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Former CIA director, Leon Panetta, has spoken of “the combination of economic and diplomatic sanctions” as “the best way of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” while Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has said an Israeli attack would be “destabilizing”.

In recent days, politicians in London, Brussels and Washington have reacted with cautious optimism to an Iranian agreement for a further round of talks on the nuclear issue. The talks were suggested by Caroline Ashton on behalf of the EU and other powers.

But is there really any merit in relying on either sanctions or renewed diplomacy? Diplomacy at this late stage is surely an Iranian ruse for buying time and warding off the worst of the sanctions programme. The Iranian letter merely talks of ‘new initiatives’ and declares that the ‘success of the talks is subject to the constructive response of the G5+1 to the initiatives of the Islamic republic’.

In other words, it is Iran that will seek to dictate the agenda, not the other powers. The letter offers no concrete proposals on how to end Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and it is hard to see how these proposed talks will achieve anything more than the previous rounds of fruitless diplomacy.

In his instructive memoir, Surrender is not an option, former US diplomat John Bolton talked of his frustration with the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) in their dealings with Iran. In one chapter he described his attempts to win a harder line approach on the country, only to find that his initiatives were scuppered by those he called “the three tenors.”

They were engaged in a “diplomatic frolic” based on “nothing but air”, though one that gave Iran breathing space to advance its nuclear program. One fears that this latest letter is just another diplomatic frolic which will give Iran further invaluable ‘breathing space’.

Iranian leaders are past masters at the tactic of divide and rule. They will try to drive a wedge between western hardliners who seek to maintain pressure on Tehran and the others, particularly in Europe, who demand the alleviation of pressure in order to maintain Iranian ‘goodwill’. Such goodwill always comes at a price, after all.

But if the soft option is not viable, what about the hard option of sanctions? Economic pressure in the form of sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and Central bank is the ideal way to bring the regime to its knees, and properly disrupt the nuclear programme. But that is just the point – the sanctions are not effective enough in their current form.

Certainly, they have had some effect. The Iranian rial has recently plunged in value against the dollar, inflation in Iran is on the rise and the country’s income from oil production has fallen. A country heavily dependent on oil exports has started to feel the pinch.

But the proposed EU boycott of Iranian oil will not fully take effect until 1st July, providing the EU’s cash strapped economies (and Iran) with time to adjust to the measures. Worse, the top importers of Iranian oil, namely Iran, China and Japan, are refusing to sign up to the oil embargo and remain defiant in the face of American pressure. A determined Iran is likely to do all it can to circumvent the sanctions policy while bringing misery to its own population.

And while the economic pressure continues, the Iranians have recently unveiled more centrifuges at Natanz in a defiant rebuke to the West. The words of Leon Panetta two years ago now seem prophetic: “I think the sanctions will have some impact. Will it deter them (the mullahs) from their ambitions with regards to nuclear capability? Probably not”.

Yet for all these shortcomings, politicians in Britain, Europe and the US remain convinced that diplomacy and sanctions will eventually pay off over Iran. But if many rounds of sanctions failed to bring a recalcitrant North Korea to its knees, there is little chance they will work with an equally determined adversary in Tehran. They may even strengthen the resolve of the ayatollahs. What we are left with is the only viable option, namely the use of military force.

Detractors will argue that all options should be on the table before such a drastic step is taken, and one that entails such grave ramifications for regional security. The tragedy is that time is fast running out for preventing Iran from acquiring its first nuclear weapon. Time is the one vital commodity that the Iranians have been bargaining for over the last decade. With the West’s connivance, they are receiving it in ample measure.

About the Author
Jeremy is an author and the Director of B'nai Brith UK's Bureau of International Affairs