Iran is on the verge of getting the Bomb. It is time for President Barack Obama to act
The US President's softly-softly approach has failed to deter the ayatollahs in their bid to acquire nuclear weapons.
8:28PM GMT 03 Nov 2011 TELEGRAPH
Ever since he took power three years ago, President Obama has done his level best to avoid a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme. Mr Obama began his presidency with a direct video appeal to Tehran to abandon decades of hostility towards America and establish a dialogue based on “mutual interests and respect”. This innate belief that he can persuade the ayatollahs to mend their confrontational ways has meant that, even when presented with clear-cut evidence of Tehran’s wrongdoing, he has proved reluctant to offer an effective response.
When the regime launched a brutal crackdown against anti-government protesters following the disputed presidential election in 2009, Mr Obama agonised for days about whether he should back the opposition Green movement. By the time he did so, most of the opposition leaders had either been killed or were languishing in jail, and the most serious challenge to the ayatollahs’ rule since the 1979 revolution had been stopped in its tracks.
Even when Mr Obama was handed unequivocal evidence in the autumn of 2009 that Iran was building a second nuclear enrichment facility at Qom, he still preferred to take a softly-softly approach. The inevitable new round of sanctions was implemented, but no meaningful action was taken to curtail Iran’s obsession with developing nuclear weapons.
As we know from the 1930s, appeasement achieves little when it comes to confronting a determined foe for whom the normal laws of international conduct do not apply. And next week, the full extent of Iran’s duplicity will be laid bare, with the publication of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on its nuclear ambitions.
Unlike previous IAEA reports – which, under the leadership of Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, deliberately sought to obfuscate the true nature of Iran’s activities – this one will demonstrate unequivocally that Iran is well on the way to acquiring nuclear weapons. It will show that the country is seeking to engineer and test components that are only used in the production of nuclear weapons, and that this illegal activity is taking place at sites that would not even exist if Iran was in compliance with its international treaty obligations.
Why, for example, are Iranian scientists experimenting with triggers that are only used for detonating nuclear weapons? Why are Iranian technicians devoting so much energy to developing a ballistic missile warhead that can carry a nuclear warhead? And why have they designed simulation programmes whose sole purpose is to test nuclear weapons systems?
The inescapable conclusion is that, for all Tehran’s protestations that its nuclear intentions are entirely peaceful, the ayatollahs are close to achieving their long-held ambition of joining the exclusive club of nuclear-armed powers. And rather than trying to ignore the apocalyptic implications, Mr Obama may find himself obliged to do something rather more robust than merely freezing the bank accounts of senior Iranian officials.
Certainly, one of the main conclusions that should be drawn from the IAEA report is that the sanctions regime has failed to have the desired effect. As one senior Whitehall official conceded to me this week, “The Iranians have proved to be surprisingly resilient at overcoming the impact of the sanctions. They don’t seem to have made any significant impact on the nuclear programme.”
In fact, the only measures that have had any demonstrable effect on slowing Iran’s nuclear progress have been undertaken by Israel, via a skilful combination of targeted assassinations and cyber-warfare. The introduction last year of the Stuxnet computer virus, which was developed at Israel’s Dimona nuclear research centre in the Negev desert, knocked out thousands of the centrifuges used to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iranian efforts have also been hit by the assassination of three of their top nuclear scientists in the past two years.
But as the IAEA report will demonstrate, a combination of ingenuity and determination has enabled the Iranians to overcome these setbacks, to the point where their uranium enrichment activities have been fully reconstituted. Moreover, to ensure they do not suffer any further such attacks, they are relocating much of their nuclear equipment to underground bunkers. This includes the facility at Qom, which is buried deep below a mountain range, safe from foreign meddling.
If Iran continues at its present rate, it is estimated that all the key nuclear components will be safely hidden away within 12 months, which would make it impossible for either the US or Israel to launch pre-emptive strikes. For this reason, a more bellicose response can be expected from the major Western powers when the IAEA presents its report.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already sought Cabinet support for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities while they are still visible. By way of underlining the seriousness of his intent, the Israeli military earlier this week test-fired a missile capable of hitting Iran.
Given the appalling repercussions that a unilateral attack on Iran would have on regional stability, it is highly unlikely that even Mr Obama can distance himself from the coming storm. The Iranians have made it abundantly clear that, if attacked, they will respond by trying to wipe Israel off the map. Mr Obama does not enjoy the best of relationships with Mr Netanyahu, who has been accused of constantly undermining Washington’s attempts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians. But he also knows that America cannot afford to stand by when Iran threatens the very existence of its closest regional ally.