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West has few options in preventing a nuclear Iran, experts say

BERLIN—Independent European foreign policy specialists believe it may not be possible to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and that the cost of doing so will at a minimum be colder houses and much higher prices for gasoline.

In interviews ahead of Thursday's meeting in Vienna of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the specialists paint a bleak picture of the West's options in confronting Iran over its nuclear energy program.

On the one hand, allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons presents wide risks. The current Iranian government is openly hostile to Israel, and Iran also has missiles capable of delivering warheads to countries as far away as Europe. On the other, the West has little leverage on Iran, the world's fourth-largest exporter of oil.

Europe receives about 5 percent of its energy from Iran, but probably would be forced to cut off those imports if sanctions were imposed to pressure Iran over its nuclear programs.

The United States already prohibits oil exports from Iran, but a reduction in Iranian supply would increase prices throughout the world. The European specialists note that the mere threat that supplies might be reduced contributed to a $3-a-barrel increase in recent weeks.

"It's becoming very clear that we're going to have to pay a price, and a heavy one, if we're going to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons," said Oliver Thraenert, an expert on Iran and nuclear proliferation at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a state-funded research center. Thraenert said he foresees heating and gasoline costs climbing high enough that the only response would be "put on a sweater at home, and take the bus to work."

Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at Belgium's Center for European Policy Studies, said that if Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons there is little the world can do to stop them.

"The Iranian regime is more and more obstinate, but what are the options?" he said. "The success of sanctions is doubtful. A military strike isn't on the table from a European perspective. The alternatives to success are dire."

France, Germany and the United Kingdom called the meeting of the IAEA's Board of Governors in January after Iran announced its intention to restart uranium enrichment activities despite years of the negotiations with Europe. The board of governors could refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

European foreign ministers continue to express hope that a diplomatic solution can be reached.

"We should see that we use and exhaust to the best of our powers the diplomatic solutions that remain available," German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier said in a German television interview last week.

But the policy experts said they believe Iran is determined to have nuclear weapons, especially under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's angered Europeans by calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and saying that the Holocaust was "a myth."

"Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons for years, but now, in the framework of President Ahmadinejad's second Islamic revolution, they fit perfectly," said Dick Leurdijk, an international security expert at the Dutch research center Clingendael Institute. "He not only wants them, he wants to use them as a threat to expand Islamic influence."

Karl-Heinz Kamp, the security policy coordinator for Berlin's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said there is evidence that while Iran's power elite may not fully endorse Ahmadinejad's statements, there appears to be little division on whether Iran should have the bomb.

"If that is the case, then there is no carrot, nor is there a stick, that will work to stop them from pursuing a course of getting a bomb," he said.

The experts agreed that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a disastrous development. "I'd rather shiver from the cold," said German Iran expert Thraenert.

The problems would be many. The most basic is the threat to nearby Israel. Beyond that, a nuclear Iran is expected to lead to an arms race in the Middle East. And, of course, Iran is believed by many to sponsor terrorism.

Kamp said he sees no good options. Sanctions would lead to energy problems for the rest of the world. China and India, both with rapidly expanding economies and hunger for energy, rely heavily on Iranian energy, as does Japan. They're unlikely to willingly cripple their industries and enrage their citizens by creating a shortage.

A military option also is unlikely, the Europeans agree. Kamp burst out laughing when asked if a European coalition might organize airstrikes.

"Can you imagine a joint German, French and British leadership?" he said. "It will never happen."

Most also dismissed the idea of a U.S. led military strike, noting that the United States is already stretched thin.

The most likely strike would come from Israel. Israeli airstrikes destroyed Iraq's only nuclear plant in 1981. But the experts wondered whether at a time of transition in Israeli and Palestinian leadership a repeat is possible.

They also noted that Iran has a missile program that would put both Israel and Europe in range of Iranian retaliation.

"This isn't a preferred solution, but I suspect, at the end of the day, that Iran will end up with the bomb," Kamp said. "Which means we'll have to rely on the Cold War deterrent: whoever fires first dies second."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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