What can stop Iran now? Nothing much

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, November 24, 2011
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The latest round of media hype on Iran offers much comic relief for an otherwise terrible truth. Iran can only be stopped from getting nuclear weapons by factors that are largely beyond the control of Israel, the Western world or the international community at large.

Not that stopping Iran has become impossible.

Robust and aggressive sanctions could cripple the regime's economic lifeline and deprive Iran's military infrastructure of crucial technology. They would also dry up the funds that are badly needed to conduct international transactions and keep domestic insurrections at bay. A sustained American-led air campaign would put Iran's nuclear programme out of order for a long time - maybe forever.

Except that nobody is seriously contemplating those measures.

Days after the International Atomic Energy Agency released its damning report, which revealed that Iran conducted secret computer tests for nuclear bombs, the IAEA board of 35 nations could not agree to a tough resolution imposing a deadline on Iran.

A watered-down version ensured Russian and Chinese support - the price for denying Iran the satisfaction of causing a rift among the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany over the issue.

Iran has all the components it needs to make a nuclear bomb

But as soon as the resolution was passed, Russia's UN envoy lashed out at the IAEA and joined Iran to question the agency's credibility and impartiality. His government reiterated its utmost opposition to new sanctions.

With neither Russia nor China interested in a new round of sanctions and the EU fearful that tough measures may harm an already faltering economy, there are no good choices left for those who really wish to stop Iran's progress to a nuclear bomb.

A military attack would significantly damage Iran's programme, but Tehran's progress is so remarkable that unless Iran's military is also targeted - something only the US could take on - the likely cost of military action would far outweigh its benefits.

The bottom line is this then: Iran has all the components for a nuclear bomb. It only needs time to enrich enough uranium to produce the fissile material required; and it needs a political decision from above to proceed.

The former is amply available - even if sanctions are adopted it would take Iran only a few weeks to enrich uranium it already has and produce a first device. Nobody knows for sure about the latter, but there is no reason to doubt it will eventually come. If Iran's nuclear programme has travelled so far, getting across the finish line is a foregone conclusion now.

What can be done? An attack is rife with danger. Hoping for regime change is not a strategy - although it would help. Tough sanctions remain, and all that is standing in the way there is the political will to adopt them.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 12:51pm, November 24 2011