November Issue 2005

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 18 years ago


Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Photograph: AFP

At the time of the invasion of Iraq in April 2003, the United States appeared keen to cultivate the notion that Operation Regime Change, which had begun with the fall of Kabul, wouldn’t end with the conquest of Baghdad. The suggestion was that Damascus and Tehran were next on the neo-conservative agenda. Pyongyang did not figure in the list of priority targets — not so much because it wasn’t a Muslim capital, but because it’s level of nuclear-readiness could not be ascertained. The message could roughly be summarised as: if you’re not a nuclear power, we may be coming to get you.

It has recently been revealed that in a telephone conversation with Tony Blair on the eve of the aggression against Iraq that George W. Bush brought up a list of targets that included not just the usual suspects but also Riyadh and Islamabad. At the time, Pakistan was already a close ally in the so-called “war on terror”, but the nature and extent of the A.Q. Khan network was not yet public knowledge. It subsequently emerged that the supply of centrifuges to Iran was part of the network’s activities. Furthermore, it is now generally accepted that traces of highly-enriched uranium found at Iranian facilities a couple of years ago were, in fact, a consequence of the imports from Pakistan rather than evidence of surreptitious enrichment activities by Iran’s nuclear scientists.

As the debacle in Iraq acquired monumental proportions — an impression that has not been swept aside by this year’s elections and the more recent constitutional referendum — the impression mounted that the prospect of a repeat of Operation Iraqi Freedom on Iranian or Syrian soil was rapidly diminishing. The US army, after all, has increasingly been bogged down in Iraq, with the issue of higher troop numbers being hotly debated in Washington not only on account of a steadily rising death toll, but also because new military recruits are consequentially harder to attract. Although the possibility of the aggressor — be it the US or Israel — restricting itself to an air campaign has been raised, American strategists are probably aware that regime change can only be guaranteed via a ground campaign.

Iran has steadily contended that its nuclear programme is intended to meet the nation’s future energy needs, and that it has no intention of weaponisation. Although that claim attracts scepticism in many quarters, the fact remains that increasingly intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the past couple of years have failed to unearth any evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, Britain, France and Germany — generally abbreviated to the EU3 — have been negotiating with Tehran with a view to convincing it to cease its enrichment activities. The troika is effectively a proxy for the US, which refused to take part in the negotiations despite the widespread perception that the talks wouldn’t go anywhere without direct American participation.

At the same time, some US officials — notably John Bolton, whose brief at the State Department included anti-proliferation matters, before he was appointed ambassador to the UN without congressional approval — have made no secret of their opinion that any journey down the diplomatic track is a waste of time. In other words, Tehran will have to be brought to heel the same way as Baghdad. Bolton’s superiors, such as Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, invariably add a rider whenever they feel obliged to assure the world that military action against Iran is not on the cards: namely, that all options are open.

In recent months, efforts by the US to convince other nations that Iran can neither be trusted nor tolerated have increased in intensity. In the run-up to September’s United Nations summit, American officials arranged a PowerPoint show-and-tell session in Vienna which was remarkably reminiscent of Colin Powell’s comprehensively misleading Security Council performance in February 2003. Efforts to cobble together a preliminary anti-Iranian coalition continued in New York, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reaffirmed his nation’s intent to pursue nuclear power for civilian use. Last month Rice was busy trying to convince European nations of the need for sanctions against Iran, but without spectacular success — especially in Moscow.


George W. Bush. Photograph: AFP

Heightened efforts by the US have led to the IAEA’s governing board resolving to report Iran to the UN Security Council, even though its own inspectors have come across no clear instance of Iran violating the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The IAEA usually takes decisions by consensus, but on this occasion that proved impossible: although Venezuela alone had the courage to clearly vote against the resolution, Pakistan was among the nations that abstained. Somewhat surprisingly, India — like Pakistan, a nuclear power that is not a signatory to the NPT, which it has long decried as discriminatory — decided to support the resolution. This choice may have been based on a genuine fear of Iran going nuclear; it is more likely, however, that New Delhi was seeking to curry further favour with the US and Israel, and thought it best not to allow principles to stand in the way.



Mohamed ElBaradei. Photograph: AFP

Early this year, at the outset of Bush’s second term, Vice -President Dick Cheney had raised the prospect of Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear reactors as an alternative to US military action. In the event of such monumental folly, Israel’s nascent relations with the Muslim world would be shot to pieces, and it hard to see how such a development could conceivably work in Jerusalem or Washington’s interests. But, then, logic often flies out of the window in such circumstances. It is interesting, but not particularly surprising, that Iran’s initiatives for a nuclear-free West Asia, whether well-intentioned or mischievous, have received little or no attention, because that would involve calling upon Israel to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. The question simply does not arise: Israel’s “security” is an article of faith, so its surreptitious development of nuclear weapons cannot be questioned and often goes unmentioned. The IAEA can only dream of inspecting Israeli facilities, and its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, risked losing his job when he dared to bring up the subject a year or so ago.

