On October 1, Iranian negotiators are set to meet with representatives from six nations (the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China) to address concerns over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. This comes to a backdrop of Iran already stating their refusal to suspend any such program – which it stresses is strictly for civilian energy purposes – while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbies the international community for stricter sanctions against the Persian nation. As far as the US and Israel are concerned, there is no question that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, although rather pointedly, they have yet to present any evidence that this is the case. Amid the atmosphere of mutual distrust and recrimination, it appears likely that the opposing parties will leave the conference in much the same stance that they went in: deadlocked over the issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment and firmly convinced that there is no common point of consensus. All too predictably, the ominous possibility of military conflict – with all the dire consequences for the world that this might entail – looms in the background. But the means for a diplomatic resolution are readily at hand – if pursued seriously. As the six nations approach negotiations with Iran, the wider issues contributing to a new and ever more dangerous era of nuclear proliferation for the world are going unaddressed.
The official stance of the US is that a nuclear armed Iran presents a threat to world security. A neutral observer interested principally in the creation of a safer, more stable world might well be inclined to agree with that standpoint. Any increase in the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons potentially hastens the risk of nuclear annihilation, and is therefore undesirable. However, it’s difficult to take the US position seriously, when you consider that no other nation in the world has been more conducive to the increased proliferation of nuclear weapons, through direct choices of policy.
In 1968, the US signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, designed to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty is reviewed every five years and was extended indefinitely as of May, 1995. According to the treaty:
“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”
However, the US continues to spend an annual budget of $40 billion on maintaining and upgrading its nuclear arsenal – by far the largest in the world – consisting of some 10,000 nuclear warheads. Enough to reduce the surface of the planet to uninhabitable radioactive slag, several times over. It’s safe enough to say that the US has not adhered to the spirit or principle of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To be fair, neither have any of the other nuclear armed signatories of the treaty, including Russia, France, China and the UK. But the US, as the leading power, dictates the example that the rest will follow.
The persistent US violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty goes even further, however. According to the treaty, the nuclear weapon states agree not “in any way to assist, encourage, or induce a non-nuclear weapon state to acquire nuclear weapons”. Well, naked US aggression in itself induces other states to seek nuclear weapons, in order to defend themselves. But more directly, the US provides special privileges to their nuclear armed friends. Take the “United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act” of 2006. Make no mistake about it, the use of the word “peaceful” in that title is intended to be deliberately misleading. The agreement essentially exempts India from the usual methods of international control involving the production of fissile material, giving it the option of expanding its nuclear arsenal in contravention of the standard international regulations.
Let’s be serious: if international security and the prevention of nuclear proliferation are really priorities for the US, policy decisions such as this would simply not be made. India is not as stable a state as it’s commonly assumed to be. India’s national security advisor, M. K. Narayanan, estimates that are as many as 800 terrorist cells operating in the country. More than a third of the nation’s 608 districts are afflicted by insurgency movements of various descriptions at any one time. And despite recent efforts to reduce tensions, India remains locked in a simmering cold war with neighbouring nuclear armed Pakistan, itself a state on the verge of collapse. If you are genuinely interested in reducing the threat of a nuclear conflict, you don’t clear the road for India to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal under such circumstances.
The real reason the US doesn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons has little to do with international security. After all, more effective avenues to secure a safer world are repeatedly ignored. It’s because a nuclear armed Iran threatens US hegemony in the Middle East. Iran is not easy to intimidate with the threat of aggression. With nuclear weapons, it would never be swayed. Iran would then have the means to retaliate against aggression, with potentially catastrophic consequences. As is very much the case with North Korea, Iran would have to be left well alone. It would consolidate its status as a regional powerhouse and potentially cut energy deals with Russia and China, compromising US economic interests in the Middle East. For US foreign policy planners, this is considered intolerable.
From the point of view of Israel, a nuclear armed Iran poses an imminent threat to its continued existence. If we are to accept that premise as true, then naturally we must also accept the reverse: that Israel’s existing nuclear arsenal poses an “existential threat” to Iran. Israel has been in a state of almost constant warfare with its immediate neighbours for much of its 60 year existence. In the majority of cases, Israel has used thinly veiled excuses to attack and occupy its neighbours in a campaign of territorial expansion. Iran, on the other hand, has not attacked another nation for several centuries. The only wars Iran has been involved in have been defensive wars, such as when it was attacked by Iraq (with US backing) in 1980. We might therefore be entitled to ask whether the US and Israel pose a greater threat to Iran than Iran poses to the US and Israel. A cursory glance at recent world history provides us with all the answer we need.
Regardless, the actual extent of the “existential threat” posed by a nuclear armed Iran has been drastically overestimated. Official propaganda would have us believe that Iran is controlled by irrational and fanatic extremists who will risk everything – even self destruction – in order to destroy the US and Israel. That if Iran had nuclear weapons, it would immediately use them against its enemies as a matter of course. This is a fanciful notion. Iran has plausible and achievable ambitions to become a regional power in the Middle East. These ambitions do not include mutual nuclear annihilation. Nor do they include anything so foolhardy as placing nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. A theoretical Iranian nuclear arsenal would be subject to the same security and methods of control as nuclear weapons are anywhere else. If a state as dangerously insecure as Pakistan has managed to contain their nuclear arsenal, then nuclear security is surely not an issue for the (comparatively) stable Iran.
Of course, any sort of nuclear proliferation must be considered undesirable, in the interests of creating a more secure world for future generations. However, the world would not become an immediately more dangerous place if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon.
