For years, Iran has sent out conflicting messages as to why it wants nuclear technology; for years, the West has debated what to do about it. Now, with a “red line” about to be crossed and the US signalling they are ready to strike, Russia has warned such a conflict could become nuclear.
It’s a potential for conflagration that has just about every possible — and volatile — ingredient and sub-plot: Muslims vs Jews, Iran vs Israel, Russia vs the USA; inexhaustible oil, nuclear weapons, and black market trafficked technologies; a lunatic dictator with a stated policy of wiping Israel off the face of the Earth, a superpower pledged to defend Israel militarily, and a remilitarising Russia claiming UN-related grievances and now flexing its nuclear muscles.
And whilst it’s true that the most likely scenario is that things are resolved diplomatically, the growing risk is that it may end very, very badly.
During his eight years in the White House, former US President Bill Clinton consistently kicked foreign policy challenges down the road to be dealt with by whoever followed him into office — Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Al Qaeda, the Middle East generally, North Korea — you name it.
Only when completely unavoidable did the Clinton administration act — and even then, to the minimum extent required to get the problem off the daily running sheet.
As a result, by the time George W. Bush assumed office, the USA was facing a growing number of increasingly urgent flashpoints that required addressing; ambushed by terrorists on home soil on 11 September 2001, Bush Jr began to act.
I point out that I do not necessarily condone all of the actions taken by the second Bush administration, and nor do I excuse or apologise for some of the excesses that accompanied them. The simple point is that as Bush Jr’s administration progressed, and as the number of “operations” it undertook increased, resistance grew, both in the USA and elsewhere, among the body politic, among the commentariat and the information class, and among the wider public.
It also grew on the United Nations Security Council.
Indeed, by the time Bush and his ultra-hawkish Vice-President, Dick Cheney, arrived at the decision to “liberate” Iraq from Saddam Hussein and the threat posed by his alleged trove of weapons of mass destruction, Bush and his allies (including Australia) was forced to rely on a UN Security Council Resolution that implicitly authorised the military action taken (UNSCR 1441) as other members of the Security Council — notably, Russia and China — refused to support a further, more specific resolution to mandate military action.
Indeed, both threatened to veto any such resolution.
Of course, the legality or otherwise of what has become known as the second Gulf War has been the subject of debate that has raged ever since; it is not a tangent I intend to be diverted down, and is a subject for others to deal with, and in other forums.
My point in raising these matters is twofold; firstly, it raises the issue of the fraught process of the United Nations system as a mechanism for negotiated authority to deal with threats — real, perceived or otherwise — on an international basis; secondly, it highlights a point in time at which Russia (and to a lesser extent China, the issue of North Korea notwithstanding) began to frustrate, through the United Nations, the policy agenda and ambitions being pursued by the nations of the West, led by the USA.
And this brings us to the fraught issue of Iran, its nuclear ambitions, what to do about them, and what the consequences might be.
It is well-known that Iran — for many years now — has been pursuing the development of nuclear technology; Iran says it requires a civilian nuclear industry for the peaceful generation of electricity.
This would seem at odds with the fact that Iran, blessed with natural resources on a vast scale, is possessed of virtually inexhaustible energy reserves; indeed, the suspicion of several of Iran’s neighbours, as well as the US and its Western allies, is that Iran’s nuclear program is primarily concerned with the development of atomic weapons, not its domestic electricity supply.
It is also well-known, and established, that nuclear technologies (including technology for nuclear weaponry, warheads and missile delivery systems) have been extensively smuggled and sold into Iran through black market racketeers, especially those originating from Pakistan and North Korea.
And it is known, and uncontested, that Iran’s nuclear plants are predominantly ensconced in facilities deep beneath the ground, mostly in reinforced concrete bunkers and/or under mountains, often underneath layers of rock, where they are impregnable against conventional weaponry and difficult to destroy even with nuclear armaments.
Iran has played a cat-and-mouse game with the rest of the world, wilfully frustrating attempts to satisfactorily verify that its nuclear activities are as it claims and disrupting independent international inspection efforts.
And its leader — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man widely viewed in the West as dangerously unhinged at best, and potentially a suicidal lunatic at worst — is a dictator whose stated policy is to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.
His administration is informed by a strictly conservative religious bent; Ahmadinejad makes little secret of his hatred of Israel and his belief that it is a pollutant of sacred and holy lands. His term in office expires in a little under 18 months from now, and this is one marker that the long-touted confrontation over his country’s nuclear programs may be at hand.
Israel, unsurprisingly, is alarmed by what it perceives — correctly, in my view — as an existential threat; it has implored the United States to act and to strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but made it very clear that it is quite prepared to do so on its own if the US refuses.
In the meantime, Iran is believed to have already achieved the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, which is within striking distance of the level needed to fuel a nuclear weapon; the “red line” — realisation of the capacity to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel, which is not required in nuclear reactors producing domestic electricity — is fast approaching.
It is this “red line” that Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Iran to cross.