It is Israel, of course, rather than the US that has anything to fear from a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. After all, it’s only 600 miles away from Iran, and the Islamic Republic in theory remains adamantly opposed to the Jewish state’s existence. In practice it is more or less inconceivable that Iran, with or without nuclear weapons, would contemplate an unprovoked attack against Israel. The reverse isn’t true, at least for as long as Iran has no nuclear-tipped arrows in its bow.

This is not to suggest that Iran must be planning to produce nuclear weapons, let alone that it should. However, it would not be entirely illogical from Tehran’s point of view to have an ace up its sleeve. After all, two of its neighbours have been invaded by the US over the past four years, and Iran itself has been the focus of threats. North Korea, on the other hand, usually attracts more carrots and sticks, for the simple reason that it is believed its nuclear holster may not be empty. Besides, India and Pakistan were at the receiving end of only a limited amount of censure and sanctions for “coming out” as nuclear powers. In a world where nuclear weapons continue to be extolled, directly or otherwise, as the ultimate defence, why should some nations be permitted the privilege of stockpiling them while others are denied that right?

If one wished to be perverse, such discrepancies could be turned into a case for a nuclear free-for-all. An infinitely more sensible course of action would be to gravitate towards a nuclear weapons-free world — a goal that no one with a modicum of common sense should find hard to embrace. The nations for which the prospect of requiring recourse to their arsenals is infinitesimal should be the first to disarm: Britain and France clearly fall in that category. Israel, India and Pakistan — and North Korea, if its supposed capability is not an empty boast — come next, with the bigger powers — Russia, China and the US — simultaneously and proportionately reducing their stockpiles until nothing is left. Thereafter, strict international scrutiny of all nuclear reactors anywhere in the world could offer a reasonable safeguard against any nasty surprises. The manufacture of crude devices by freelance terrorists would remain a possibility, but that sort of threat cannot anyhow be countered with a nuclear response.

Were that a realistic scenario, it would have made sense to refer Iran to the Security Council on the slightest suspicion, and possibly even to contemplate coercive measures. But it isn’t. Besides, barring accusations of previous concealment — for which there could be valid explanations that do not include planned weaponisation — ElBaradei has found no reason to suppose that Iran’s mullahs have nuclear-tipped missiles on their mind. Bush has questioned Iran’s keenness on nuclear power as an energy source, given its vast reserves of crude oil. It may be a reasonable question, but there could also be reasonable answers to it. For one, sanctions have obstructed the development of Iran’s petroleum industry. Besides, it is only prudent for all nations to plan for a future without oil. Many people believe that nuclear power isn’t the best alternative, but Bush isn’t among them.

Some commentators have suggested that reports of a planned US assault against Iran are not just exaggerated but spurious, being based on deliberate leaks by administration sources with the intention of intimidating Iran into making concessions. One could be forgiven for hoping that is indeed the case, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. It is widely suspected that war against Iran and any subsequent occupation would prove to be even bloodier and messier than the American experience in Iraq.

ElBaradei — who, along with the IAEA, won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize — is following the Hans Blix template by demanding further inspections, presumably in the hope that conflict can be warded off for as long as his agency remains involved. It may not be an ideal strategy, given the Iraq experience, but the alternative could be worse. Were ElBaradei to certify the absence of nuclear weapons programmes in Iran, the US could easily declare the IAEA to be compromised and go down the military path anyhow. Bolton has suggested, meanwhile, that should the UN Security Council reject sanctions, it will have to be deemed irrelevant. We have, of course, heard that before.

It is worth recalling, meanwhile, that Iran’s interest in nuclear technology was, at one time, encouraged by Bush’s predecessors. Following an agreement signed in the late 1950s, the US supplied Iran with a nuclear reactor, enriched uranium and plutonium and technical assistance right until the Islamic Revolution in 1979 — without any guarantees against weaponisation being demanded from the Shah. In the mid-’70s, the administration of Gerald Ford approved the sale of eight nuclear reactors, with fuel, as well as lasers. Crucial to this decision were the assessments of among others, Ford’s defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his chief of staff Dick Cheney, and the head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s non-proliferation section, Paul Wolfowitz. The names do ring a bell, don’t they?

The clerical regime in Iran is indefensible on many grounds and its legitimacy rests on a flawed democracy (although even then, it’s more representative than some of Washington’s client regimes), but the following passage provides some food for thought. “In Iran,” wrote Stephen Zunes on the Znet website last August, “real political power rests with unelected military, economic, and right-wing ideologues, and in the June 25 runoff election, Iranian voters were forced to choose between two flawed candidates. The relatively liberal contender came across as an out-of-touch elitist, and his ultra-conservative opponent was able to assemble a coalition of rural, less-educated and fundamentalist voters to conduct a pseudo-populist campaign based on promoting morality and value-centered leadership. Such a political climate,” he pointed out, “should not be unfamiliar to American voters.”

The Guardian’s James Meek noticed the same parallel: “A socially conservative, God-fearing patriot, a regular guy, sold to an electorate disoriented by modernity, feeling vaguely cheated by life and looking for scapegoats as the candidate to shake up the fat cats and foreigner-loving liberal elites of the capital.

“When Bush comes to decide what to do about Iran,” he concluded, “he may find himself looking at his reflection.”

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