Game of cat and mouse has gifted Iran time

27 November 2009

Published in The Jewish News: 27th November 2009

One month ago, the deadline passed for Iran to respond to a deal on its nuclear programme. Under the terms of the deal, Iran was required to ship the bulk of its low enriched uranium to Russia where it would have been processed and returned to Tehran for purely civilian purposes.

It was hardly a perfect deal for it would have allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium, the very thing that has so worried Western observers. Having prevaricated for a number of weeks, the Iranians have now signalled that they will not accept the offer.

This behaviour comes as no surprise. It has been the standard diplomatic manoeuvre from a government which has constantly played a tactical game of cat and mouse with the West. Since 2003, the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) have tried to persuade Iran to give up enriching uranium in return for generous economic concessions.

But while Iran’s diplomats have been stringing along their European counterparts, her scientists have been busy designing warheads and testing explosives. In the IAEA’s annual reports, Iranian leaders are regularly accused of evasiveness, concealment and lack of transparency.

President Ahmadinejad has been remarkably adept at this form of cat and mouse diplomacy. While recently declaring that his country would ‘not retreat one iota on the undeniable rights of the Iranian nation’ he has spoken warmly of establishing ‘international nuclear cooperation.’ Put simply, he has offered a phoney olive branch to anyone naïve enough to accept it.

Now that diplomacy is spent, the West can respond to the Iranian threat in two ways: sustained economic pressure or military action. In regard to the former, UN sanctions have been imposed on Iran for the last three years but these have been watered down under pressure from Russia and China.

Nor does the current mood music from Moscow and Beijing suggest any major change of heart. A month ago, Sergei Lavrov declared that new sanctions against Iran could prove ‘counterproductive’ while China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, praised the ‘cooperation in trade and energy’ between his country and Tehran. Any sanctions proposed by the US and her allies are therefore likely to be weakened by a determined Sino-Russian axis.

As for the latter option, Washington appears to have backed away from a military attack since at least 2006, fearful of the political repercussions. No one should underestimate how Iran would respond to a strike on its nuclear facilities. A vengeful Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz, choking off the flow of oil and disrupting an already beleaguered world economy. Her leaders might also respond to a unilateral strike by staging terror attacks in the Middle East and beyond, using proxies like Hezbullah for good measure.

Worrying as this scenario is, the consequences of an Iranian bomb would be much worse. A nuclear Iran could bully its oil producing neighbours at will, threaten US troops in Iraq and deepen instability across the Middle East. The country could also pass nuclear technology to terrorists, igniting a regional conflagration that would empower Islamic extremists across the globe. A regional arms race would inevitably follow. It can hardly be in the interests of Russia or China to face this danger with equanimity.Given President Ahmadinejad’s blood curdling rhetoric, the Israeli government understandably views an Iranian bomb with the deepest alarm. But Iran’s nuclear programme is not just an existential threat to the Jewish state; it is a threat to the world. Iran’s defiance can only be countered by rigorous sanctions (i.e. on refined petroleum) or the serious threat of military action. No other options should be on the table.

Facing this kind of sustained pressure, Iran’s leaders might just see sense and abandon their illicit nuclear programme. Thus far, however, world leaders have been lethally divided, gifting Iran the most precious commodity of all - time. Unless our statesmen wake from their stupor, they will soon find that the Iranians have used that commodity to devastating effect.


31 December, 2013

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