International law does not ban uranium enrichment. In fact, countries which have signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gain the `inalienable right' to develop nuclear power programmes for peaceful purposes.
The bargain made in 1968 was that non-nuclear weapon states would gain access to nuclear technology, so long as they did not use it to develop nuclear weapons (Article IV); and the nuclear weapon states would get rid of all their nuclear weapons (Article VI).
There are two core problems with this bargain. Firstly, there is no mechanism or timetable in Article VI for forcing the nuclear weapon states to disarm.
Secondly, Article IV gives non-nuclear weapon states which have signed the NPT the right to (a) develop their civilian nuclear power capabilities right up to the threshold of nuclear weapons production, and (b) withdraw from the treaty at any time.
This means they are legally entitled to build peaceful nuclear technology under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), become “threshold” states, then expel the IAEA and cross the threshold to become nuclear weapon states.
Iran's ambitious nuclear power programme may be worrying for the region, but it is entirely legal under the NPT.
If the US and UK want Iran to give up its legal rights, but, in diplomacy, to persuade someone to give up a right that they possess, you must offer them something of equal value, to compensate them for their loss.
In practical terms, the head of the IAEA has warned, bombing Iran is highly unlikely to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so.
In December 2005, Mohamed ElBaradei said: “You cannot use force to prevent a country from obtaining nuclear weapons. By bombing them half to death, you can only delay the plans,”
Accelerating the bomb
According to Dr Frank Barnaby (formerly of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, Aldermaston), bombing would probably accelerate Iran's nuclear programme.
There is limited intelligence as to the whereabouts of all Iran's nuclear-related facilities and materials, which means airstrikes would be unlikely to destroy the entire programme.
Furthermore, bombing might lead Iran to concentrate on a clandestine crash nuclear weapons programme using secret facilities, salvaged materials, and possibly procuring supplies via criminal sources. (Would Air Strikes Work? See ORG note on the right.)
There is only one way to be 100% certain that Iran cannot develop a bomb: carpet-bombing.
Noam Chomsky pointed out in PN2484 that some military analysts think this is a live option. The US would seize Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan province (next to Iraq) and “bomb the rest of the country to dust”.
An underlying theme of Western commentary is that Iran is an irrational and dangerous state.
There are certainly figures within the Iranian leadership with extreme religious beliefs. We should note, however, that president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not determine foreign, military or nuclear policy.
In the Iranian constitution, it is the supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is in charge of these areas. And Khamenei has followed a rational and generally cautious foreign policy - certainly compared to that of major Western powers.
Iran has effectively cooperated with the two US wars in the region. In the case of Afghanistan, Iran offered to carry out search and rescue operations for US pilots forced to crash land on Iranian territory (hinting that Iran was permitting US overflights of its territory). In Iraq, despite the rhetoric on both sides, Tehran seems to have played a calming rather than a provoking role.
“The grand bargain”
It was in the immediate aftermath of the invasion that Iran made its most dramatic overture to Washington.
In April 2003, Iran sent a detailed peace proposal to the US State Department via Switzerland. Flynt Leverett, then a senior director on the US National Security Council, saw the document, and later described it as “a serious effort, a respectable effort to lay out a comprehensive agenda for US-Iranian rapprochement.”
Iran proposed comprehensive talks aimed at ending US sanctions, gaining full access to peaceful nuclear technology and recognition of Iran's “legitimate security interests” in the region.
In return, the Islamic Republic was willing to concede aggressive inspection rights for the IAEA, “decisive action” against terrorists, coordination in Iraq, the end of “material support” for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the conversion of Lebanon's Hezbollah into a purely political organisation, and finally, acceptance of the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Among other things, Iran was offering to officially accept the existence of Israel.
The response from Washington? A formal note to the Swiss ambassador expressing displeasure at his having forwarded such a document. The US refused to even acknowledge the Iranian offer.
Across the political spectrum, it is now recognised that a “grand bargain” of the kind offered in 2003 will be needed to bring the current crisis to an end.
A key issue will be Washington's willingness to offer a security guarantee - a commitment not to invade or attack Iran - as part of the “bargain”.
This is what president Putin thought he had secured in mid-October, when he travelled to Tehran to meet ayatollah Khamenei (see p1).
Iran's oil crisis
Some of the suspicion felt towards Iran comes from the fact that it is swimming in oil and gas. Why on earth would it want nuclear power?
According to researcher Roger Stern of Johns Hopkins University geography department, Tehran does have a case (insofar as any country has a case for nuclear power).
Because Iran has a young and growing population, and rising living standards, more and more of the oil is being used internally rather than being exported to earn foreign exchange.
This is a major issue because Iran derives most of its government income (63% in 2004) from oil exports.
Because the growth in oil production is sluggish, but the growth in domestic demand for energy is surging, Stern calculates the amount of oil available for export is declining by over 10% every year.
He estimates that by 2015, on current trends, Iran will not be able to export any oil at all, which would reduce government spending by two-thirds.
So Iran does have a case for developing other ways of generating energy for the domestic market. Stern points out that Tehran also has ambitious goals for additional power generation from coal, hydro, solar, and thermal resources.
Nuclear is one part of this “larger if ill-managed plan to preserve exports”.
What does Iran want?
Having said this, it would hardly be surprising if some part of the establishment in Iran wanted to follow the logic of “deterrence”, as Iran is surrounded by nuclear weapon states (Israel, India, Pakistan, Russia, and US bases or forces in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and in the Gulf itself).
Avner Cohen, historian of the Israeli nuclear bomb, suggests that if Iran has “deterrent” ambitions, it might still not be aiming at the full development of a nuclear bomb.
Instead, “while remaining within the NPT, Iran would be seeking to acquire a perception and reputation (by ways of leaks, rumours, double talk, etc) that they have actually built a `secret' nuclear arsenal or at least secretly accumulated a sufficient amount of weapons-grade fissile material.”
By thus “mimicking the Israeli model”, Iran would “get all the prestige and deterrence effects they need but without leaving the NPT, let alone without testing or declaring such a bomb”.