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Living with a nuclear Iran

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It is deeply regrettable that Iran may one day join the not-so-exclusive club of nations that possess nuclear weapons. It is a potential danger the world doesn't need. If you'll forgive an outburst of preposterous idealism, it would be kind of neat to have a world with no nuclear arms whatever.

But for the life of me I don't see how the world convinces Iran it's not entitled to such weapons when Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, India, China, the United States, France, Britain and Israel all have them.

Iranians look at the map and the questions become even more pointed. Nearly half the nuclear countries are in their 'hood or within easy shooting distance. This includes Russia, Pakistan, India and Israel. The region is astonishingly dangerous for everyone, but not least for Iran. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, repeatedly describes Iran as the greatest threat to security in the world. This is political bombast masquerading as statesmanship.

Beyond question, Iranians, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been outrageously provocative towards Israel, permitting the world to believe they want to see the country eliminated by force, if necessary. On the other hand, they have also said that if Palestinians themselves choose a two-state solution, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, Iran would respect that decision. On the third hand, they've said the exact opposite as well.

It's only natural that Israelis are ready to meet any contingency. That's exactly why few observers believe Iran would dare attack Israel, a suicidal move if ever there was one. And it's why Israel grasps at excuses to pre-emptively attack Iran, a far more plausible scenario than an Iranian attack on Israel.

Mr. Baird might more accurately say that Iran is the most threatened country in the world. Is it not true that in the 32 years since the Ayatollahs took over Iran, they have invaded no one while nuclear Israel has aggressed against Lebanon, Iraq and Syria? Was it not Iran that was attacked by Saddam Hussein when he was a loyal U.S. ally? Could one not say that Iran is already under attack, given that several nuclear scientists have been assassinated, its nuclear programs have been cyber-attacked by a computer virus, and only two weeks ago a mysterious explosion at an ammunition depot killed 17 members of the elite Revolutionary Guard. Isn't it true that Israel is also testing a long-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Iran?

As well, all Americans, regardless of level of ignorance, consider the Iranian government to be a menace to civilization. While the Obama administration understands how dangerously irrational an attack on Iran would be, there's much pressure on it to do exactly that. Mitt Romney, likely Republican candidate and very possibly the next president, demagogically asserts that "if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have nuclear weapons. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have nuclear weapons." This can only mean a preemptive American military strike, exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is anxious to launch. What should Iran think of these very real threats?

While Mr. Obama may still be reluctant to use direct force, it is nonetheless true that Iran is surrounded by American troops, American naval might and American-backed enemies. Saudi Arabia, Iran's bitter rival for Middle East hegemony, is interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. Is it remotely surprising that Iran would want to arm itself in every way possible? Every other country in the world functions on the basis of its own self-interest. Why should Iran be different?

Yet even now a significant group in both Israel and the U.S. -- in the latter, many of the very same hawks and neocons who promoted so dishonestly the invasion of Iraq that led to greatly increased Iranian influence in that country -- are openly pressing for a major pre-emptive military strike against Iran. The recklessness of this threat can hardly be exaggerated. Even the former head of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, Meir Dagan, calls an attack on Iran "the stupidest idea I've ever heard."

The latest hysterical calls to attack Iran have been prompted by a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (which has no access to and never reports on Israeli, Pakistani or India's nuclear weaponry). In fact the document mostly reveals the well-known pro-American bias of its new director-general, Yukiya Amano, while the reaction to it demonstrates the usual anti-Iran biases of the mainstream media. For as nuclear non-proliferation expert Ramesh Thakur points out, the agency only offers a weasely double-negative: There is no evidence that Iran is NOT developing nuclear weapons. It says that Iran has carried out activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device," but patently fails to say that the country IS developing such a device. Which you would never know from most media reports.

On the basis of the same information, the IAEA under former head Mohammed El Baradei had stated there was no evidence Iran was doing so. And only fours years ago, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, reflecting the views of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies (the United States has 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies?!) pooh-poohed any early threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It concluded "with high confidence" that when an Iranian program for nuclear weapons had been discovered in 2003, Iran stopped it. "We do not know," it conceded, "whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

Israeli and U.S. hawks and neocons all of course reject this assessment and excitedly embrace the distorted version of the IAEA report. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?

But in a real sense, all these issues are irrelevant. Forget the usual dubious evidence and the usual dubious motives of the hawks; there's an entirely practical issue here that should terrify every one of us: As Mr. Thakur notes, "The risks of wider unintended consequences are grave." Iran is tough, determined, well-armed, extremely dangerous. Its weapons are known to be widely dispersed and deeply hidden. Serious observers believe only an all-out war could destroy them. And nothing will unite the regime and its opponents more successfully than an attack by America or Israel.

So Iran will fight back. Its regional allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, the Gulf and Afghanistan will all certainly be mobilized. Israel will be attacked. Iranian oil exports will be cut off. Nobody, but nobody, knows where such a conflagration may lead in a region that's already a tinder box, but there is reason to fear the worst. The lesson of a war game conducted last year by the Brookings Institute, according to Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA official who advocated the invasion of Iraq, is that "once you start this, it's really hard to stop it."

Fareed Zakaria, the well-known mainstream American international relations commentator, wrote last year: "Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, we're living with a nuclear North Korea (boxed in and contained by its neighbours). And we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and Communist China."

But why be sensible? Let's be really insane. Iran would be the fourth Muslim country in a single decade to feel the might of the U.S. military and its allies. Now we hear inflammatory speeches about going after Syria's brutal but very heavily-armed regime too. Why not just do a twofer and make it an even five, and the hell with the repercussions? Don't think it's not being considered.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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