May issue 2006

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 18 years ago

The drum beat is getting louder. Even as the largely predictable aftermath of the aggression against Iraq gets messier by the day, Iran appears to be increasingly at risk of being scorched by the burning Bush. George W. continues to claim that diplomacy will be pursued as far as a possible, but at the same time insists that all options remain on the table.

It is not particularly reassuring to recall that a remarkably similar strategy was employed in the run-up to the attack on Iraq: some hope of a peaceful resolution to a manufactured crisis was held out long after the decision to go to war had been taken. The Iranian government is being considerably more cooperative than Saddam Hussein’s regime in building up a confrontational aura, but there is also a more serious twist this time around: the possibility of tactical nuclear strikes.

It is perfectly possible, of course, that the idea of a nuclear attack was floated with two purposes in mind: to intimidate the mullahs in Tehran, and to make conventional warfare suddenly seem relatively benign. There is reportedly widespread opposition to the nuclear option within the Pentagon, and even conservative commentators in the United States have derided this prospect on moral grounds as well as in terms of its potential strategic value.

Under the circumstances, it would be extremely surprising if the Bush regime went ahead and spawned mini-Hiroshimas and Nagasakis on Iranian soil in the name of combating nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, given what we know about the nature of the regime, very little can be put past it. What’s equally unfortunate is that much the same could be said about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

Ahmadinejad appears to derive some bizarre pleasure from pressing all the wrong buttons, and while his ugly threats against Israel may have earned him some kudos in his obscurantist constituency, they also helped to reinforce the impression that Iran — under its present management — would make a particularly hazardous nuclear weapons state.

At the same time, however — notwithstanding the rejoicing witnessed last month over minimal uranium enrichment at its Netanz facility — there is thus far no concrete evidence that Iran is indeed pursuing nuclear weaponry. The official line is that it is interested in nuclear power only as a source of energy. Hardly anyone accepts that claim at face value. Guesstimates of when Iran might be able to manufacture a nuclear device vary, but almost all experts agree that it won’t be able to do so until at least the end of the decade.

Its potential weapons of mass destruction are, thus, not an imminent threat. Under these circumstances, would the bombardment of Iran’s nuclear facilities be, by any stretch of the imagination, justified — keeping in mind the casualties and the consequences? And what if the attack were expanded to include military and civilian ‘command structures’, partly in the hope of instigating a popular revolt, which would inevitably involve a great deal more “collateral damage.”

Ground invasion is more or less inconceivable in the light of the experience in Iraq; apart from anything else, the US simply doesn’t have the additional troop numbers that such an operation would require. Aerial bombardment could be destabilising, but there can be no guarantee that it would prove fatal for the regime in Tehran. What if it emerges bloodied but stronger from the ordeal? And what if it chooses to retaliate worldwide through a spate of ‘martyrdom operations’ (aka suicide bombings)?

It is extraordinarily hard to imagine even vaguely palatable consequences unfolding in the wake of any kind of attack on Iran. On the other hand, nightmare scenarios are a dime a dozen.

Last year, America’s pre-eminent investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, revealed that reconnaissance missions into Iran were already being undertaken by US forces. In a follow-up in The New Yorker last month, he laid bare not only heightened military planning, but quoted sources who maintained that American military units were operating in Iran and seeking collaborators among ‘the Azeris in the north, the Balochis in the southeast and the Kurds in the northeast.’ This needn’t necessarily be seen as the prelude to full-fledged aggression, but there is some concern in US political and intellectual circles that the presence of combat troops could be construed by the Iranians as an act of war.

There can be no question whatsoever that were Iranian combat units to be found operating in Texas or Maine, the US would see it as hostile action. The difference, of course, is that the US would be able to do something about it. Iran must, of course, be aware of the violation of its sovereignty, but it can’t really retaliate, except via its proxies in Iraq. The latter pose enough of a nuisance value for the US ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to seek talks with Iranian officials — the first formal direct contact between representatives of Tehran and Washington since the 1979 Islamic revolution — yet the Bush administration has been resisting the idea of face-to-face meetings over the nuclear question.

As hypocrisies go, this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The US did not have the slightest problem with South Africa’s nuclear capability (which was dismantled just before the apartheid era ended); for 40 years it has very deliberately turned a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal; Pakistan and India faced sanctions for a few years, but now India’s nuclear industry has been enthusiastically embraced while Pakistan’s weapons are at least tolerated (though that could change in the post-Musharraf period); and North Korea faces a bit of pressure but no threat of attack, quite possibly because it claims to have a few warheads up its sleeve.

Would it really be much harder to live with a nuclear-armed Iran? There are many good reasons for favouring a nuclear-free Iran, preferably in the context of a nuclear-free Middle East. Ultimately, stringent measures against proliferation are defensible only if the ultimate goal is a nuclear-free world. The alternative is what India for a long time described as nuclear apartheid.

The US attitude towards India on the one hand and Iran on the other is clearly grounded in double standards. From Washington’s point of view, there is a logic to this approach. India, after all, is a secular democracy and its nukes are evidently intended as a safeguard against China and Pakistan.

