The Road to Hell: As the Drums Beat for War with Iran, the UN's Former Weapons Inspector Warns That Military Intervention Would Be a Disaster. Our Best Chance of Peace Lies in Persuading the Entire Middle East to Go Nuclear-Free

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The urgent discussions about bombing nuclear facilities in Iran return us to the armed attack that was launched on Iraq under US and UK leadership in March 2003 to eradicate weapons of mass destruction - weapons that did not exist. That intervention was criticised severely and, I think, rightly as a violation of the UN Charter: it could not be justified as an act of self-defence and, despite some efforts by the UK, it had not been given any authorisation by the UN Security Council.

The only positive result was the toppling of a brutal tyrant. If Iran were to be bombed, it would be another action in disregard of the UN Charter. There would be no authorisation by the Security Council. Iran has not attacked anybody and despite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's wild, populist declarations that Israel should be wiped off the map there is no imminent Iranian threat that could be invoked to justify pre-emptive action. It would be a war aiming chiefly to prevent Iran from enriching uranium - a preventive war.

While the Iran impasse today has some important similarities with the Iraq issue, the situations also differ in several respects. Iraq in 2003 was exhausted and a military threat to nobody. Iran today may be weakened economically, torn by internal strife and somewhat hurt by sanctions, but it retains a good deal of military power and is seen as a threat by many countries in the region. Iran has slowly developed a capacity to enrich uranium. As the programme cannot be economic, many suspect that the main and ultimate intention is to produce weapons-grade nuclear material.

During the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s such an intention would have been natural. In 1981 Israel destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor and Saddam Hussein was, indeed, aiming for a nuclear weapon. At the present time Iran can hardly worry about a nuclear Iraq, but it may have a wish to assert itself and defy the states that ostracise it and seek its isolation. It is possible - but is denied by Iran and not evident to me - that there is a determination to make a nuclear weapon. Whether this is so or Iran only seeks to get close to the option, Israel and other states as well are concerned about the threat and the risk of nuclear proliferation that would be posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

For a number of years, the UK, France and Germany - the E3 - later joined by the US, Russia and China to form the P5+1 (the permanent five on the Security Council plus Germany), have sought to persuade Iran to suspend the enrichment programme. Assuming that Iran would calculate the cost-benefits of the scheme, they have made a number of positive offers in return for its suspension: assurance of external supplies of uranium fuel, assistance in building more nuclear power plants in Iran, facilitation of investments and support for Iranian membership of the World Trade Organisation, and a confirmation to Iran of their respect for the UN Charter's provisions that ban the threat or use offeree.

While the approach has been far from a diktat, the manner of presentation has sometimes been condescending: for a time, suspension was made a precondition for sitting down to talk. Iran was sometimes told to better its behaviour - as if the country were an unruly minor Whatever might have been the impact of such tones, Iran steadfastly rejected all demands to suspend the enrichment programme, which led the Security Council to work the cost side and impose sanctions.

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As these sanctions have not had any effect - and as Russia and China, and probably other states on the Security Council, would be opposed to stiffer measures - Israel has resorted increasingly to covert action in Iran and so has the US. For instance, Iranian enrichment activities were delayed by an action, believed to have been undertaken by Israeli and US units, to implant a computer virus (Stuxnet) in Iranian centrifuges. …