Europe's choice

The point when the world concludes that a nuclear Iran is no longer preventable is fast approaching.

ahmadinejad feature 88 2 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad feature 88 2
(photo credit: AP)
On Sunday, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors found 1,300 centrifuges running smoothly at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Though this falls short of what is normally considered industrial capacity, experts estimate that Iran could have 3,000 centrifuges running in a few months, which would allow the regime to produce one or two bombs' worth of enriched uranium annually. While a short time ago, Iranian claims of successfully running such numbers of centrifuges were widely dismissed, today they are not. "We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich," said IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei. "From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that's a fact." This Iranian achievement has already sparked a debate over whether the UN Security Council's demand for Teheran to cease enrichment has lost its purpose. As ElBaradei put it, "from a proliferation perspective, the fact of the matter is that one of the purposes of suspension - keeping them from getting the knowledge - has been overtaken by events. The focus now should be to stop them from going to industrial scale production, to allow us to do a full-court-press inspection and to be sure they remain inside the treaty." In essence, ElBaradei is arguing that there is little point in demanding an end to "small scale" enrichment since Iran has already mastered the enrichment process. But this argument can more sensibly be turned on its head: Now that Iran has breached a technological barrier, it is even more important to stop Iran from using that knowledge. For the mullahs, it may even be enough initially to prove that they have sufficient enriched uranium without actually building a bomb. Even such an ambiguous achievement could grant the regime the immunity of a nuclear power, the ability to accelerate its support for terrorism with impunity, and more time to project its influence. Strikingly, ElBaradei has declared that Iran has already passed the technological "point of no return" concerning enrichment. What Iran is really racing for, however, is a strategic "point of no return" - when the world concludes that a nuclear Iran is no longer preventable, but must be accommodated. This point has not yet been reached, but is fast approaching. There is only a short time left to drastically tighten international sanctions, in a last-ditch effort to avoid having to choose between military action and a nuclear Iran. Fortunately, some action is being taken. Two important bills, the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, are making their way through the US Congress. If enacted, they would accelerate a process of divestment by state pension funds from non-US companies invested in Iran (direct US investment is already barred). A few weeks ago, the Florida legislature passed a bill that would force its $40 billion state pension fund to divest from companies doing business in Iran. Other states, such as California with its $225b. pension fund, could follow suit. What would be even better is if the Western countries that are heavily invested in Iran pulled out themselves, rather than waiting for indirect US pressure. A US Congressional report found that firms such as France's Total, Royal Dutch Shell, Italy's ENI and Inpex of Japan have invested more than $100b. in Iran's energy sector since 1999. Such investments must stop. European foreign policy chief Javier Solana said recently, "Iran is steadily moving toward nuclear weapons capability, and the negotiations are not working... But this doesn't mean war.... You have to resist the urge to strike out militarily, which could even be worse than Iran gaining nuclear weaponry." Actually, it is in Europe's hands whether Iran's challenge means war or not. Europe must choose between its commercial interests and its desire to avoid war. If the US and Israel are left with no option but military action, European shortsightedness will be to blame. Europe needs no further UN resolutions to act; it needs to decide to divest itself from Iran.