The International Atomic Energy Agency is one of the more gentle lambs of international diplomacy. So when the Nobel Peace Prize-winning UN body says that Iran is continuing its quest for nuclear weapons, in violation of UN resolutions and its own commitments, take notice. Short of an attack on Iran’s facilities, which would be a dangerous escalation of the situation, the international community should mount every available muscular response.
Building a nuclear weapon is a national effort – uranium has to be mined and enriched; missiles have to be designed and built. The IAEA found that Iran is working on every piece. “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” the IAEA report concludes, and work on it continues today. The Institute for Science and International Security says the report shows Iran has enough low enriched uranium, if enriched to weapons grade, to make four nuclear weapons.
Iran wants to be a nuclear power, and not just because it has electricity needs. It has few friends in the region and is riven by internal strife – a nuclear weapon can unite the nation and put the neighbours on the defensive, including the nuclear powers Pakistan and Israel, and U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The fresh memory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to wipe Israel off the map, Iran’s mischief in the region (supporting repressive elements in Syria and Lebanon), and the theocratic fervour of its unelected leaders are just three of the reasons why the world cannot allow Iran to weaponize.
Any offensive action by Israel, with or without U.S. support, would likely only set back Iran’s nuclear efforts a few years. And it would prompt a flurry of terrorist responses and could invite a regional war.
But the international community should pick up every other available tool. The U.S. has stepped up arms sales to Iran’s neighbours. Sanctions, so often a perfunctory instrument, could have a greater effect if more broadly applied. Iran is the fourth largest oil exporter in the world, and if its Asian and European customers can be persuaded to stop buying, even for a short time, that would further isolate Iran. The U.S. could also lead an effort within the UN to articulate when the use of force against Iran would become necessary.
There are no easy or good answers to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. One thing is clear: International resolve, across geographical and ideological lines, is a necessary precondition to any resolution.