It is understandable why Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu used his UN address to warn the international community not to fall for the charm offensive of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.
Unlike his predecessor Ahmadinejad, Mr Rouhani does not engage in inflammatory rhetoric and Holocaust denial. Yet he has been a mainstay of the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and for many years headed his country’s National Security Council. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, like Mr Rouhani, were both widely perceived to be moderates, yet they did much to promote Iran’s nuclear programme.
What is more, a military strike against Iran’s nuclear programme, whether by Israel or the US, will be of limited utility since Tehran will always possess the expertise and knowhow to rebuild its nuclear facilities within several years.
In terms of the near future, however, Mr Netanyahu’s extreme negativity is unwarranted. The fact that Rouhani is working flat out to win over international leaders indicates that sanctions are really having an impact on Tehran. Inflation has been running at over 30 per cent, unemployment is growing and the economy is shrinking fast. Oil exports have fallen drastically.
David Albright, a leading expert on secret nuclear weapons programmes, maintains that Iran is engaging in “nuclear hedging”. It is swiftly building a nuclear weapons option, but there is no evidence to demonstrate that it has made a definitive decision to build nuclear weapons.
Iran is not likely to make such a decision until it is able to strengthen its enrichment capability to a point where it can produce sufficient weapons grade uranium swiftly and secretly.
The difficulty is that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is rapidly growing. Aside from its underground gas centrifuge plant in Natanz and the Fordow enrichment plant, it is operating a power reactor at Bushehr, a uranium conversion facility in Esfahan and its heavy water reactor in Arak appears ready for the production of plutonium. The signs are that by mid-2014, the Iranians may be in a position to swiftly produce weapons-grade uranium from its supplies of low enriched uranium without being found out in time. This could enable them to eventually produce several nuclear weapons.
Therefore, the onus is on the Obama administration and the P5 +1 powers (the members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) to keep the pressure on Iran. Sanctions should only be lifted when Iran takes concrete actions to fulfil its side of any agreement that is reached. A good agreement would significantly distance Iran from the option of acquiring a bomb, and would include an Iranian commitment to address all the IAEA’s concerns over its nuclear programme, a freeze on the installation of centrifuges, a commitment not to enrich uranium above 5 per cent, a closure of the Fordow plant and the suspension of the plutonium track.
However, for the time being, the continuation of concerted and robust sanctions against Iran coupled with credible military threats is the best option available for persuading it not to take that decision to acquire nuclear weapons.