Bruce Anderson: There is only one thing to do about Iran

The nightmare is that an unchallenged Iran would become a nuclear suicide state
Click to follow
The Independent Online

We have all been at picnics when a wasp appeared and someone started flapping, literally, with feeble wavings of paper napkins. Apart from disrupting the calm and the conversation, such ineffective gesturing makes it more likely that someone will be stung. I was reminded of that when watching Tony Blair and Angela Merkel speaking about Iran. The two leaders sounded solemn and statesmanlike. But the ineffectuality was just as apparent. On Iran, no one knows what to do.

It is exceedingly undesirable that Iran should acquire nuclear weapons. With the exception of North Korea, all the other nuclear powers seem to understand the first responsibility that comes with the ownership of such hardware: the need to ensure that it is never used. In his recent statements, President Ahmadinejad was, no doubt, speaking for effect: appealing to a domestic radical constituency and to Islamic radicals throughout the region. Even so, one would not want his finger to be anywhere near a nuclear trigger.

This does not mean that we could prevent him. In Washington, there is absolutely no enthusiasm for any military option. To an alarming extent, the Bush administration is running out of intellectual momentum and élan vital. Though it is to be hoped that there will be some recovery, Mr Bush will not regain his enthusiasm for grand projects. Elderly lawyers on shooting trips may quail. Rogue states can relax, at least until John McCain becomes President.

Or unless they annoy Israel. Her plans are not determined by Washington's lassitude. But the difficulties of acting against Iran would be formidable. By destroying Osirac - the Iraqi nuclear reactor - back in 1981, the Israelis should have earned the entire world's gratitude. Yet that was a relatively easy target. It could be destroyed quickly, with minimum casualties.

There is no Osirac equivalent. Given the difficulty of dealing with hardened targets, it might be necessary to use nuclear weapons, but even a conventional Israeli pre-emptive strike would be a hideous risk. We might find that, without seriously disrupting the Iranian programme, it had convulsed the Islamic world, leading to the fall of half a dozen regimes friendly to the West and to a massive surge in terrorism, possibly nuclear terrorism.

So what the devil can we do? The nightmare is that an unchallenged Iran would become a nuclear suicide state. Where other leaders fear retaliation, an Iranian leadership might merely see the gates of Paradise. If we thought that we were dealing with such a state, then anything would be justified, including pre-emptive nuclear war.

Up to now, however, there have been good grounds for supposing that despite rhetorical bellicosity, the Iranians are not utterly irresponsible. For all its faults, Iran is not Hitler's Germany in April 1945 or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It is a theocracy. But it is not a fruitcake-ocracy, controlled by demented leaders with no interest in their people's survival. Iranians are proud of their past. They would not want to transform several millennia of history and heritage into a smouldering parking lot.

In the depths of privacy, we should never allow the Iranians to doubt the consequences of using nuclear weapons. But proceeding on the assumption that Iran is not a suicide state, let us explore the possibilities of peaceful co-existence, as the EU has been doing over the past two years. The EU got nowhere, because their efforts were bedevilled by the nuclear question. As a result, it seems likely that Iran will be referred to the Security Council for censure and sanctions. Does anyone believe that this is more than flapping napkins at the wasp?

Iran is large, powerful, truculent and rich. To use sanctions in the hope of forcing it to change course is like peppering a bull elephant with quail shot. Economic sanctions would create some hardship and would reduce the growth rate. But is this desirable? As we should now realise, Shia Islam exalts sacrifice and martyrdom.

The Middle East is already full of poor, angry young men who see little hope in becoming prosperous through economic activity and are drawn to other goals. Do we really want to add to their number? Do we want to give the Mr Ahmadinejad the chance to blame all difficulties and focus all discontents on the Americans, the West, the Christians and the Jews? Might it not be better to invest Iran; to encourage trade links and development?

It would be absurd vulgar-Marxism to suppose that the threat from Iranian fundamentalism could be eliminated by a growing middle class. Equally, such demographic changes take time, which we may not have. But at the last Iranian election, the middle classes proved too small to control the outcome. Anything which increased their numbers ought to help.

That does not solve the nuclear question. It is probable that nothing could. Even an Iranian moderate could muster powerful arguments in favour of possessing nuclear weapons. Our human rights record is better than China's, he might say, and we are at least democratic as Pakistan. We live in a dangerous neighbourhood. To the north there is Russia: across the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, which is rumoured to be in the nuclear market. Above all, there is Israel. It would be hard to persuade many Iranians that Israel was entitled to possess nuclear weapons denied to their country.

In the long run, we could only prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by war or a credible threat of war. That would be justified - and should be inevitable - if we believed that Iran was a suicide state. If not, not.

"Square or squash" was one of Churchill's maxims. If we cannot squash the Iranian wasp by war, let us try to square it by diplomacy. This will not be easy. There is no obvious equivalent of Nixon in China; no single dramatic gesture which the West could make in the expectation of a warm response. Mellifluous diplomacy might merely lead the Iranians to remind us that wasps do not produce honey.

Yet the resources of diplomacy have not been exhausted. It is said that Iranians feel insecure and believe that, given their importance as a cradle of civilisation, they are not treated with enough respect. They would also like acknowledgement of their status as a regional superpower - and why not? It is never wrong to acknowledge the obvious.

If any Western mission were also to be accompanied by businessmen discussing investment, it might be possible to make progress. Let us be under no illusion. There is no guarantee of success. There is a significant risk of a nuclear confrontation between the West and Iran over the next decade or so. But when the dangers are so great, it is worth exploring all routes.