Although newly released evidence suggests Iran may be researching a nuclear weapon, Western allies have few policy options to stop the program during a period of economic crisis and war weariness.
Iran has questioned the validity of the IAEA report
The United Nation's atomic watchdog has accused Iran of making designs for a nuclear weapon in clear violation of international conventions, provoking renewed calls for tighter economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic and stirring up rumors of Israeli plans to launch a military strike against one of the largest and most populous nations in the Middle East.
In its most unequivocal judgment to date on Iran's nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on Wednesday that it has obtained evidence indicating Tehran has tried to source uranium destined for use in the warhead of a missile re-entry vehicle, the Shahab 3. The Agency also indicated that Iran has developed detonators and built a facility at the Parchin military complex consistent with nuclear-related explosives testing.
Although Iran reportedly issued a halt on weapons-related research in 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq, the IAEA indicated that some aspects of the research continued afterward and may be on-going. This does not mean, however, that Tehran has made a definitive political decision to actually construct an atomic bomb. Iran claims that its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes.
"The whole point of this report was to show Iran's intentions," Dina Esfandiary, with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Deutsche Welle. "It's hard now for somebody to claim that Iran's weapons program is solely for civilian purposes, because there's no point in weaponizing if it's solely for civilian purposes."
'Cascade of proliferation'
An Iranian nuclear weapon could undermine the over 40-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which forbids signatories from developing atomic weapons while guaranteeing peaceful nuclear power and committing those countries that already possess the bomb to disarmament. Iran is a member of the NPT.
"It could create the dynamic of domino where other states in particular Saudi Arabia - which is very concerned about Iraq - possibly Egypt, possibly even Turkey would reverse their decision to stay within the NPT," Avner Cohen, with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Deutsche Welle.
"In other words, it could be the beginning of a cascade of proliferation within the Middle East," Cohen said.
The US and Saudis are concerned about Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf
Although Tehran has not aggressively exercised its conventional military power in the region, the Islamic Republic does maintain security relationships with paramilitary groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which the EU and US consider terrorist organizations.
Esfandiary believes a nuclear Iran would feel emboldened to use these groups to advance its interests in pursuit of "aspirations of regional hegemony."
"It will be able to play on the international scene a little more through its proxies by maybe activating Hamas and Hezbollah a little bit more," she said. "They'll do a little bit of brinkmanship with the countries surrounding it, which is why the Gulf States are so afraid."
Israel, in particular, has expressed concern over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program because the Islamic Republic does not recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. Esfandiary said that Israeli concerns, while understandable, are "overblown" because the chances of Tehran launching a nuclear strike against Israel are "virtually zero." Israel itself is a non-declared nuclear state outside of the NPT with an arsenal estimated between 100 and 200 warheads.
Beating the clock
Prior to the publication of the IAEA report, Israeli President Shimon Peres told Israel Channel 2 that intelligence services "understand that time is running out," adding that the other nations of the world have to "fulfill their obligations, whether that means serious sanctions or it means a military operation."
The UN Security Council has already imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran, which target trade, investment and financial services. Although Cohen believes that the sanctions have slowed Iran's nuclear program, he says that they are not strong enough to force a change of political course in Tehran vis-à-vis its nuclear program.
The Russians have called new sanctions against Iran "unnacceptable"
"The clock of the sanctions and the nuclear clock are not synchronized," Cohen said. "It's two different clocks and the sanctions clock is much slower and weaker than the nuclear clock."
Esfandiary said the next step could be targeting Iran's central bank, which would be a serious blow to the Islamic Republic's economy since all international transactions go through the bank, including its trade in oil. Such a move, however, could adversely impact the global economy as well.
"Many people are saying the US is not in a position to do this because with the [economic] crisis it just cannot afford to sanction Iran's central bank and see the price of oil shoot up," Esfandiary said.
And Russia, one of the five permanent veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, has already ruled out another round of sanctions, calling the approach "unacceptable." China has been less definitive in its response, but has said that sanctions cannot "fundamentally solve" the issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
Rumors of war
With renewed UN sanctions approaching an apparent political impasse, it's not just Israel that has been contemplating the possibility of a military strike against Iran to stop its nuclear program.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, London has begun drawing up its own contingency plans for a US-led air campaign against Iran. Saudi Arabia reportedly urged the US to attack the Islamic Republic in order to disrupt its nuclear program, according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. And in October, the Obama administration accused Iran's elite Quds Force of trying to hire Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C.
Despite the saber-rattling, armed hostilities remain unlikely due to the unforeseen, potentially catastrophic consequences for a region facing political turmoil from Egypt to Pakistan. And the success of a military strike would be anything but assured.
The Israeli president believes the world has moved closer to military confrontation
"Striking Iran would delay the program perhaps by an additional two years,” Esfandiary said. "But all it would do after that is rally public support, and perhaps even regional support, behind Iran's nuclear program. It would kind of engrain the cause of getting the bomb that much more, so it really isn't a solution."
With sanctions proving unable to stop Iran's nuclear program thus far and a military strike viewed as too big of a risk by most, Esfandiary said that the question has increasingly become whether the world can find a way to live with an Iran that can construct an atomic bomb. Yet in a region plagued by conflict and mutual distrust, all options remain on the table, regardless of how unpalatable they may be.
"I can see a situation that some parties like the US could even produce provocation from Iran in order to move into action in a clear way," Cohen said. "In other words, if you produce provocation from Iran, if Iran starts some hostilities, I can see some countries using self defense and retaliate and who knows where it will go."
Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Michael Knigge