All of this comes at a time at which the US believes its diplomacy and sanctions campaign is biting, and is likely to force Iran into striking a deal; however, like so many other regimes determined to pursue illicit weapons, Iran has proven in the past to be an unreliable participant in such negotiations and may well do so again.
It is against this backdrop that Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev this week made clear it will not support any Western military intervention in Iran, and warned that such action could lead to nuclear war.
Medvedev’s unhelpful remarks were made in the context of both Syria and Iran, and although Syria is, like Iran, a longstanding ally of Russia dating back to the Soviet era, it seems reasonable to infer that the primary motivator of his comments was Iran and the looming decision that must be made on its nuclear developments.
Saying that the two countries should be allowed to sort out their own affairs, Medvedev stated that “hasty military operations in foreign states usually bring radicals to power.”
Which is fair enough, but what constitutes a “radical” is a very subjective consideration.
Israel — frightened for its very survival — would likely argue that Ahmadinejad and his regime represent an entity quite radical enough; Russia, by contrast, with its vast commercial and strategic interests in Iran, is clearly loathe to countenance any variation to the status quo.
Russia has made it abundantly clear that it is trenchantly opposed to military action in Iran, and that that opposition is hardening further.
In an ominous warning, he was quoted this week as saying, of military strikes against other countries, that “at some point such actions, which undermine state sovereignty, may lead to a full-scale regional war, even, although I do not want to frighten anyone, with the use of nuclear weapons.”
Russia — despite decades of Cold War animosity with the West and, more recently, its insular and increasing preoccupation with its own interests — does not have a history of making ambit threats of the use of nuclear weapons; certainly, at times of tension between itself and the West, the possibility has been floated, but it is not a practice in which Russia or its predecessor state have engaged in at every turn in its international dealings.
And there have, of course, been times at which Russia/the USSR has readied its nuclear arsenal for launch; these have mostly been as a result of false alarms and misunderstandings, such as the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket in 1995 that led to the activation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s nuclear “suitcase” and nuclear keys, or in response to “Able Archer” in 1983, a routine NATO exercise misinterpreted by the Soviets as cover for the launch of a massive surprise nuclear strike against the USSR.
But Medvedev’s warning on this occasion — accompanied as it is by an empty reassurance that he doesn’t want to “frighten” anyone — would seem to represent a significant raising of the stakes in relation to the standoff with Iran.
Russia has been modernising and renewing much of its military capacity, including its nuclear arsenal; it has been resolutely opposed to every measure aimed at either containing the threat Iran may pose or at neutralising any action it may take (think the US’ missile shield, for example); and even its support for sanctions aimed at forcing Iran’s compliance with international inspection obligations has been lukewarm, and given under protest.
The scenarios of Israel’s security, a hypothetical attack on Iran and the likely consequences are ones which have consumed quite a degree of time in my circle; I have a number of Jewish friends who take an active interest in matters relating to Israel and its future, and as such Ahmadinejad and his ambitions have filled many conversations.
The scenario that keeps getting played out in these discussions runs as follows, and it’s not a pleasant one; significantly, the storyline described below isn’t new, but rather has been on the table for a number of years.
It goes like this: Israel, frustrated by the refusal of the US to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran and exasperated by Iran’s refusal to allow verification of the claims it has made about nuclear electricity generation, launches — at the point it is confirmed Iran has achieved uranium enrichment to the degree required to produce nuclear warheads — a conventional strike aimed at disabling or destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
This is unsuccessful; Iran retaliates, targeting Israeli civilians with mass casualties as a result. Israel responds, this time with nuclear weapons.
Russia — pledged to the defence of its ally, and despite the presence of Russian Jews in Israel — responds with a nuclear attack against Tel Aviv; and the US — also pledged to the defence of its ally — responds with a nuclear strike on Moscow.
And thus, the conflict spirals out of control.
In case anyone thinks this is doomsaying for the sake of it, it isn’t; rather, it is a recognition of just how fraught, how dangerous and how risky the standoff with Iran is.
Nobody wants a nuclear war, and I believe that includes Russia; but equally, the ingredients are all present for the first time in many years by which the end result, with one miscalculation, overreaction or false move, could well result in precisely that.
And Russia — be under no misapprehension about it — has openly and squarely put the nuclear option on the table.
It is to be sincerely hoped that these matters can be resolved peacefully, and that the world can move on; but the “red line” is approaching: very soon, Iran will possess the missing link in realising the greatest fears of Israel, many of its neighbours, and the West — the ability to produce fuel for nuclear warheads.
This isn’t North Korea, which uses bellicose rhetoric over its weapons to extract food and other aid from abroad, with a Chinese protectorate as likely as not to turn on its ally if it oversteps the mark; this is a fundamentalist Islamic country with a stated policy of wiping another country off the map, and very near the acquisition of the means to do exactly that.
What do readers think? Are you concerned about what the world does in regard to Iran? Do the consequences worry you? And do you believe there is the scope for any action over Iran to spiral badly, and catastrophically, out of control?