I want to look at some possible ripples that could well spread out of anyone's control but first let's look at the actual facts, rather than the rhetoric or uncorroberated allegations, of the rows that have brought us to this point.
The Back Story
It is undeniable that Iran concealed it's nuclear research from the world for 18 years until exposed in 2002. However, since that date the have been voluntarily as open and accomodating to IAEA inspectors as any other nation and considerably more so than say India or Pakistan - neither of whom have signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaties, both of whom are already nuke-armed and both of whom have deals in the works to buy further nuclear expertise and equipment from the U.S. Iran has said all along that their nuclear program is for peaceful uses only and that the Guardian Council's interpretation of Islam is that nuclear weapons are unlawful, thus they have no place in Iran's defense planning.
The IAEA has found no evidence that matters are other than the Iranians say they are and for that matter, neither has anyone else of establishable credibility.
If one looks at the various news reports over the years since 2002 a couple of noticeable trends emerge. Every time Iran says something, the IAEA finds evidence that it is true. Contrary allegations of duplicity or undivulged elements to Iran's nuclear program come from only two directions. "Undisclosed official sources," usually American, Israeli or British ones speaking on a basis of anonymity, that are later repeated as gospel by leaders of the U.S. and other Western nations (one wonders why, if they are so sure of their facts, no-one is willing to put his name to the first reports) and "Iranian opposition spokemen" which always means the MeK and it's political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) - a group of Marxist-Islamists, still recognised as a terrorist organisation (and arrested for it too), who used to be Saddam's henchlings and who are led by a bono-fide nutcase who isn't just waiting for the Twelfth Imam but actually believes himself to be that messiah! The anonymous individuals often even cite the source for their allegations as the "Iranian opposition" yet not one of that group's allegations of 50,000 secret working centrifuges, secret tunnel sytems built by the Russians or other lurid James Bond fantasies has proven verifiable. The real Iranian program is likely far more prosaic.
Nor do the hawks who cry "why does Iran need nuclear power, it has so much oil?" have a leg to stand on. The U.S., Russia, Canada, Holland and Britain all have oil reserves and nuclear power plants both. Oil is a valuable source of foreign trade, especially to Iran. It has just announced a series of measures to conserve it's own oil consumption in order to preserve that valuable trading resource. Nuclear power makes as much sense for Iran as for any other nation.
The simple truth, as acknowledged by every expert in the field, is that Iran has a legal right under international law (as do all nations who signed the NPT) to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It offered, volunteered, to place restrictions on it's experimentation which are not called for by the non-proliferation protocols while negotiations with the EU3 continued. The EU3 substituted delaying tactics and empty words for credible negotiating at the behest of the Bush administration, who made sure they put a spanner in the works at every turn. Iran then withdrew from the negotiations and therefore rescinded it's voluntary moratoriums, as it had a perfect right to do and threatened to keep IAEA inspectors away from those areas of research if it was referred to the Security Council while still offering continued diplomatic discussion. It has not yet enacted those threats and one hopes it doesn't do so, because as El Baradei says:
Of course that would be another escalation. It also would backfire on Iran, because at least if we are on the ground we ... can see what's going on. We are there on the ground and we are saying we don't see a clear and present danger. If there is no inspection, people can have as wild an imagination as they want [about Iranian activities], and that will hurt Iran.(Newsweek 15th Jan 06)Iran has not rescinded a single requirement for IAEA inspections nor a single prohibition on research or equipment required of it under the NPT, nor has it threatened to. North Korea, Israel, India, Pakistan - already nuclear armed - all are given an easier ride by the international community despite never signing the NPT, having developed their bombs in utter secrecy, not being required to have inspections by the IAEA, never having seperated their civil and military nuclear programs and, in the case of North Korea and Pakistan, being led by bono-fide military tyrants.
It must also be understood that President Ahmadinezhad of Iran is no more a "tyrant" or a "despot" than George Bush, Tony Blair or Jaques Chirac and indeed has more of a political mandate than any of these leaders. He was elected President by a clear majority (61.69%) of those who voted in elections which were as fair as any held in the USA and can serve only for a maximum of two terms under the Iranian constitution. He does hold the backing of the religious right and the military hawks of his nation but that isn't all that unusual for a religious and conservative leader of a democratic nation. He is a deeply religious person in a position of power who seems to believe that he has the direct guidance of God and that the "end times" may be fast approaching - again, he is not unique in this. He has serious and powerful opponents to his hawkish foreign policy within Iran - including the Supreme Ayatollah and ex-President Rafsanjani - and it may well be that his messianic rhetoric is an attempt to bolster his own camp and fend of those in opposition. Many experts believe that he may well be deposed by the Guardian Council before he serves even his first full term. In which case the moderate conservative Rafsanjani, who is very much in favor of diplomatic detante and reapproachment with the West, would probably be the next President - and even he wouldn't have the power to decide on Iran's nuclear direction.
"Alongside the formal trappings of the presidency, cabinet and parliament is the theocratic power structure, presided over by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took over on Khomeini's death. The decisions on most matters, including nuclear development, are with him." (Independent, 15th Jan 06)In no way is Ahmadinezhad the final and sole word from Iran - indeed, he packs less power in his office than a President of the United States does (even one who doesn't argue he has total power should he wish it).
This is the background to the current crisis.
When Tehran actually admitted having violated the NPT it suffered no sanctions. Now that it says it is not violating the NPT, and there is no evidence that it is, it would be rich to talk of sanctions let alone invasion and regime change. In any case Tehran can always walk out of the NPT and tell its members where to get off. Developing nuclear weapons is a legal right for any nation that has not signed that right away by joining the NPT.The almost inescapable conclusion is that Iran is being pilloried while other, more culpable, nations are not. One possible reason for this is that Iran is not a nuclear power while still seen as untrustworthy and inimical to Western interests and so the West doesn't feel the need to handle it with the kid gloves it handles others. Another is that U.S. leaders have had a grudge against Iran for a very long time, have been in the mood to accept the MeK's allegations uncritically and have convinced their European allies that falling into some semblance of a line behind the rhetoric is better than an open diplomatic split with America. Evidence for the second is right out there in view - The US refused to become party to negotations even when invited to do so by Iran. I suspect that both reasons come into play to varying degrees, just as they did with Iraq. I'm sure there are many other pressures too.
The problem with Iran, therefore, is not its alleged plan to develop nuclear weapons. Seven NPT members are confirmed nuclear powers and at least five other nations outside the NPT are suspected of having such weapons. Iran’s regional ambitions, of course, are in contradiction with the American ambition to reshape the Middle East on the basis of the Bush doctrine. (Arab News 14th Jan. 06)
This, then, is the flimsy pretext for referring Iran to the Security Council. What comes next?
Part Two - Sanctions or What? follows , as does Part Three - Exploring the Military Option