STEPHEN LONG: Iran could have a nuclear power plant in operation by August, according to reports today. Iran and Russia are adamant that the nuclear plant will be used exclusively for power generation.
But there are fears, especially from Israel, that this plant will be used to produce nuclear weapons.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar with the conservative US think tank, The American Enterprise Institute. He's written extensively about the nuclear threat posed by Iran. He's in Sydney as a guest of the Australian/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.
I spoke to him a short while ago.
MICHAEL RUBIN: The reason why there's so much suspicion about Iran's motivation is this; Iran mines uranium and they've also said that they want to have eight nuclear power stations for energy generation.
The problem is that if you take their amount of uranium and you figure the enrichment to nuclear fuel, low enriched uranium, they would only have enough uranium to power their energy system for 15 years.
Now they say that they want a completely indigenous system and so it doesn't make sense to invest this much just for 15 years, especially if for one third of the price they could update their gasoline pipeline network and their refinery capability and provide more than enough energy for perhaps 100 years.
STEPHEN LONG: Well it seems that there is a deep and growing suspicion in the world about the military direction of Iran's nuclear intentions. You spoke today at a Lowy Institute function with the theme, How do we Prevent a Nuclear Iran?
Is it indeed too late to prevent a nuclear Iran?
MICHAEL RUBIN: I don't believe it's too late. Already we see successful strategies for delaying the nuclear program. Some might attribute that to sanctions, some might attribute that to other more covert activities such as these computer viruses which have gotten headlines. However, there's other strategies which we could undertake.
The basic problem in Iran is not the people of Iran. They tend to be far more moderate than the government. And therefore the question is how do we make the government in Iran more accountable to the people?
And this is one of those reasons why I would suggest that we should be doing a lot more to promote the independent trade union movement in Iran in order to create a mechanism in which the government is much more accountable to the people.
STEPHEN LONG: So do you actually see a potential for the trade union movement in Iran to play a similar role to Solidarity in Eastern Europe with the fall of the Iron Curtain?
MICHAEL RUBIN: Indeed. Throughout the Middle East most unions are not independent. They're run by a ministry of labour. In 2005 we had our first independent trade union form in Iran, the bus drivers in Tehran, and unfortunately the Bush administration and the larger international community missed potentially a Gdansk moment; a Lech Walesa moment.
But since we've had a second trade union form and the question is, what are we doing collectively to help them organise and support them? Because both socially and also in terms of national security, they are essential to moderate the Iranian government.
STEPHEN LONG: The prospects of dissent in Iran don't look particularly good at the moment. So what are ways then that the West could intervene to support those who want change, the dissidents, without actually provoking some kind of larger conflagration, without it actually becoming a military conflagration potentially?
MICHAEL RUBIN: Well indeed and that's the $64 million question if you will. But there are certain strategies we can do. We've already discussed the labour union movement. One of those other issues has to do with independent media platforms. What are we doing to broadcast in Iran with a strategy?
What I would argue is outside broadcasters, whether it's BBC Persian, whether it's Voice of America, they should be reporting what Iranians aren't allowed to report because of self-censorship.
STEPHEN LONG: Is all this a little bit optimistic though given that what we've seen is that the Arab Spring seems to be diminishing?
MICHAEL RUBIN: Well let me make an analogy here. When we look back on the Islamic Revolution in Iran too often people look back at it as an instantaneous event. But between the time when Ayatollah Khomeini came back to lead the revolution and the time the American embassy was seized was over nine months.
So what we're seeing among the Arab states is really the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. And there's many different policies we could implement during this interim period to try to massage the process to the best possible outcome.
STEPHEN LONG: Realistically what do you think the threat is that we could actually see nuclear war in the Middle East?
MICHAEL RUBIN: There's always a threat and any threat no matter how small is a bit too much. What I worry about is two issues; number one is the issue that wars in the Middle East aren't caused by oil and they're not caused by water. They're caused by over confidence and if the Iranians are able to develop a nuclear weapons capability two things will have happened.
The Iranians will have defeated the combined efforts of the international community and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will more or less disappear because we're going to have a cascade of proliferation. That to me is the greatest danger and something which is more on the distant horizon. If God forbid anyone does use nuclear weapons in the Middle East how do we reassert the stigma which is associated with the use of nuclear weapons?
The analogy I would often make would be towards car bombings or aeroplane hijackings. The first time one happened it was headlines. The second time one happened it was buried in the back of the newspaper. We can't take that chance when it comes to nuclear proliferation.
STEPHEN LONG: Michael Rubin, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, and you can listen to an extended version of that interview this evening on the PM website.