Iran, at a stretch, is a theological democracy that has been hostile towards the US for the past quarter century and whose leader has repeatedly expressed an interest in eradicating Israel. It would be facetious to pretend that there are no differences between the two nations: India represents a safer pair of hands.

At the same time, it is also the case that the US perceives a strategic interest in propping up India as an Asian counterweight to China, which in Washington’s view cannot be completely trusted — at least for as long as it refuses to cast off its communist shroud. Furthermore, it has developed an interest in India’s economic potential. And India is all too eager to reciprocate. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out to The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland last month, ‘This lack of nuclear cooperation is the last remaining cobweb from our old relationship, and we can now sweep it aside. There are no other barriers to a more productive, more durable relationship with the United States. The potential is enormous for our two nations.’

The US-India agreement on nuclear cooperation goes before the US Congress this month, and its ratification is likely to bring New Delhi and Washington closer than they have ever been before. As a loyal American camp-follower for nearly six decades, Pakistan has cause to be jealous — although it ought to have recognised long ago that the US values its interests above loyalty or friendship. There is one exception to this pattern: the US stands by Israel even when its interests dictate otherwise. In a comprehensive paper a couple of months ago, two senior conservative American academics, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, attributed this to the efficacy of the Israel lobby.

They say that Israeli influence played a significant role in persuading the White House to wage war against Iraq. And if Israel was concerned about Saddam, it is even more worried about Ahmadinejad. However, despite the Iranian President’s invariably intemperate and often stupid rhetoric, he couldn’t possibly be unaware that any offensive action against Israel would invite swift and massive retaliation. What are the chances that he is willing to be a suicide-bomber on a national scale? Besides, it is inconceivable that Ahmadinejad could order something in the nature of a nuclear strike without the approval of the ayatollahs — who, for all their fanaticism, are not unschooled in Realpolitik. They may have little idea of what’s best for Iran, but they are certainly familiar with survival techniques.

So, the chances of precipitate action by Iran are in fact considerably smaller than the chances of ostensibly pre-emptive action against it. The question is, can all those within and outside the US who realise the multifarious dangers inherent in military action somehow pre-empt the pre-emptors?

It is not a hopeless quest. For one, the ranks of American conservatives who opposed aggression against Iraq in the first place have been swelled over the past three years by those realistic enough to recognise that the method of regime change adopted by the Bush administration has turned out to be an almost unmitigated disaster. Expressions of dissent in the US Congress are decidedly louder than they were three years ago. And any attempt to muster an international coalition will encounter a considerably higher degree of unwillingness than before.

In the United Nations Security Council, even if Russia and China can be persuaded to back token sanctions against Tehran, they will almost certainly refuse to be a party to military strikes. France, too, will in all likelihood resist aggressive action. And even Britain may not be a walkover. Although Tony Blair appears not to have shifted from his hopelessly obsequious stance vis-a-vis the world’s pre-eminent superpower, opposition within the Labour Party to unquestioning obedience towards Uncle Sam will be much stronger than before. Even foreign secretary Jack Straw has derided the idea of a nuclear strike against Iran as ‘completely nuts’. In time he may realise that much the same could be said about the Anglo-American project in Iraq.

India and Pakistan, too, have expressed their opposition to non-diplomatic means of putting pressure on Iran. Pakistan, of course, has a great deal to worry about, particularly the fact that much of Iran’s progress towards enriched uranium is attributed to its connections with the A.Q. Khan network. According to Hersh, Pakistan’s government has in recent months allowed the Americans new access to Khan, who, in the words of a Pentagon adviser, has been “singing like a canary,” providing information on Iran’s “weapons design and its time-line for building a bomb”. However, he also quotes a former senior intelligence official as saying that “Khan has credibility problems. He is suggestible, and he is telling the neo-conservatives what they want to hear.” Or, adds Hersh, “what might be useful to …. Pervez Musharraf.”

There are also grounds for concern about how the American attitude towards Pakistan and its nuclear status might change apres Musharraf: after all, just because he has no intention of budging doesn’t mean he’ll be around forever, and it is at least conceivable that the successor regime might be distinguished by an Islamist tint. Would the US (which itself may by then have transcended its neo-con phase), as well as Israel — and, for that matter, India — find that tolerable? If not, exactly how might they deal with it? And how would their attitude affect the impression in Pakistan that its nuclear capability has somehow made the nation more secure?

The fact is that nuclear weapons — as many of the men involved in their invention quickly realised — are a deadly scourge. They have also become something of a status symbol. The prevention of their proliferation is a worthy ideal, but it is workable only within the context of demonstrable progress towards a nuclear-free world. However, meaningful reductions in the stockpiles of the two biggest offenders effectively ceased with the demise of the Soviet Union. (The 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown, meanwhile, is a timely reminder of the risks posed by rundown reactors, given the renewed stress on nuclear power as the only feasible alternative to fossil fuels as a source of energy.)

In the present circumstances, even though there may be an excellent case to be made against the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the mullahs in Tehran, the question that arises is: should the rest of the world accept the US as the sole arbiter of which nations are to be allowed the dubious privilege of uranium enrichment? If not, then the possibility of aggression against Iran must be opposed tooth and nail.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.