All of which raises the question: does Iran actually want nuclear weapons, and are they actively pursuing them? This is taken on assumption by the US and Israel. However, according to Yukiya Amanoto, the incoming head of the International Atomic Energy Agency – the world governing body responsible for monitoring Iran’s uranium enrichment program – “I don’t see any evidence [of an Iranian nuclear weapons program] in any IAEA documents”. This is true. Despite continued close monitoring, the IAEA has never found any evidence of a weapons program in Iran. Iran does have the right to enrich uranium for civilian energy usage under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory. Of course, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that Iran may have managed to conceal a weapons program from the IAEA. And the methods of enriching uranium appear increasingly similar for both the development of nuclear weapons and the development of civilian nuclear power. Meaning that – at this stage – the difference between a military and a civilian program is not necessarily detectable.
For what it’s worth, I would surmise that Iran’s government is at least aiming to retain the option of developing nuclear weapons, for as long as they can get away with it under the auspices of their present program. In fact, it would be difficult to conclude that they would act any differently, unless we are to assume that they are naive and stupid, given the current climate of hostility and aggression imposed by the US and Israel in the Middle East. It’s well understood that the possession of nuclear weapons is the only sure method to deter an attack.
Let’s give serious consideration to the point of view of the Iranian government. I think it’s more than worthwhile to do so. There are serious fears in Iran that the nation will one day be the subject of an attack by the US and / or Israel. These fears are not without plausible foundation. Far from it in fact. Apart from the well documented history of disruptive Western meddling in Iranian affairs (Shah Pahlavi’s CIA backed coup which overturned Iran’s popular parliamentarian government and instituted a brutal reign of terror, US support for Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 etc) the US apparently seriously considered military action against Iran in very recent history, even getting as far as the planning stages for an invasion. Reportedly, one of the options considered by US military planners was the use of nuclear weapons against Iran. Dick Cheney cheerfully admits that he pushed heavily for a “pre-emptive” strike against Iran during the Bush II regime. Thankfully, saner heads prevailed in this instance. But in the aftermath of the Coalition invasion of Iraq – leaving perhaps as many as 1,000,000 Iraqis dead and much of the country a smouldering ruin – Iran could only have been all too aware of the catastrophic dangers posed by a potential “pre-emptive” strike conducted against them by the US.
The persistent rattling of sabres aimed by the US at Iran made the situation starkly clear: without nuclear weapons, Iran would have no means to deter a US attack.
This is the insane paradigm of logic that has been established for a post Bush II world, following on from the dictates of the US National Security Strategy of 2002, which outlined the intent of the US to engage in “preventive” war against regimes it “perceives” to pose a threat, even if this threat is not imminent. Nations hoping to pursue their own course in the world, free from outside interference, must now as a matter of necessity obtain terrifying weapons of mass destruction, as a means to deter aggression.
Perhaps Iranians might be forgiven for believing that the world’s dominant nuclear power – the only nation to thus far use nuclear weapons in anger – dictating to them the terms of their own nuclear development program, is rather too rich in irony.
Nonetheless, it would appear that Iran has taken steps in good faith to reach a diplomatic resolution over its uranium enhancement programs in the past, only to have the efforts rebuffed. In 2003, Iran’s government, then under the moderate, reformist President Mohammed Khatami, drafted a comprehensive proposal offering to negotiate with the US over all of their mutually contentious issues, referring to the proposal as a “grand bargain”. The proposal offered full cooperation in the campaign against terrorism (referencing both Al Qaeda and the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq – a dissident Iranian organisation) involving a free exchange of relevant information. Iran also offered to accept tighter controls from the International Atomic Energy Agency, including full access to any nuclear facility on short notice, in return for access to peaceful nuclear technology. Iran offered to dramatically soften its stance against Israel, approving the standard two state resolution of the Palestine / Israel divide, with Israel reverting to its traditional 1967 borders (already universally agreed as reasonable by all states in the world apart from Israel and the US). Furthermore, Iran offered to cease support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, instead working to develop them into non-violent political organisations. The proposal had the full approval of Iran’s head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The US response, issued through Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, was as follows:
“We’re not interested in any grand bargain.”
Vice President Dick Cheney then made the usual noises about the US refusing to “talk to evil” – apparently labouring under the misconception that the US government is a Jedi Council dealing with the machinations of Sith Lords.
Such unequivocal refusal to engage in constructive diplomacy on the part of the US has left Iran with few options. Faced with such a blunt and arrogant dismissal of their national concerns, Iran might well have concluded that their only viable path is to develop nuclear weapons out of defiance, since complete submission or the threat of force are the only avenues that the world’s leading power will comprehend, let alone take seriously. Khatami was succeeded as President by the more hardline and querulous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meaning that the window of opportunity for meaningful diplomacy has narrowed even further. This follows a fairly typical template in international affairs. A relatively moderate regime, threatened by hostile powers and denied the opportunity for constructive engagement, will become increasingly hardline, isolationist and uncooperative, as its best means of defense.
Nonetheless, achieving a nuclear free Iran – as well as a nuclear weapon free world in general – is not necessarily out of the question, providing that the world’s most powerful state demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice some of its means of intimidation in the interests of achieving greater overall security. It’s not difficult to conceive of a situation in which all nations agree to hand control of nuclear materials over to a UN recognised international authority. Each nation would be subject to the same rigorous IAEA inspections, permitting free and unrestricted access to ensure that no further nuclear weapons are developed. In fact, a proposal very much like this has been on the table for a considerable length of time – the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FISSBAN). When the issue was presented to the UN Committee on Disarmament in 2004, the vote was 147 – 1 in favour. The nations that supported the treaty included Iran. The lone nation that voted against the treaty was the United States (Israel and the UK – the closest allies of the US – both abstained). The lesson could not be made any clearer: the US accords greater importance to retaining its own capacity to produce and maintain a nuclear arsenal than it does to reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation in the world in general. It might be instructive to bear such lessons in mind as the international community heads for showdown talks over the issue of a nuclear armed Iran.