President George W. Bush has said that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, and recent press accounts suggest that his administration is exploring preventive military options. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defied the diplomatic efforts of the European Union and others, using the nuclear issue to stir rally domestic support. Is it too late to prevent a showdown?
Iran claims that its nuclear program is aimed solely at peaceful uses, and that it has the right to develop uranium enrichment and other technologies as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But it spent 18 years deceiving inspectors from the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, leading some countries to argue that Iran destroyed its credibility and forfeited its rights to enrichment on its own soil.
Russia has offered to provide nuclear enrichment and reprocessing services for the civilian reactor it is building in Iran. If Iran were interested solely in peaceful uses, the Russian offer or some other plan (such as placing stocks of low enriched uranium in Iran) could meet their needs. Iran’s insistence on enrichment inside the country is widely attributed to its desire to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb.
Would an Iranian bomb really be so bad? Some argue that it could become the basis of stable nuclear deterrence in the region, analogous to the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But statements by Iranian leaders denying the Holocaust and urging the destruction of Israel have not only cost Iran support in Europe, but are unlikely to make Israel willing to gamble its existence on the prospect of stable deterrence.