by Daniel Rackowski, senior fellow for EU affairs at the Transatlantic Institute
Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran raised many eyebrows. Above all, the Russian president’s assurance of continued co-operation with Iran’s nuclear programme – the country’s first power plant is actually being built by the Russians – flies in the face of Western efforts to derail it if at all possible.
Yet Moscow has itself supported two sanctions resolutions at the UN Security Council. Can it really be in favour of another nuclear arsenal in its neighbourhood? Putin let slip the phrase that Iran’s “main objectives are peaceful objectives”. The clear implication is that – at least in Putin’s view – Iran indeed has military ambitions, and that these are connected with its nuclear programme. Is his unspoken assumption that there is nothing more to be done about it but get on the right side of the mullahs?
A nuclear Iran, which is what may soon confront us, would project unprecedented power, one magnified by its leaders’ well-cultivated image as religious zealots. Who, after the Iraq imbroglio, would dare confront such erratic and unpredictable actors, let alone if they are armed with the bomb?
The entire geopolitical power-balance would be upset, giving grounds for concern about three specific scenarios.
First: shielded by a nuclear umbrella, Teheran could with impunity destabilize, as it is already doing, Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon and generally undermine its neighbours through the use of surrogate forces. Such vicarious battles, and/or support for low-intensity conflicts, are unlikely to warrant the use of military force against a nuclear power.
Second, several local regimes might try to join the nuclear club. This may well explain what Syria is suspected of trying to do, namely acquire North Korean equipment to build a nuclear power station. The installation was in any event bombed by Israeli jets on 6 September, an incident which provoked only mild protest from Syria (and none from Iran).
In the Cold War, deterrence rested on the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD). But in the event of Iran crossing the nuclear threshold, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey would not risk being passive bystanders. The scenario would be much madder than MAD, with a wildly convoluted nuclear missile projection system.
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty would be robbed of any remaining credibility as the instrument that has regulated global counter-proliferation efforts for close to 40 years.
Finally, as a prime oil provider capable of disrupting others’ crude supplies through the Straits of Hormuz – the supply line for 40% of world consumption – Iran is in a perfect position to blackmail the entire international economy.
What to do? Comments such as those of Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, who deemed an attack on Iran a priori “inconceivable”, hardly help; to remove the stick from the equation runs counter to basic principles of diplomacy.
European countries, especially those opposing renewed unilateral EU sanctions against Iran, should evidently do their utmost to convince Moscow to support another resolution at the UN Security Council if Iran once again fails to comply with IAEA demands. Similarly, last week’s (25 October) stepping-up of US sanctions against Iran, in what the administration called “a broad and wide-ranging effort” will not suffice to curb Iranian nuclear aspirations. The seriousness of that threat requires unprecedented unity and determination.
In theory, that is also Russia’s interest. But the mullahs may well outpace the international community, as they have done before, and present the world with a fait accompli. Is it all too late? And was that Putin’s calculation on his historic mission to Teheran, the first by a Russian leader since Stalin in 1943?
If so, then the world may soon be a more dangerous place than it is already.
Published in European Voice, 31 October – 7 November 2007
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