Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 July 2019

A nuclear-armed Iran would be utterly disastrous for the region

Larger Arab powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have already intimated they would go down the nuclear route if Iran became a nuclear power

Iran announced on Sunday that it will raise its enrichment of uranium, breaking another limit in the nuclear deal. AP Photo
Iran announced on Sunday that it will raise its enrichment of uranium, breaking another limit in the nuclear deal. AP Photo

With Iran threatening to resume its uranium enrichment activities, the prospect of Tehran one day achieving its long-held ambition to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal must now been seen as a distinct possibility, with all the implications that will have for the security of the Middle East and the wider world.

There is certainly little doubt in Western intelligence circles that Tehran still retains the desire to acquire nuclear weapons. The main objective, after all, of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement Tehran negotiated with major world powers in 2015, was to limit Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to the level required for building nuclear warheads. Indeed, one of the main criticisms of that agreement was that, rather than ending Iran’s ability to produce such material, it merely delayed it for ten years.

So the fact that Iran is now threatening to resume its uranium enrichment activities beyond the limits set in the JCPOA simply brings forward a process that, under the terms of the agreement, was set to begin in 2025. Until then, had the nuclear deal survived in its original form, Iran was entitled to enjoy all the benefits of not being subjected to economic sanctions, thereby allowing the regime to strengthen its economy and financial reserves until such time that it could resume work on acquiring nuclear weapons.

No wonder the US administration concluded – rightly, in my opinion – that the JCPOA was, as President Donald Trump memorably described it, “the worst deal ever”, and withdrew its support, thereby prompting a rapid deterioration in relations between Iran and the outside world that has led to the current crisis.

In Iran’s latest blatant act of provocation, a British Royal Navy warship was forced to intervene after three Iranian naval boats attempted to intercept a British oil tanker in the Gulf.

Nor should too much credence be given to Iran’s insistence that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, aimed at acquiring new energy sources and sophisticated medical equipment. If that was the case, then why did the regime try for years to conceal from the outside world the existence of key nuclear facilities, such as the Natanz enrichment facility, whose presence only became known as a result of revelations made by an Iranian dissident group?

The key to Iran’s real nuclear ambitions is to be found in the CIA’s intelligence estimates that Iran was definitely working on building nuclear weapons until 2003 – the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq – and that it is still conducting secret tests on various designs for a nuclear warhead, which is not the normal activity of a country that says it has no interest in developing nuclear weapons.

So, with Iran showing no sign of returning to the negotiating table to discuss an improved version of the JCPOA, one that covers all aspects of the regime’s nuclear activities rather than the specific area of uranium enrichment, it is fair to assume that Iran is now preparing to resume work on its nuclear programme in earnest.

And if that is the case, then the rest of the world needs to start thinking seriously about how it is going to respond to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

There remains, of course, the possibility that, unlike what happened in North Korea, Iran’s nuclear programme would not be allowed to reach that level. Hawks in the Trump administration, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, have made it clear they would favour launching military action against Tehran to prevent the regime acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made similar threats, although there are questions about how much longer he will remain in office.

Taking the military option, though, is not without its drawbacks. The main objection to previous plans to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities by force is that it would be virtually impossible to destroy them all just by using air strikes, and no country is prepared to deploy ground forces to achieve this objective.

The other factor defence planners need to take on board is that any military attack on Iran would inevitably provoke a response from Tehran, one that could plunge the entire Gulf region into conflict, a prospect no serious Western politician is likely to countenance.

The more likely alternative, therefore, is that the rest of the Middle East would seek to counter Iran’s nuclear power status by acquiring nuclear arsenals of their own, thereby sparking a nuclear arms race that would plunge the region into a Cold War-style nuclear standoff.

Larger Arab powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have already intimated that they would go down the nuclear route if Iran became a nuclear-armed power. Iraq, which fought a bitter eight-year battle with Iran in the 1980s, might be tempted to revive its own nuclear ambitions, which previously came to a premature end following Israel’s 1981 air strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.

Such measures, moreover, would be necessary to deter a nuclear-armed Tehran from adopting a more assertive posture in its dealings with the Arab world, especially with regard to long-standing territorial disputes in the region.

The kingdom of Bahrain, for example, could find itself subject to renewed acts of Iranian aggression as Tehran attempted to exert its influence over the kingdom’s Shia population.

All the more reason, therefore, that, rather than escalating its confrontation with Tehran over the regime’s nuclear ambitions, the Trump administration concentrates its efforts on resolving the present crisis through negotiation.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

Updated: July 11, 2019 04:31 PM

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