Neighbors / Tiptoeing Around the Iranian Bomb

It is difficult to follow the linguistic twists and turns in the International Atomic Energy Agency's latest report. The cautious diplomacy employed in it by the agency's head, Mohammed El-Baradei, is aimed at allowing for an ongoing dialogue with Iran while at the same time issuing sufficient warnings and reservations, to clarify Iran's refusal to cooperate with the agency. The report's greatest shortcomings lie in the lack of providing exact information or documents Iran is hiding and its failure to document the experiments Tehran has carried out. One example of this is paragraph 17, which does not expressly deal with Iran's ability to develop atomic weapons but focuses instead on design modifications to the Shahab-3 ballistic missile.

The report claims that Iran has changed the structure of the missile's warhead, making it compatible for nuclear loads - a dangerous development that calls for further examination or punitive measures. In addition, the IAEA report says Tehran has conducted experiments with multi-purpose detonators, which can be used in atomic explosions. El-Baradei proposed discussing the contents of the engineering design documents with Iranian experts, in what he referred to as an effort to check sample experiments that relate to the effect of physical parameters on the penetrating body from the time of launching until the warhead's explosion. That is a complicated way of saying: "We want to see what you have achieved with regard to the structure of the Shabab missile's new warhead."

But Iran has sent the agency packing. It did not provide information on the experiments to the IAEA's inspectors because, as Tehran claimed, these experiments relate to conventional weapons and therefore do not concern the agency. On a formal level, Iran is right. In practice, however, these experiments could in effect constitute an inseparable part of developing the capacity to launch nuclear weapons, which is within the IAEA's field of responsibility.

This cat-and-mouse game between Iran and the nuclear watchdog agency, which is incapable of confirming or refuting whether Tehran is developing nuclear weapons, not only indicates the difficulty of establishing what exactly Iran has in its possession, but, more importantly, how to react to it.

The working assumption among several American experts is that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons - with sanctions or without them - not only because it has the necessary know-how or alternatively the ability to acquire such knowledge, but also because of the domestic support for developing such weapons. Opponents of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and their numbers are growing within his own party, too - and members of the opposition believe Iran cannot remain defenseless in the face of the threats emanating from Pakistan, Israel or the United States. "It is not just a matter of national prestige. It is part of the entire Iranian defense system, which the West has difficulty understanding," an activist in the Iranian opposition told this reporter last week during a meeting in London. "If there is one issue that rallies everyone in contemporary Iran it is the understanding that nuclear technology must be an integral part of national security."

If this assessment of the Iranian activist, who has no qualms about criticizing Ahmadinejad on other subjects, is correct, we should not expect much from the presidential elections, scheduled for June 2009. Not only because Ahmadinejad has already received the blessings of Iran's spiritual leader and the man who makes the supreme political decisions, Ali Khamenei, but also because any other Iranian president is unlikely to change this policy.

In view of this assessment, a new American policy is beginning to crystallize. "We must hold a dialogue with Iran," declared five former U.S. secretaries of state - Republicans Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and James Baker, as well as Democrats Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. These former ministers were not asked, and therefore did not express their opinion on whether such a dialogue could prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. They do, however, believe such a dialogue could block the use of this kind of weapon.

This seems to be the approach that will guide U.S. policy in the post-Bush era, regardless of whether Barack Obama or John McCain are elected. Israel should start thinking about an alternative policy to raising repeated warnings about Iran, a strategy which in another few months could put it on a collision course with the next American administration.

Which is the dangerous stream?

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the important Sunni scholar who issues his religious edicts from Qatar but has an influence on the entire world of conservative Islamic commentary, last week dropped a bombshell. "The Shi'ites are trying to gain control of the Sunni world, particularly in Egypt," he declared. "If we do not oppose this encroachment, we will become traitors to the trust placed in us."

This is not the first time Qaradawi has come out so blatantly against Shia Islam and against Iran in particular. But this latest statement appears to be part of a reckoning on behalf of Qaradawi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, with his rival, the sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, Mohammed Sayyed al-Tantawi. Tantawi has ruled that there is no ideological difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites and has even opened study groups where Shia Islam is taught. Qaradawi, on the other hand, believes Shia Islam is a cult that is making unwanted changes in the religion; even if its followers are no infidels, it is a dangerous stream.

This week, however, someone told Qaradawi to take off his blinkers. Tariq al-Homayed, the editor of the London-based Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, reminded Qaradawi of who perpetrated the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. The entire world lashed out at Sunnis, he said, describing them as terrorists, as fighting culture and as being opposed to modernism. But, he added, many Sunni sages did not pay attention to what was happening and continued to publish confusing and frightening religious edicts, including Qaradawi, who - according to Homayed - sanctioned the continuation of suicide bombings by the Palestinians. "We told him back then, who can guarantee that we won't see terrorist attacks of that kind on our soil, too? And indeed, that is what happened." The learned sheikh has yet to respond.