A recent opinion survey by Ipsos Reid indicates that nine out of ten Canadians and Americans agree that the "world cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear arms capability." Small regional variations among the thousand persons polled online in each country exist, but it is hard to think of another international issue on which opinion among both populations would be so nearly unanimous.
How Tehran might be prevented from developing nuclear arms was not asked, but the consensus would presumably disappear if nationals in both countries were asked if pre-emptive bombing strikes should be launched by the U.S. and/or Israel to destroy or weaken Iran's uranium enrichment capacity.
Understandably, Israelis consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be a major existential threat, noting its leaders' denials of the Holocaust, calls for their country's destruction, development of missiles capable of striking areas throughout Israel and its support for terrorism against their country. Their government has issued several veiled and explicit threats to attack Iran. For deterrence purposes, Israel reportedly deployed to the Persian Gulf in May 2010 submarines with nuclear missiles capable of reaching any target in Iran.
Iran is not yet known to possess nuclear weapons and has signed treaties repudiating the possession of weapons of mass destruction, including the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). More than 100,000 Iranians soldiers and civilians were victims of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, so the mortal danger of any weapon of mass destruction is well-known across Iran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says it "needs to have confidence in the absence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme." It adds that Tehran is not implementing requirements of United Nations Security Council resolutions and needs to provide design information on its nuclear facilities.
Many independent observers think Iran's regime is working flat out towards nuclear weapons capability. Its leaders of course deny they are researching nuclear weapons, but have twice refused UN requests to inspect a suspect military site for signs of experiments with explosives that could be used to trigger an atomic blast.
A further complication is Iran's missile procurements, including twelve long range cruise missiles purchased without nuclear warheads from Ukraine in 2001. Its most advanced missile, the Fajr-3, has an unknown range but is estimated to be 2,500 km. The missile is radar-evading and can strike targets simultaneously using multiple warheads.
In recent months, the U.S. and E.U.-member countries have ramped up economic sanctions considerably in a bid to persuade Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. On Nov 30th, for example, the U.S. Senate passed a measure tightening economic sanctions against Iran in a 94-0 vote, although the White House has since been reported to say it is opposed to the new measures. This followed new evidence from the IAEA indicating that Tehran appears to be adding centrifuge capacity and conducting explosives tests that can be used to detonate a nuclear weapon. The White House has since announced its opposition to the new Senate-proposed measures.
The Obama administration overall feels it must guard against even the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons capability because, as proved to be the case for India's nuclear weapons, some nuclear technologies can be used for both peaceful energy generation and to develop nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran would also encourage other Middle Eastern governments to develop such weapons of their own.
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The claims and counter claims have created much pressure on Tehran to reveal all details of its nuclear program. The EU3+3 (United Kingdom, France, Germany, US, China and Russia) group are engaged in ongoing discussions with it. In the UK, a delegation including 1,800 physicists warned that military intervention in Iran and the use of nuclear weapons would have disastrous consequences for the world.
Reuters reported in late September that U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were both satisfied with an informal meeting they had at UN headquarters: "(Both) left the meeting with more than they arrived with: Obama with an assurance that Israel would not attack Iran's nuclear sites before the November 6 U.S. presidential election, and Netanyahu with a commitment from Obama to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb."
Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, takes Obama at his word, partly because he has repeated himself so many times (approximately 19) on the point and also because the re-elected president offers such effective arguments against containment and for disruption by force if necessary. "Given the number of times he's told the American public, and the world, that he will stop Iran from going nuclear", concludes Goldberg, "it is hard to believe that he will suddenly change his mind and back out of his promise."
Ominously, the views of Canadians and Americans on this might be tested sooner than we'd prefer on either side of the border.
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.