Will Iran acquire a nuclear bomb with Barack Obama as US president?
Colin Freeman – Telegraph.co.uk November 8, 2008
Just a few miles from the 42-year-old farmer's homestead on the outskirts of Isfahan is the city's nuclear research facility, viewed by the Pentagon as one of the key incubators for Iran's atomic weapons programme, and marked on its intelligence maps for a priority strike.
The plant's gleaming chimneystacks are strategically hidden behind a range of rust-coloured hills, but in the event of a strike with high-powered bunker-buster missiles, Mr Attaee fears the shock waves would do more than just rattle his windows.
"We are worried what damage would be done to our houses in the event of a strike," he said. "But we Iranians are used to threats after all these years."
As of last Tuesday, those threats seemed to recede with the presidential triumph of Barack Obama, a man who appears keener on dialogue with Iran than his rival John McCain and his predecessor George W.Bush, who both made no secret of their interest in the "military option".
But for all the optimism the Obama presidency may have inspired in America and elsewhere, it is not shared by Iran's hardline leadership. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have offered his belated "congratulations" to America's first black president on Thursday, but Tehran still sees Washington as fundamentally opposed to the Islamic regime's mere right to exist, let alone its right to become a nuclear power. The Great Satan's face has changed colour, but no more, as the hardline Kayhan newspaper made clear.
"Obama's view on talks with Iran is not strategic, it is a hostile tactic," warned an editorial last week, in an edition marking the anniversary of the storming of Tehran's US Embassy in 1979, after which America broke off diplomatic relations. "He does not regard talks as a means to reach a solution, but as a way to increase pressures on Iran."
In declaring business as usual, Kayhan was correct on one crucial point – Mr Obama is no keener than any other would-be US president on the prospect of the a nuclear-armed Iran. Not only would it be "unacceptable" for Middle East stability, to have it happen on his watch in the White House would deal a body blow to his credentials as a man America can trust with its security.
Yet every indication is that the crunch moment in Iran's long-running nuclear stand-off with the West is likely to come in during Mr Obama's tenure. Diplomats in Tehran say that between 2010 and 2011, the scientists at Isfahan, Natanz and other key Iranian nuclear plants will master the ability to enrich uranium, which could give them bomb-making ability. Sometime between now and then, America and Europe will have to persuade the mullahs to abandon their research – either by diplomacy or by force – or accept the potential of a nuclear-armed, and hostile, Iran.
"We are nearing that moment where Iran either develops nuclear capability, or where the question of military action is contemplated," warned one diplomat in Tehran. "Both of those scenarios are horrible and to be avoided."
A stroll around Isfahan, a city of Persian architecture regarded as Iran's finest, yields little sense of any impending doom. In a city centre park overlooking the elegant butterscotch arches of Choobi river bridge, most picknickers welcomed the prospect of an Obama presidency. There was, however, an insistence that they should have their own nuclear deterrent - a view that has prevailed here ever since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when the West largely turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein's aggression.
"Obama is a peace-loving guy and I think if he is elected he will pursue good relations with us," said Mitra Noruzi, 40, sat smoking a hookah pipe with her family. "But there is no reason why we shouldn't have a nuclear weapon, it will make us feel safer. Anyway, why should we be blamed for having them, when others do?"
So what are the options? While even Mr Obama has reserved the right to use military force as a last option, most experts agree that a US or Israeli military strike to flatten the likes of Isfahan is now unlikely, despite having been talked up relentlessly as a "when, not if" question during the latter Bush years.
For one, even the most powerful bunker-busting missiles would not be guaranteed to set back the programme indefinitely, given that the many of the techniques have already been perfected. For another, an attack would also unleash a wave of terrorist chaos from Iran's proxies in Israel, Iraq and Lebanon just when the world needs stability to cope with the financial crisis.
"The reaction will not be by us, but by proxies like Hizbollah against the US and its baby child, Israel," warned Dr Amir Mohebbian, a leading Iranian conservative thinker. "To attack us would be walking into a trap."
That leaves a continuation of the diplomatic route, an international good cop-bad cop act in which Iran been alternatively threatened and bribed to curb its nuclear ambitions. Six years after it started, it has largely failed. The regime has ignored "generous" deals offering trade incentives and a guaranteed supply of foreign enriched uranium for a civilian atomic program. And it remains undeterred by the increasingly punitive sanctions, which have imposed asset freezes on firms and individuals linked to the nuclear program, and prevented most Western banks doing business with Iran. Indeed, many diplomats privately suspect that Tehran sees the entire "talks" process as simply buying time to perfect bomb-making techniques.
Mr Obama hopes to break the mould by offering direct talks with Mr Ahmadinejad, although mindful of the PR drawbacks of sitting down with someone who has threatened to "wipe Israel from the pages of history", he has since suggested that he might seek out other Iranian leaders instead. Finding a more politically palatable figure to have meaningful discussions with, though, may prove difficult. While Iran's elections next year might well see Mr Ahmadinejad lose to a more pragmatic, reform-minded politician, the Iranian president does not really have much say on the nuclear question. That rests exclusively with Iran's all-powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who belongs to the same hardline conservative camp as Mr Ahmadinejad.
Whoever he meets, Mr Obama's main weapon underneath the table is expected to be a threat to increase sanctions in tandem with Europe, hoping to make the regime's defiance on the nuclear question more painful for Iran's own people. But even that can have only a limited effect, warns Sir Richard Dalton, Britain's ambassador to Tehran until 2006.
"Sanctions are a factor in the unpopularity of the current government, but they will not change the fundamental decision making structures around the Supreme Leader," he said. "Even if the reformists won a big majority it might not persuade him to enter into serious negotiations."
A more daring option would be to restore diplomatic relations fully, re-opening the dusty Embassy in Tehran's tree-lined Talequani Ave, currently a museum known as the "US Den of Espionage". While such a move would be a tough sell politically for Mr Obama, it would carry huge symbolic weight for Iran, and remove one of the key justifications for recalcitrance on the nuclear question.
Yet the real hard-sell would be to the regime itself, which, ever since the Iran-Iraq war, has relied on Iran's international isolation to shore up its authority. For all that there may be new thinking the White House, unless it is matched by a similar change of mind in Teheran, the spectre of missile strikes on Isfahan is unlikely to recede completely.
Which, for some of Isfahan's more reform-minded picnickers, is no bad thing. "If America bombs us I will just sit and watch" said one young student, staring at the pedalloes on the river by the Choobi Bridge. "It is the only thing that might ever change this government."
Last updated 10/11/2008