With the December 6 news that it plans to build twenty new uranium enrichment facilities, Iran has dealt a serious blow to hopes of peacefully resolving its nuclear standoff with the West. After months of courtship by the international community, Iran’s announcement appears to be both a rejection of the West’s advances and a signal of its intent to step up its pursuit of a nuclear program. With the US running out of cards to play, many fear that the two countries are on a collision course to military confrontation.

Much like North Korea, the consequences of an Iranian possession of nuclear bomb are dire. The Obama administration has sought to right the wrong of American Cold War policy, when the US provided its then-ally Iran with nuclear reactors in an attempt to curry favor. Preventing proliferation is a priority for the Obama administration and confirmation that Iran has a nuclear bomb would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, with heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to counter Iranian domination in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would also bring Israel and Iran closer to war. Iran’s anti-Semitic leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicised his hatred of Israel so often that Israeli leaders deem a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Just last year an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was narrowly averted after George W. Bush refused to give Ehud Olmert the green light. The Obama administration has since tried to convince the Israelis of the virtues of diplomacy with Iran, but the latest setback means that hawks in Israel and the US will be circling Iran with greater intensity.

Despite the apparent futility of diplomacy, war mercifully remains a distant prospect. The US will not be eager to wage war in another Muslim nation while it remains hamstrung in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel will be aware that, unlike its attacks on Syrian and Iraqi nuclear sites, a rapid strike on Iran carries more danger, as it will not be enough to fully destabilize Iran’s advanced nuclear program. Thus, sanctions are the next logical option, given Iran’s continued obduracy towards the international community. Of course sanctions have already been imposed and have only served to embolden the Iranian government, yet there is still hope. Obama’s involvement of Russia and China in negotiations has helped project an image of international unity. Hitherto, both countries have been reticent to back more serious measures, but with the stakes increasing, strong trade sanctions supported by the US, Russia and China seem like the most tangible chance of jolting the Iranian government into re-thinking its nuclear strategy while avoiding the need for force.

There are two arguments in favor of Iran’s nuclear program. The first centres on the claim that it is designed solely to generate power. Yet Iran’s dismissal of a UN proposal to take low-enriched uranium (for which it has no practical civilian use) out of the country shows that Iran has more than megawatts in mind. The second argument is comprised of myopic but understandable questions: What about Israel’s nuclear weapons? What about all the other nuclear states? Why can’t Iran have a nuclear bomb too? In reality, any responsible citizen should be advocating for a world free of nuclear weapons, and in fact President Obama has laudably urged India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ultimately though, as world leaders gather in Copenhagen this week to tackle climate change, Iran must recognize its responsibility to prevent a man-made catastrophe of a different nature.

Michael Collins, December 2009