The world will pay a heavy price if Iran gets nuclear weapons
Wednesday, 11 April 2007
The West, Russia and China do not want a Middle East arms race.
SHEIKH Taj al-Din al-Hilali's visit to Tehran, where he paid homage to
the world's most dangerous regime, is truly reprehensible. He and his
fellow travellers clearly do not grasp that last week's unedifying
spectacle of Iran parading captured British naval personnel before the
world was merely a prelude of what is to come.
This was an opening act in what will be a non-stop show of
sabre-rattling and aggression should Iran succeed in its quest to
develop a nuclear weapon.
The consequences, at a number of levels, will be real.
First, Iran is governed by a leader who has publicly called for the
destruction of another state. Threatening to wipe Israel off the map,
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given voice to what is thought to be a
widely held view in Iran.
In 2001, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani said that "an
atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would
just produce damage in the Muslim world".
It is this belief that the use of a nuclear weapon would not in itself
lead to Iran's own destruction that is of greatest concern,
distinguishing it from other cases. With Iran, traditional modes of
deterrence, such as the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured
destruction, no longer seem to apply.
Second, Iran is not a status quo power. As a child of a revolution, it
seeks to foment revolution. Beholden to its Shiite ideology, Iran seeks
to extend its influence throughout the Islamic world, undermining
moderate governments and creating a crescent of satellite communities
Capitalising on the removal of two of its greatest foes, Saddam Hussein
and the Taliban, Iran now has more freedom to act.
Its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian
territories and its influence over Shiite majorities in Iraq, Oman and
Bahrain and sizeable minorities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Afghanistan
have created consternation in the region.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, constantly on guard against those who
seek to destabilise his regime, has said: "Shiites are mostly always
loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live."
Iran's use of its extensive networks to finance and arm subversive
groups beyond its borders further fuels these suspicions.
It is therefore no surprise that Iran's nuclear program has led to
efforts by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all Sunni-dominated
countries, to develop their own indigenous nuclear capabilities.
These states believe they cannot afford to allow Iran to obtain the
military superiority that comes with a nuclear weapon as well as the
prestige and influence that inevitably comes with such a technological
With regional leadership not a mantle these other proud Muslim regimes
want to meekly hand over to Iran, a Middle East arms race is all but
With Iran refusing to comply with UN demands to freeze its uranium
enrichment and open its facilities to outside inspection, its nuclear
program may soon pass a threshold after which there is no point of
The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran
plans to install 3000 centrifuges at its underground facility at Natanz,
complementing its heavy-water plant at Arak and its conversion plant,
producing uranium hexafluoride, at Isfahan.
When operational, these centrifuges at Natanz will have the capability
to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium for a
nuclear weapon in under a year.
It would seem Ahmadinejad is not merely posturing when he says: "Iran
has obtained the technology to produce nuclear fuel, and Iran's move is
like a train which has no brake and no reverse gear."
Clearly more will be required to stop this train than the limited
sanctions announced by the United Nations.
While the existing UN sanctions are confined to a small number of
defence and civil entities implicated in Iran's nuclear and missile
programs, to be really effective they need to extend further, targeting
Iran's broader economic trading and investment relationships.
Despite riding a wave of high oil prices, Iran's economy is extremely
vulnerable to outside pressure.
Characterised by a pervasive and inefficient regime of state subsidies, a
bloated bureaucracy, underinvestment in key infrastructure
(particularly in the oil sector) and high unemployment and inflation,
the economy is the Iranian leadership's pressure point.
Effective and unified international co-operation will be difficult. Iran
is a key supplier of China's energy needs, while Russia has large
military contracts with Iran.
Both these permanent UN Security Council members stand to lose
economically in the short term from a protracted stand-off with Iran.
But by the same token neither Russia nor China has an interest in seeing
an unpredictable and nuclear-equipped Iran cause havoc in the global
It is this opportunity to create an alignment of interests between the
majority of the Islamic world, the West led by the United States and
Europe, an emerging China and a revitalised Russia that offers a window
of hope in stopping Iran's nuclear program.
Should we fail to seize the moment and generate the international
consensus required for Iran to back down, we are all bound to pay a very
Josh Frydenberg is a former senior adviser to Prime Minister John Howard
and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
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