A picture from the news website of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shows four missiles being test-fired at an undisclosed location in the Iranian desert. These missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Image Credit: AFP

War drums against Tehran are beating faster. The noise from Tel Aviv and western capitals has become so deafening that it could easily reach a tipping point; if Iran sticks to its guns and Israel and its backers are proved to be all bark and no bite, they could lose their deterrence credibility.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said an attack on Iran grows increasingly likely and that was before a damning report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that maintains Iran has been working on nukes since 2003 and has constructed a nuclear detonation system with the help of a Ukrainian nuclear scientist. Unfortunately, the ‘nuclear scientist' turns out instead to be a researcher in peaceful uses of nanodiamonds.

Iran has accused the IAEA of being an instrument of the US and warns that it will respond with "an iron fist" if attacked. With the memory of the invasion of Iraq and the air campaign against Libya, it's tempting to dismiss such fiery rhetoric. Moreover, Israelis will, no doubt, bear in mind their country's ‘successful' strike on an Iraqi civilian nuclear reactor in 1981 without considering the consequences. Immediately after that air attack, Saddam Hussain summoned his nuclear chiefs to instruct them to build a bomb. If an Iran strike was a video game, Israel and its western allies would be the clear victors but decisions made in the real world come with repercussions.

Firstly, most analysts agree that such an assault would only represent a two or three-year set-back to Iran's alleged ambition to produce nukes not to mention harden Iran's self-defence resolve. Secondly, an attack would be a logistical nightmare as Iran's nuclear facilities and uranium enrichment plants are scattered with some buried in reinforced concrete deep underground requiring the possible use of nuclear bunker-busters. Anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott once warned that strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities would lead to "huge amounts of radioactive material" being "lofted into the air to contaminate the people of Iran and surrounding countries".


Thirdly, whereas Saddam's nuclear and chemical arsenal was destroyed following the 1991 Gulf War, there are suspicions that Tehran already possesses a low-grade nuclear capability, purchased from former Soviet Union countries and elsewhere. If that's the case, those weapons along with conventional missiles will be pointed at Israeli cities and US bases in the Gulf. If Israel stares annihilation in the face it will use its nukes to take down its neighbours with it.

Fourthly, while Saddam's Iraq had been virtually isolated by the international community when it was struck by "Shock and Awe" in 2003, Tehran has solid friends, namely Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah whose Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warns that war with Iran would engulf the entire region. This may be mere scaremongering but it should be noted that a senior Egyptian cleric Shaikh Ala'a Mazi Abulezam has threatened to issue a fatwa (edict) to his followers "to fight hand-in-hand" with Iran. Certainly, any attack would be a gift to the recruiters of militant groups.

Like Iraq, Iran has cemented lucrative energy and trade deals with China and Russia, which unsurprisingly are blocking the prospect of anti-Iran UN Security Council sanctions preferring dialogue. Iran is working hard to persuade Moscow to come on-side with the offer of a $40 billion (Dh147 billion) deal revolving around Russia's construction of five new nuclear plants as well as new reactors for the existing Bushehr nuclear plant. Russia reluctantly acquiesced to the invasion of Iraq despite being hit in the pocket and suffering a loss of regional influence. Will it make the same mistake again?

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavov told reporters that war with Iran "would be a very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences." Echoing those sentiments are US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta who says such attack should be a "last resort" and former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy who warns "anyone considering such a strike must realise that it would impact not just Israel but the entire region for the next 100 years". Israel's former spymaster Meir Dagan has called attacking Iran ‘a stupid idea' as it would lead to regional war.

Fifthly, attacking Iran would bring all Iranians behind their government while decapitating nascent democracy movements. Last but not least, is the effect the conflict with Iran would have on regional and global economies. Some economists project oil prices higher than $250 per barrel if Iran carries out its threat to obstruct Gulf shipping lanes and set a match to oilfields. There is also the question of whether the US and its European allies struggling to emerge from grave financial doldrums can afford a new war.

There are no easy answers. Israel and the West have three options: to live with a nuclear Iran in the same way they have come to terms with Pakistan and North Korea, to use stick and carrot diplomacy to bring Iran into the international fold — or, go for broke with military might risking setting the region ablaze. Those of us who live in the neighbourhood can only pray they'll choose wisely.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.