Editorial: Sabre-rattling over Iran may end in tragedy

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History is replete with examples of escalating tensions leading to conflict even though this was never the intention of most of the participants. Therein lies the danger of the long-running standoff over Iran's nuclear programme.

Tehran, as is its custom, has not been shy of ramping up its defiant rhetoric, even to the extent of overplaying its hand. This has allowed Israel to portray Iran's leaders as so irrational that the mere suggestion that they could be about to possess nuclear weapons is unthinkable, and to convince both the United States and Britain that all options must be on the table, including an air strike against Iran's key nuclear plants.

Israel has some reason to think that if such action is to be taken, it should be sooner rather than later. Iran will start moving its most important nuclear facilities into underground bunkers later this year. This will make them far less vulnerable to aerial assault.

But there is also a window of opportunity provided by President Barack Obama's focus on his re-election. He would not wish to risk the wrath of the strong Jewish voting bloc in the US by criticising Israel too strongly if it were to act before the November election.

Growing fears that Israel is poised to strike have led the US and Britain to actively discourage that course. The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, has urged Tel Aviv to give sanctions against Iran more time to work, saying an attack would have grave consequences for the entire region. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has, for his part, said an assault would not be "a wise thing".

Both men are right, of course. The consequences of an Israeli air strike would be unpredictable, uncontrollable and longstanding. It might, at best, delay Iran's programme for a short time, thereby serving little more purpose than the recent assassination campaign against Iran's leading scientists. Worst of all, it would almost certainly convince the Iranians that the pursuit of nuclear weapons is, indeed, in their best interests.

At the moment, their attitude is unclear, even if some of Iran's experiments do not suggest a peaceful intent. The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency has concluded there is no indication the country has a nuclear weapons capacity or could have it soon. Military action would mean, inevitably, a redirection and redoubling of Iran's efforts.

More fundamentally, however, there is good reason to believe the economic sanctions against Tehran, including the targeting of its crucial oil sector, may, indeed, be beginning to bite. Whatever the tone of its rhetoric, Iran has agreed to resume talks with permanent UN Security Council members and Germany. Its chief nuclear negotiator has also responded positively to an offer to end a year-long suspension of negotiations with the European Union.

This indicates the importance of treating sabre-rattling with caution, and suggests that Iran's leaders may have concluded the cost of pursuing nuclear weapons would be too great. If so, the time may, in fact, be ripe for diplomacy.

An ideal outcome would see Iran given the right to continue uranium enrichment in return for it allowing tighter IAEA inspections to ensure its nuclear development is for civilian purposes. In the present climate, that may appear a long shot. On no account, however, must the international community give Israel cause to believe that precipitate military action would be acceptable.

Only recently has the US been able to extract itself from an ill-conceived intervention in Iraq. To repeat that mistake again and so quickly is unthinkable.

- NZ Herald

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