Who can detain Iran’s nuclear program?

By Ricardo Israel Z. (for Safe Democracy)

Ricardo Israel Z. explains how the only people capable of detaining Iran‘s nuclear program are the Ayatollahs themselves. In Israel Z‘s opinion, neither a blockade on boats and airplanes, nor an imposition of international sanctions, nor an attack of nuclear installations will be effective in containing a regime that already has the capacity, resources, and will to continue in its nuclear plans. The solution lies with the Ayatollahs, who hold the true and undeniable power in Iran.

Ricardo Israel Z. is a lawyer and a political scientist. He has a PhD and a master’s in Political Science from the University of Essex and is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chile. He is the Director of the International Center for Quality in Democracy and of the School of Juridical and Social Sciences at the Autónoma University of Chile. Israel Z. also presides over the Committee on Armed Forces and Society, which is a part of the World Association of Political Science.

IT WILL NOT BE EASY TO GET IRAN TO RENOUNCE ITS NUCLEAR PROGRAM. Sanctions and international pressure will not be effective; at least not now that North Korea has developed its own atomic weapon. If such a poor country could be successful in testing a nuclear bomb, why can’t one of the principal oil producers in the world?

North Korea proved the same stark reality that the ex-Soviet Union and China did in their day: that a centralized system can concentrate resources on a particular project and achieve success, even at the expense of food, energy, and critical consumer goods for their population.

India and Pakistan also had success on this front, both in the construction of atomic weapons and in the capacity to mount and launch them as warheads on long distance missiles. So, why can’t Iran? This creeping question is at the bottom of Iran’s nuclear program. And although most indications show that it will take Iran years to complete its weapons construction, the question is one of time, not resources or political will.

Many countries feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear aims. Israel could be wiped off the map according to the words of the President of Iran, and Europe too would come within the reach of Persian missiles. The latter threat led France to modify its traditional nuclear doctrine to legitimize attacks on countries that do not respect international agreements.

Several Arab nations should be even more fearful than Europe, beginning with the oil kingdoms of the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. The same Sunni regimes that supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, may have to fear retribution for seeing in Iraq a lesser evil compared to the Shiite revolution of the Ayatollahs.

But, observing the problem from the Iranian perspective, one can only find arguments in favor of continuing nuclear development. Just as many countries in the world feel threatened by Iran, Iran feels threatened by the world: surrounded by US troops on their borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and endangered by Israel’s nuclear capabilities, which it has yet to formally recognize.

Who or what, then, can detain Iran’s nuclear program?

There are three alternatives. The first alternative would be the implementation of international sanctions, which would oblige Iran to stop its nuclear development. But the use of sanctions hinges upon a US capability to gain the support of Russia and China, which is extremely improbable. Besides, in the short term, sanctions may cause Iran to shut off or reduce its production of oil, which would cause great harm to the Western world in economic terms.

The second alternative would be a blockade on the passage of boats and planes to and from Iran. This, however, could be easily countered by an Iranian decision to sink some of its own ships in the narrowest part of the Persian Gulf, thus paralyzing the navigation and transit of oil tankers from the various producers of the region, essential to international commerce.

Lastly, a surgical attack on nuclear installations within Iran, like the one carried out by Israel in Iraq in 1981, could be tried. But this too seems improbable. It’s important to remember that in 1981, Iraq was in the middle of a war with Iran and was sufficiently distracted to allow for Israel’s attack. Also, the Iranian program is certainly spread out among many different locations and one attack would be hardly enough to hinder it for long. And Iran, today, disposes of an enormous capacity to respond militarily, not only against Israel, but also against the Arab world and Europe.

And so again, who or what can stop Iran’s nuclear aims? Although it may seem surprising, the answer could lie within Iran itself. No matter how popular and above the political system President Ahmadinejad and his nuclear program may be, there is one power in Iran that has no match: that of the Ayatollahs.

They alone are capable of determining whether a political decision is sufficiently pure from Islam’s point of view. They have the power and the legitimacy to modify any legislation and remove any leader, including the nuclear program and the President himself.

And what is the red line that the Ayatollahs will never permit to be crossed? That which endangers the Islamic revolution. Which is to say, that if in a certain moment a national or international scenario arose, which endangered the revolution, the Ayatollahs could put a stop to the entire nuclear program and open up Iran to negotiation.

It’s curious and telling that whenever means to confront this situation are discussed, the debate always lands on Security Council sanctions, or preventive attacks. Not enough attention is being paid to the real and undeniable source of power in Iran, which is not in the hands of the politicians or the Iranian army, but in those of the Ayatollahs.

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