When Israel last Sunday attacked Iran’s premier nuclear plant, it is not nuclear rivalry. Rather, it is outright nuclear terrorism requiring worldwide condemnation. For, it could have caused a catastrophe killing a large number of people, while having a long-term adverse impact on the environment.
Yet, there has been little condemnation from world powers, although media reports claimed that the explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was carried out by Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad. According to these reports, Mossad had got a bomb smuggled into the plant and used a remote devise to trigger the explosion. If these reports were accurate, questions arise whether Iran has taken adequate measures to safeguard its nuclear facilities. Besides, this was not the first attack on an Iranian nuclear facility. Iranian nuclear plants have regularly come under cyber-attacks from US and Israeli sources while several top Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated by Israeli agents. In 2007, the same Natanz plant suffered a stuxnest cyber-attack blamed on the US and Israeli sources. Last year, there was a major fire in the plant. Also last year, Israeli agents assassinated Iran’s top scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, believed to be the architect of Iran’s nuclear programme.
A bigger embarrassment for Iran is that the attack took place a day after President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium faster at the Natanz site to mark Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day.
Sunday’s explosion was so devastating that it knocked off both the primary and the backup electricity systems, paralyzing thousands of centrifuges used for the enrichment of uranium. Continuous electricity supply is vital for centrifuges. If a power cut causes the shutting down of the cooling system, it could lead to a nuclear meltdown as happened in Fukushima in 2011 after an earthquake and a tsunami. However, it appears that Iran had taken quick steps to prevent the catastrophe, which could have spelt devastation not only for Iran but also to its immediate neighbourhood. In a letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zariff described the attack on the highly sensitive nuclear facility without any regard for the high risk of radiation release as “reckless criminal nuclear terrorism” and a “grave war crime.”
It also appears that besides crippling Iran’s moves to fast forward nuclear enrichment, the attack also sought to sabotage the ongoing indirect talks between the US and Iran in Vienna to reactivate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In May 2018, the then US president Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and re-imposed tough sanctions on Iran, making it difficult for the agreement’s other signatories to honour the deal. The present Joe Biden administration, however, has indicated its willingness to return to the deal. Washington was also quick to distance itself from the attack, with the White House press secretary saying, “The US was not involved in any manner.” But the attack has put the Biden administration in some embarrassment as it happened when the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Israel meeting, among others, Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and assuring Washington’s unstinted support for Israel.
A day after the attack, in rhetoric aimed at boosting his chances of forming a collation government, Netanyahu, who failed to win an outright victory at the fourth general election in two years, said “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.”
Although Iran has vowed to retaliate, its past reactions following similar attacks indicate it prefers to exercise caution and avoid a reckless attack that could trigger a costly regional war with no clear winners but only losers. But it has also proved it can hit back if necessary as happened last year when it attacked a US base in retaliation for last year’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a top Revolutionary Guard commander.
In response to Sunday’s attack, Iran has said it will resume nuclear activities defying the JCPOA and take its uranium enrichment level from the current 20 percent to the 60 percent, a step closer to the 90 percent needed to make a bomb, which Iran is denying it is after.
Rhetoric apart, nuclear sabotage is a dangerous game and the world should not wait until a catastrophe happens to work out an international mechanism to prevent such disasters. But the failure of the western powers to condemn Sunday’s attack encourages the perpetrator to go for bigger attacks which may spell disasters not only for Iran and its people, but for the entire region and the global environment. If only Iran had carried out a similar attack on an Israeli nuclear plant, the condemnation would have been swift along with more crippling sanctions. By the way, the International Atomic Energy Agency does not inspect Israel’s nuclear programme, though it is a well-known secret that Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads.
If nuclear disarmament is the goal of the international community, it cannot be achieved through sabotage, terrorism or wars. Only through dialogue and a genuine commitment to nuclear disarmament by those countries that possess nuclear weapons, can the world get rid of these dangerous weapons, the cumulative power of which is enough to destroy the planet Earth several times over. Ironically, the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the key UN organ tasked with ensuring world peace -- are nuclear powers. These countries, together with Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, comprise the nuclear club and justify their prized possession as a necessary evil. Whether it is necessary or not, nuclear weapons are evil and they should be dismantled. Scientists describe nuclear weapons as the single biggest threat to the earth’s environment, because even a small scale nuclear war is capable of effecting devastating changes to the world’s ecosystem. Despite the astonishing scientific and technological advancement that have sent the earth’s footprints beyond our galaxy, we are helpless against the invisible covid virus that has declared a global war against us. If hundreds of millions of people are exposed to the worst form of radiation in a nuclear conflict, can the world cope with such a mega medical emergency? Let alone coping with the multitude of cases, none of the nuclear weapon states has the effective medicine to treat the thermal and ionized radiation from nuclear weapons. Shunned by the rest of the world for fear of being exposed to the radiation, the wounded will be left to suffer praying for early death. What the world saw in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki catastrophes is just a fraction of what it will see if a nuclear war takes place with modern nuclear weapons.
The COVID-19 pandemic must shed some light on the helpless situation the world will be pushed into in the aftermath of a nuclear conflict. A nuclear-weapons-free world is the only solution.