Tehran on Path to Our Destruction

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Stand by for some bad news. No, I mean really bad news. The world is not going to apply crippling sanctions to Iran. Even if it did, Iran would not be deterred from developing nuclear weapons. The only way that Iran can be significantly delayed in its pursuit of nuclear weapons is through an Israeli air strike on its nuclear facilities.

I think the chances of an Israeli attack are somewhat less than 50-50. Even with an air strike, the likelihood is you would delay rather than prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons. Don't get me wrong, a delay is much better than no delay, but the balance of probabilities is that Iran will ultimately have a nuclear arsenal.

Even sanctions would only have an outside chance of working. But the world is not even going to try them. China, and to a lesser extent Russia, are going to make sure that doesn't happen. This is a tragedy far beyond Copenhagen, but like Copenhagen it illustrates the complete breakdown of the multilateral system.

The US could strike Iran's nuclear facilities far more effectively than Israel could, but to do so would be foreign to every instinct of the Obama administration.

It would also be hugely risky. But the risks of not acting are even greater. Nonetheless, the portents are strong that the Obama administration will dither.

More than 12 months ago, just after his inauguration, Obama said: "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." Since then Obama has done everything an American president could possibly do to engage and entice Iran. He has made countless statements about the genius of Persian civilisation, the wonders of Islam as a religion, the sweetness of the Iranian people, the potential reasonableness of the Iranian government. And in response he has received contemptuous game playing from the Iranians. I come to my conclusion that Iran will ultimately get nuclear weapons with great reluctance, but it follows ineluctably from the facts. Consider the main players: Iran, the US, China, the UN, Russia, Israel. First Iran. There is really no doubt that Iran has a program designed to produce nuclear weapons.

Recently President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government announced that Iran had enriched uranium to 20 per cent and would build a slew of new nuclear fuel plants. This is a fundamental step along the road to nuclear weapons. It represents one of the critical technical hurdles.

A White House spokesman said Iran was bluffing about the level of its uranium enrichment. This is surely a unique case of Iran claiming its nuclear threat is greater than the White House claims. Believe who you will.

Iran has been determined to acquire nuclear weapons for a long time. It is, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes it, something of a military dictatorship, with the Revolutionary Guard assuming more and more power. It is still also, however, a theocratic dictatorship. The purpose of the state is to serve theological ends.

Most Western analysts refuse to take Islamic religion seriously as a factor in geopolitics, assuming there must always be a rational national-interest explanation for any state's behaviour.

The truth is that history is littered with states behaving irrationally and pursuing irrational ends, and doing so in often self-destructive ways. In Mao's China tens of millions of people died in famines directly caused by state policy. North Korea has driven its people into starvation. Pol Pot not only committed genocide on his own people, he then attacked Vietnam so that it would destroy him. Saddam Hussein was such a canny, realist calculator of the odds that his regime ended up gone and he ended up dead.

It is intensely ahistorical to believe political regimes will always act according to Western conceptions of enlightened self-interest.

Iran believes the US is the Great Satan and Israel the little Satan. Its leadership came to power with intensely theocratic political programs. There is no evidence it has ever deviated from the idea of achieving nuclear weapons. There is some evidence that in 2003, scared by the American invasion of Iraq, it temporarily suspended the formal weaponisation part of the program.

The West has invested enormous hope in the democratic opposition inside Iran, and these heroic people deserve our support.

But Iran made huge nuclear weapons progress when the moderate Mohammad Khatami was its president. Achieving nuclear weapons is a widely shared goal across Iranian society.

Moreover, Iran is a robust dictatorship. It has slowly but ruthlessly, and with great brutality, ground down its domestic, democratic opposition, beating, imprisoning, raping, torturing and murdering them. It is not the least squeamish about killing its own people, always a reliable guide to the short-term survivability of a dictatorship.

And all this repression has cost it very little in terms of its international connections. It is in the midst of a diplomatic boom in Africa and Latin America, and is ever closer with China.

Consider China. Beijing stands, in the long run, to suffer a great deal from the nuclear proliferation Iran will bring in its wake.

But China, contrary to the faux Kung Fu level of cultural understanding of most Western commentators, is showing itself to be a power that thinks very short term and very narrowly about its national interests, viz Copenhagen. It is Iran's second biggest export market and has deep, deep economic integration with Iran.

One of its chief motives is to stymie, bleed and distress the US. It will do a dance of the seven veils with Washington over Iran sanctions. It may not finally veto them -- it has only ever used the veto twice -- but it will not enforce them or observe them itself. And by signalling its unwillingness to do this it makes it much less likely the Russians will either.

Consider the UN. The sanctions that apply to Iran are pathetically weak. The more powerful a country is, the less likely it is ever to suffer effective sanctions.

Consider the US. The key argument against George W. Bush's intervention in Iraq is that it did not have UN approval. It is inconceivable Obama would get UN approval for a strike against Iran, so it is heroic, though not absolutely out of the question, to imagine him doing it. Instead the US is providing anti-missile defences to all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, in the hope that this will balance their fear of Iran.

Israel just might strike, but my guess is the world will dither and wake up one brand new day to a Tehran that encompasses the possibility of the destruction of us all.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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