The crucial central question concerns the extent to which Iran will be permitted to retain its on-going nuclear weapons programme. How much will it retain of its uranium enrichment capability (and stockpile of enriched material) from which it could make weapons of the sort that fell on Hiroshima? And to what extent will it be allowed to continue with its programme to produce weapons-grade plutonium (the basis of the bomb that fell on Nagasaki)?
The point is not whether Iran needs nuclear power, in view of all the oil it has (and there are different views on this), nor whether it has a right to develop civilian nuclear power (within the usual safeguards, it surely has) but rather whether it is prudent for the international community (represented by the P5+1 group) to permit them to continue the development of the basis for a nuclear arsenal.
Iran, of course, already has a large nuclear power reactor at Bushehr (with about the generating capacity of the Huntley station). It also has a tentative agreement with Russia to build perhaps half a dozen more power reactors of a similar type. The critical point about all these developments (as presently agreed between the parties) is that Russia has undertaken not only to build the plants but also to supply fresh nuclear fuel for them. It will also take away spent fuel for disposal or reprocessing. Because of these arrangements, Iran does not need enrichment capability to make its own fuel. Nor does it require reprocessing capability to deal with spent fuel.
The issue, therefore, is not how many of the 20,000+ enrichment centrifuges they presently have they should be allowed to keep. Nor is it how much of the higher enriched material they should be allowed to retain (and in what form). They should retain none of it. None of it can be justified through a civilian (‘peaceful’) nuclear power programme. Equally, Iran does not need, for any civilian purpose, a plutonium-production reactor, such as it is building at Arak, together with the ancillary heavy-water generation plant. Again, the principal purpose of such a facility is to acquire plutonium-239, which is the basis of a plutonium bomb of the kind that fell on Nagasaki. Weapons-grade plutonium is also the basis of enhanced weapons.
As I noted in a recent blog (‘Holocaust revisited’, 5 February 2015), this is a matter of some urgency for Israel, which sees itself at particular peril through the persistent re-iteration of Iranian anti-Semitism. In the latest example of this, as reported on MSNBC, the Iranian Supreme Leader ‘tweeted’, ‘This barbaric, wolf-like and infanticidal regime of Israel, which spares no crime, has no cure but to be annihilated’. That seems clear enough. And the Iranian Foreign Minister confirmed the utterance during an interview on the same channel. It is surely understandable that the Israeli Prime Minister should express disquiet about the content of a possible ‘deal’ and not simply because there was an election in the offing.
The continuing nuclear activity of Iran is also perceived as a significant threat by Iran’s Sunni neighbours, who increasingly fear a growing Iranian regional hegemony. Any deal that leaves Iran with the core of its nuclear weapon programme intact increases the likelihood that other regional states will feel impelled to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. There are already persistent rumours that Saudi Arabia has a deal with Pakistan to this end. The Middle East is already a dangerous enough place without the addition of a nuclear arms race. P5+1 have a task of enormous significance for international security and the prevention of nuclear proliferation.
There are great temptations to appeasement here. Some of the European powers are already seeing commercial advantage in an Iran free of sanctions, which would be the effect of an agreement. They would also rather like Iran to deal with the difficult problem of the ISIS entity, as it has begun to do. Like President Obama, his European allies have been palpably reluctant to commit themselves, in a whole-hearted way, to the defeat of that manifestly evil organisation. But most of all, they want a diplomatic success. This applies particularly to President Obama, whose ineffectual foreign policies have come under increasing attack, including from his own Democratic allies.
It is, of course, possible that the negotiators for P5+1 and Iran will postpone the day of decision. They have done this three times already. But if they don’t and they announce an agreement with Iran, other parties will then become involved. Particularly, it looks as if the settlement will come to the United Nations Security Council, for approval. If I am right about this, New Zealand, as a recently elected member will need to make up its mind about the issue. It will need to decide for itself whether the terms of the agreement leave Iran with the possibility of continuing its programme and whether we believe that Iran can be relied on to keep its agreements (history on this point is not encouraging).
In a previous blog (‘Fighting Islamist Extremism’, 18 February), I argued that New Zealand should send troops to Iraq, notwithstanding that we had limited military resources and some reservations about the commitment of our allies (as noted also above). It was a gesture towards an important cause (the defeat of ISIS and a gesture of support towards traditional allies. The Iranian issue is not like this. We really need to do our homework and, if need be, stand up for principle. Our traditional allies need to know this. Once Iran has a nuclear arsenal, there is no going back.