The World from Berlin: Iran's Nuclear Denials Are 'an Oriental Fairytale'

This week, a UN agency found that Iran is probably trying to build a nuclear bomb. Western powers have revived talk of tough sanctions, or even military strikes, while German commentators look for new ways to address the threat. Is it time to treat Iran as a de facto nuclear power?

Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr has attracted particular attention. Zoom
DPA

Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr has attracted particular attention.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog sharpened its tone on Iran this week with a formal report claiming Tehran had carried out tests "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device." The report was milder than suspicions voiced for years by Western politicians, but stronger than UN reports under the agency's former chief, Mohammed ElBaradei. It stirred consternation from Washington to China, though one Iranian spokesman dismissed it as "unbalanced, unprofessional and prepared with political motivation and under political pressure by mostly the United States."

The report stopped short of claiming Tehran had command of a functional nuclear warhead. But it offered evidence that Iran had tested detonators "consistent with simulating the explosion of a nuclear device" and conducted "work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon."

No New UN Sanctions

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the UN's nuclear oversight organization, and its job is to determine how far outside international agreements Tehran has stepped with its nuclear energy program. Tuesday's report had -- on its face -- the potential to bring tougher sanctions on Iran by the UN Security Council. But both Russia and China, which hold veto power on the Security Council, immediately said that further sanctions would be unacceptable.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the IAEA's "detailed evidence" was damning, though he noted that not all the information was new. One fresh detail the agency mentioned with "particular concern" was a series of computer modelling studies carried out by Iran in 2008 and 2009. "The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive," reads the report, "is unclear to the agency."

German commentators on Thursday are unanimous in believing that Iran wants a nuclear bomb. Still, they don't at all agree on what to do now.

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The world has known about the existence of the previously secret Iranian nuclear program for nine years now, but so far the international community has been unable to bring itself to impose more than half-hearted sanctions on Tehran. Iran, however, is not just any old state, but a country which has for decades used terror to further its political aims, which supports terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which destabilizes countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, and which has been threatening a UN member country -- Israel -- with destruction for years. It is hard to image a state in whose hands nuclear weapons would be more dangerous. So what else does the international community need before it finally uses all the means at its disposal to prevent the completion of the Iranian bomb?"

"German and European politicians like to give the Israelis dire warnings against launching a military attack out of desperation. But when it comes to developing alternatives to prevent (Iran from getting the bomb) -- something that would be a serious strategic threat for Europe but an existential emergency for Israel -- most of them remain silent. No responsible politician will be able to avoid this question any longer -- especially not in Germany."

The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung argues:

"The denials from Iran aren't believable. The government's refusal to discuss this evidence with the IAEA -- breaking its obligation under the UN's nuclear non-proliferation treaty -- only increases suspicion."

"But international calls for sanctions that are 'sharper' (Guido Westerwelle), 'crippling' (Benjamin Netanyahu) or 'unprecedented' (Nicolas Sarkozy) are useless. Harder sanctions will only work if they're imposed globally by the UN Security Council."

"But an isolated solution won't be workable, either … not with sharper sanctions (from the West) or through military strikes. Either measure would succeed only in the context of a regional treaty that establishes a massive nuclear-free zone in the Middle East."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Instead of formulating a political strategy for this particular point in time, the international community is using nothing but old methods to dissuade Iran from building a nuclear bomb. It's a race, and Iran will win."

"The debate over a military strike has been revived in the last couple of days. But this is a non-option, as Israelis know. They're yelling about it now to pressure the rest of the world to impose tougher sanctions."

"The second unrealistic option is a total blockade of Iran -- an oil and gas embargo on a land rich in both. This is also a non-option."

"What's wrong with a direct warning of mutual assured destruction? Why not -- as the experienced German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger has suggested -- simply express the unthinkable? Tell the Iranians that they can expect nuclear armageddon if they set off a nuclear bomb. Perhaps Iran should be treated as the nuclear power it aims to become in order to scare it off."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"IAEA General Director Amano was unable to answer the question as to how close the Iranians might be to building a bomb. But from the myriad puzzle pieces lying around, he chose those which seem to fit a picture of reality. The evidence may remind one of the fictional 'proof' of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But Amano's dispassionate nature is reassuring. He doesn't conceal the fact that he knows only what the IAEA member states tell him -- and he lets others draw conclusions. That is more appropriate for the Vienna-based agency than the political tactics of his predecessor, ElBaradei, who seemed to believe that it was up to him to prevent a war with Iran."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The most interesting page of the new report on Iran's nuclear program is the last one. It has a colorful graphic that shows what sorts of cargoes might be carried in a new missile nosecone that Iranian technicians have been converting. IAEA experts come to a fairly clear conclusion: that the converted nosecone is good for exactly one cargo -- a nuclear warhead."

"The Iranian regime has characterized some damning documents as CIA fabrications or Zionist propaganda. If you believe Iran, what's really going on is a peaceful but secret project to build a wonder-machine whose blessed goal is known only to a small circle of powerful men and whose details can't be revealed to the skeptical West. Anyone who has read the IAEA report will recognize this story as an oriental fairytale."

Editor's note: The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security has posted a copy of the IAEA report on Iran on its website in PDF format.

-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

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