Iran yesterday stepped up its defiance of the outside world by threatening to destroy Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona. General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr of the Revolutionary Guards was quoted as saying that this would be the consequence of any Israeli strike on the nuclear plant being built in the southern Iranian town of Bushehr.
The general was no doubt thinking of the attack ordered by Menachem Begin's government on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981. He might also have reflected on why Israel might again think it necessary to take pre-emptive action against an Islamic threat.
The revolutionary regime in Teheran has steadfastly opposed the existence of the state of Israel and has given force to that belief by supporting Hizbollah in southern Lebanon and various armed Palestinian groups within the occupied territories.
In 2001, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who now heads the Expediency Council, said that if the Islamic world achieved nuclear parity with Israel, it would be able to annihilate that state while sustaining only damages from any counter-strikes. This insane calculation, which calmly envisages the death of millions of people on each side, is reminiscent of Mao's boast that China would come out on top after a nuclear war because of the vastness of its population.
Iran has learnt from Osirak to disperse its nuclear activities around the country, thus minimising the chance of a single, decisive strike against them. Having been caught cheating under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has shown signs of co-operation, then resumed an attitude of defiance. The government has evidently calculated that American preoccupation with Iraq and the presidential election has created a window of opportunity for the pursuit of its nuclear ambitions with impunity. The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to discuss Iran at its next meeting in September, but it may well be November, when its board convenes again, before the matter is referred to the United Nations Security Council, a step which Washington has long advocated.
The British Government says it has no illusions about Iran's determination to become a nuclear weapons power, an admission which underlines the bankruptcy of its policy of constructive engagement. The rigged victory of the conservatives in parliamentary elections in February shattered any hopes that elected reformers could prevail against the clerical guardians of the 1979 revolution. The breaking of agreements on nuclear matters with the European Union trio of Britain, France and Germany has dealt a second blow to the proponents of dialogue. Add to these Iranian meddling in Iraq and you have a classic case of diplomatic optimism being quickly confounded by a far grimmer reality.
Iran has long sought nuclear status as a means of achieving regional hegemony. But it also remains a power determined to export Islamic revolution worldwide, with the goal of destroying the liberal democracies. As John Bolton, American Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, reminded us yesterday, the sooner the issue of its nuclear programme is referred to the Security Council, the better. If it persists in cheating, Teheran must be further isolated and, if necessary, punished by sanctions. Beyond that, America and its allies should leave the clerics in no doubt that they will not tolerate their possession of nuclear weapons. In such hands, they would pose a far greater threat than Iraq under Saddam Hussein.