David Calling

Talk or Bomb?

The issue of Iran going nuclear is shrouded in secrecy. Most of us just don’t have the information to form a worthwhile opinion about it. Someone who does is Emanuele Ottolenghi, who has been an Oxford academic and is now with a think tank in Brussels. Under a Mushroom Cloud is the title of his book on the subject. I went to a talk he gave in the appropriate setting of the House of Commons under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society.
To the question, why does Iran want the nuclear weapon, he gave the straightforward answer that the bomb is an instrument for the projection of power. In his opinion, the Islamic regime is not so much apocalyptic as out to change the balance of power in the region — not that their rationality can be depended upon. A combination of Persian nationalism, Shia identity, and Marxism is at work, altogether mixing the divine with the subversive. Once Iran has the bomb, others in the region will want it too, as self-protection. Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt or even Turkey fear that the United States, nominally their protector, may not wish to embroil itself when push comes to shove. A nuclear Iran also means that the difficulties of Lebanon and Israel will be impossible to resolve. The dire alternatives appear to be bombing Iran or accepting its nuclear weapon, and Ottolenghi could not decide which was the worst-case scenario.
What to do? Options are limited. The United States can either talk or bomb. Israel can only bomb. Europe can only talk, but it could talk tough. European exports to Iran account for almost half the national total and an embargo on them would thwart and complicate Iranian ambitions. Given the current economic recession, I doubt whether anyone in the audience believed that the European countries would ever commit themselves publicly to a policy of trade embargo, or stick to it privately if they did commit to it. As things stand, the offer of the United States to engage in talks with Iran is bound to increase the influence of Iran, and Ottolenghi raised the grim prospect of a Middle East Yalta.
As I left, I made my way down the corridors of the House of Commons past the marble statues and busts of Gladstone, Disraeli, Palmerston, Canning, and could not help contrasting present doubt with past conviction. The free world is at a crossroads. There’s not much time left for President Obama to clarify the decisions he has to take on what surely will be the defining issue of his presidency.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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