x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Note of caution as IAEA report stokes war fears

Diplomacy remains the best way to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.

The nine-year drama to defuse Iran's nuclear programme has produced its share of "smoking guns". Anecdotal evidence, hidden facilities, a captured laptop - all have pointed to Iran's interest in being able to build nuclear weapons.

Yet nothing uncovered so far would justify the use of military action to force Iran's hand. The UN nuclear watchdog's latest report - certain to be held up as another smoking gun - must be seen for the intelligence document that it is, and not as an excuse for war.

To be sure, allegations made by the International Atomic Energy Agency are alarming. The idea that Iran colluded with Russian, Pakistani and North Korean scientists to build detonators capable of triggering nuclear chain reactions makes it plain where Tehran is heading.

But caution is in order. Intelligence on Iran is notoriously difficult to verify, and no one will soon forget the failings of western intelligence agencies during the run up to war in Iraq. Most importantly, few if any know the true intentions of Iran's leaders - whether they actually want a weapon or simply want the world think they do.

"What is not clear is how far Iran intends to proceed down this path," John Carlson, a former IAEA nuclear weapons expert, noted in an online assessment on Friday. "Will it cross the nuclear weapon threshold, or if not, how far short will it stop?"

Iran is clearly to blame for nearly a decade of obfuscation and misdirection. But others are inching dangerously close to compounding that mistake. Israel, which has made no secret of its desire to crush Iran's nuclear programme, is ratcheting up an irresponsible level of belligerent posturing.

There is no advantageous military option. Instead of crippling Iran's efforts, military strikes would only prompt a crisis. In this Iran has many levers to pull - from proxy forces in Lebanon to oil and gas shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz.

The best option, indeed the only one, is to redouble old strategies of diplomatic persuasion, possibly even in returning to a possible agreement that allows for some type of enrichment activity to continue on Iranian soil. Add to this effort economic pressure. Sanctions could especially benefit with increased coordination among responsible governments and regional traders.

All of these measures require slow, hard work. But after years of keeping the trigger lock on, diplomacy still remains the preferable option.