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Is Iran's Nuclear Program Slowly Boiling Us?

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Tuesday's revelation by the U.S. that Iran is looking to sponsor terror attacks inside the US comes on the heels of Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and curtail oil sales to various member nations of the EU, which also comes on the heels of new U.S. and EU sanctions on Iran. Additionally, the U.S., along with Britain and France, have deployed their navies to the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran that Iranian threats to the world oil supply will not be tolerated, just as its nuclear program intransigence won't be tolerated either.

The question we should all have is: where is this standoff going? War? A peaceful resolution? A continued standoff with no end in sight?

One the one hand, after the debacle in Iraq where we believed that Iraq was in possession of WMD and the proof could come in the form of a mushroom cloud has many people throughout the world concerned that this could be Middle East WMD 2.0. On the other hand, the IAEA has said that Iran's nuclear program could be intended for military purposes, a charge that Iran has repeatedly denied.

The red line that the U.S. says that Iran should not cross is to enrich Uranium to 90%, which is weapons grade. Typically anything 20% or lower is for energy purposes. This is where the importance of the IAEA comes in; monitoring Iran's program and enrichment is essential to knowing Iran's intentions. As such, another red line that must not be crossed is for Iran to expel the IAEA.

Other Options
Sanctions combined with diplomacy is the most promising way forward. But this won't likely be successful if done by the U.S., EU and IAEA alone. China, India and Russia are very important to this process. China is the largest consumer of Iranian oil, and India is a large partner as well. Russia does not have the same level of antagonism with Iran as does much of the Western world so it too could be a voice of reason from the point of view of Iran's leadership.

The benefit of sanctions combined with diplomacy is that it keeps pressure on Iran, which admittedly has not changed Iran's behavior but it has hurt the credibility of the government within Iran. Iran faces 11.8% inflation, growth of about 1% and unemployment over 12%. Put these factors together and you have an unhappy citizenry. The Green Revolution in 2009 did not go anywhere but with the Arab Spring producing change in other Middle East nations, the people of Iran are likely to put pressure on the government to negotiate over its nuclear program. Iran has the right under international law to a peaceful nuclear program (Iran signed the NPT) but considering that it is a very little step to go from nuclear energy to nuclear weapons has a lot of people worried. This boils down to an issue of trust.

Stopping Iran Through Military Force
Military force must be the last option, but unfortunately an option that should not be taken off the table. When Israel struck Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2006, respectively, the strikes were effective in that neither country developed a nuclear program. However, had Saddam not invaded Kuwait in 1990, he would likely have had a nuclear weapon capability in 1992. In other words: from this point of view, the world was lucky that Saddam brought about the demise of his own nuclear program by invading Kuwait. So, striking Iran's nuclear facilities could set it back a long time, which is good but there is some down side, too.

The down side to an attack on Iran's program is that it would immediately unify Iranian citizens behind the government that the citizens are already angry with. The reason for this: Iran is a very nationalistic country. Moreover, attacking Iran's nuclear sites could also send the price of oil up to $150 a barrel, which would likely send the world back into a recession. And finally, an attack on Iran would virtually guarantee that once Iran's nuclear program is back up, it will certainly be for weapon purposes. There is no good option.

A Nuclear Iran
Iran has the ability to produce a nuclear weapon in that the knowledge is there and this knowledge cannot be undone. The next thing we need to ask is: what constitutes a weapon? Is it enrichment to 90%? Is it having all of the parts ready to assemble but not actually assembling a weapon? The line blurs as to what would constitute a 'weaponized nuclear Iran'.

If Iran did possess a nuclear weapon(s), the argument that it would start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East might not necessarily hold water. Israel already has a nuclear program yet, Saudi Arabia does not. On the other hand, Syria and Iraq did at one time have a program, which could be viewed as an arms race with Israel. But these were already belligerent countries; Saudi Arabia is not. And the future position of Egypt is unknown at this point. Turkey is unlikely to pursue a nuclear program since it is, although not perfect, one of the more responsible and reasonable governments in the Middle East.

If Iran possessed nuclear weapons, such a responsibility might make Iran mature as a responsible international player, but that is unlikely. Iran is likely to continue to have an antagonistic policy towards the West, a stance that is reciprocated towards Iran.

The Way Forward
A combination of diplomacy and sanctions are the best way forward. The economic and political pressure should be kept on Iran until it can be verified that the program is not going to become a weapon program; this is where the importance of the IAEA comes into play. Sanctions are causing its citizens to come to believe that the nuclear program is just not worth it. The leadership may feel different. This is the tension we want.

While the West could be all wrong about Iran's intentions, the evidence uncovered by the IAEA does not suggest this to be the case.

The worse case scenario is the following -- there is a story of the frog in the boiling water. If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out. But if you slowly turn up the heat as the frog is in cool water, it doesn't even feel that it is slowly boiling and it won't jump out when the water fully boils. While we should not put frogs in boiling water, the real moral of the story is that we should all be concerned that we are slowly being boiled by Iran.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East and was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies. He has a masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul is a candidate for US Congress from Massachusetts's 4th Congressional District and can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.