The recent assault on the British Embassy in Tehran, which the Iranian authorities did nothing to stop until it was too late, led to the rupture of diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran. All British diplomats were withdrawn from Tehran and Iranian diplomats were expelled from London.

Under international law the Iranian government is obliged to take all appropriate steps to protect foreign diplomatic missions. Their failure to do so was a further example of Iranian contempt for their international obligations.

The ostensible reason for the assault was the British decision to apply sanctions against Iranian financial institutions. This followed a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program may have a military purpose. The United Nations has previously approved four rounds of international sanctions against Iran because of its failure to halt uranium enrichment and to cooperate with IAEA over its nuclear program.

Iran has been a party to the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1970 as a nonnuclear state. Iran has had a nuclear program for over half a century ostensibly for peaceful purposes. Western observers think that Iran may have obtained nuclear weapons technology through Pakistan and may well have started to develop its own nuclear weapons. Iran is also reported in the West to be seeking the development or acquisition of advanced ballistic missiles.

During the Iran/Iraq war, Iran was reported to have produced chemical and biological weapons and, it is thought by some, to have retained these.

Iran has called for the extinction of Israel. It regards the United States as “the Great Satan” and Britain now as “The Little Satan.” It is on bad terms with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. Its main ally in the Middle East has been Syria, but the demands for democratic change and the revolts against the Assad regime has weakened Syria as an Iranian ally.

Iran is the center of the Shiite denomination of Islam. Shiite followers are also in a majority in Iraq but in a minority in most other Muslim countries where the Sunni denomination is predominant. The schism in Islam between these two denominations dates back to 632 when a dispute arose over the succession to the prophet as caliph of the Islamic community.

Both Shiite and Sunni Muslims include extremist as well as moderate elements. But the jealousy between the two denominations and the fact that the Shiite are in an overall minority tends to make Shiite leaders particularly keen to demonstrate their loyalty to Islam by espousing militantly anti-Western rhetoric.

This rhetoric is exacerbated in Iran by the friction that exists between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Both espouse extremist policies and are opposed to political reform. Both express combative anti-Western views, but are jealous of one another. Extremist groups in Iran whose support is sought by the rival centers of power include the revolutionary guards, the militia and the clerics who dominate Iranian society.

The reform movement in Iran calls for greater freedom and democracy, but the movement has been persecuted and repressed.

The probability that Iran will in a few years or less possess nuclear weapons poses a serious threat to peace especially in the Middle East. The current leaders of Iran with their fanatical views cannot be trusted to behave rationally if they come to possess weapons of mass destruction.

The international community has worked patiently to negotiate with Iran, but the Iranians have dissembled and prevaricated for years. Sanctions must be strengthened to prevent the present dangerous situation escalating to overt hostilities.

Unfortunately the Russians and the Chinese, while they are apparently unhappy to see Iran become a nuclear weapons state, are unwilling to support further sanctions. They argue that sanctions are likely to be counterproductive by strengthening the Iranian hard liners and believe that there is scope for further negotiations.

The Iranian threat to wipe Israel off the map has to be taken seriously and has led to increasing discussion of military measures against the Iranian regime. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a rightwing coalition in Israel, has declared that Israel will not allow Iran to become a nuclear state (although Israel almost certainly has developed nuclear weapons for its own use), and that if necessary Israel will act alone against Iran. The U.S. and its allies have never totally ruled out military action, and it would be very difficult for any U.S. administration to stand aside if Israel did take action and were subject to Iranian retaliation.

However, the consequences of an Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear sites would be to destroy for decades any possibility of peace in the Middle East. Even the most anti-Iranian Arab states would find it very difficult to remain neutral and Arab public opinion would become even more vociferously anti-Israel than it is at the moment.

The “Arab spring,” which has led to major changes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the Yemen, would suffer a serious setback. Autocracy in Middle Eastern countries would be strengthened and Islamic and Arab extremism greatly encouraged.

The advocates of a strike against Iranian facilities argue that, unless a strike is carried out soon, the Iranians may succeed in burying their facilities for building nuclear weapons in impregnable underground complexes.

However, an Israeli strike, even one supported by the U.S., would probably only succeed in delaying developments by two or three years at most.

The possibility that suspected Iranian work on atomic weapons can be hindered by cyberattacks from outside Iran has been discussed. Some such attacks may already have taken place.

For the moment the emphasis must be on ratcheting up economic sanctions even if they have so far proved ineffective. A ban on imports of oil from Iran could pose a real deterrent. The first requirement is to persuade China and Russia to support tougher sanctions.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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