The west has picked a fight with Iran that it cannot win
Washington's kneejerk belligerence ignores Tehran's influence and the need for subtle engagement
Wednesday January 18, 2006
Never pick a fight you know you cannot win. Or so I was told. Pick an argument if you must, but not a fight. Nothing I have read or heard in recent weeks suggests that fighting Iran over its nuclear enrichment programme makes any sense at all. The very talk of it - macho phrases about "all options open" - suggests an international community so crazed with video game enforcement as to have lost the power of coherent thought.
Iran is a serious country, not another two-bit post-imperial rogue waiting to be slapped about the head by a white man. It is the fourth largest oil producer in the world. Its population is heading towards 80 million by 2010. Its capital, Tehran, is a mighty metropolis half as big again as London. Its culture is ancient and its political life is, to put it mildly, fluid.
All the following statements about Iran are true. There are powerful Iranians who want to build a nuclear bomb. There are powerful ones who do not. There are people in Iran who would like Israel to disappear. There are people who would not. There are people who would like Islamist rule. There are people who would not. There are people who long for some idiot western politician to declare war on them. There are people appalled at the prospect. The only question for western strategists is which of these people they want to help.
Of all the treaties passed in my lifetime the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) always seemed the most implausible. It was an insiders' club that any outsider could defy with a modicum of guile. So it has proved. America, sitting armed to the teeth across Korea's demilitarised zone, has let North Korea become a nuclear power despite a 1994 promise that it would not. America supported Israel in going nuclear. Britain and America did not balk at India doing so, nor Pakistan when it not only built a bomb but deceitfully disseminated its technology in defiance of sanctions. Three flagrant dissenters from the NPT are thus regarded by America as friends.
I would sleep happier if there were no Iranian bomb but a swamp of hypocrisy separates me from overly protesting it. Iran is a proud country that sits between nuclear Pakistan and India to its east, a nuclear Russia to its north and a nuclear Israel to its west. Adjacent Afghanistan and Iraq are occupied at will by a nuclear America, which backed Saddam Hussein in his 1980 invasion of Iran. How can we say such a country has "no right" to nuclear defence?
None the less this month's reopening of the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant and two others, though purportedly for peaceful uses, was a clear act of defiance by Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remain unsure whether it implies a secret weapons programme but the evidence for this is far stronger than, for instance, against Saddam Hussein. To have infuriated the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei takes some doing. As Saddam found, deviousness in nuclear matters is bound to arouse suspicion. Either way, the reopening yielded a strong diplomatic coalition of Europe, America, Russia and China in pleading with Ahmadinejad to desist.
On Monday, Washington's kneejerk belligerence put this coalition under immediate strain. In two weeks the IAEA must decide whether to report Iran to the UN security council for possible sanctions. There seems little point in doing this if China and Russia vetoes it or if there is no plan B for what to do if such pressure fails to halt enrichment, which seems certain. A clear sign of western floundering are speeches and editorials concluding that Iran "should not take international concern lightly", the west should "be on its guard" and everyone "should think carefully". It means nobody has a clue.
I cannot see how all this confrontation will stop Iran doing whatever it likes with its nuclear enrichment, which is reportedly years away from producing weapons-grade material. The bombing of carefully dispersed and buried sites might delay deployment. But given the inaccuracy of American bombers, the death and destruction caused to Iran's cities would be a gift to anti-western extremists and have every world terrorist reporting for duty.
Nor would the "coward's war" of economic sanctions be any more effective. Refusing to play against Iranian footballers (hated by the clerics), boycotting artists, ostracising academics, embargoing commerce, freezing foreign bank accounts - so-called smart sanctions - are as counterproductive as could be imagined. Such feelgood gestures drive the enemies of an embattled regime into silence, poverty or exile. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote in these pages after a recent visit, western aggression "would drain overnight its still large reservoir of anti-regime, mildly pro-western sentiment".
By all accounts Ahmadinejad is not secure. He is subject to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His foe, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, retains some power. Tehran is not a Saddamist dictatorship or a Taliban autocracy. It is a shambolic oligarchy with bureaucrats and technocrats jostling for power with clerics. Despite a quarter century of effort, the latter have not created a truly fundamentalist islamic state. Iran is a classic candidate for the politics of subtle engagement.
This means strengthening every argument in the hands of those Iranians who do not want nuclear weapons or Israel eliminated, who crave a secular state and good relations with the west. No such argument embraces name-calling, sabre-rattling, sanctions or bombs.
At this very moment, US officials in Baghdad are on their knees begging Iran-backed Shia politicians and militias to help them get out of Iraq. From Basra to the suburbs of Baghdad, Iranian influence is dominant. Iranian posters adorned last month's elections. Whatever Bush and Blair thought they were doing by invading Iraq, they must have known the chief beneficiary from toppling the Sunni ascendancy would be Shia Iran. They cannot now deny the logic of their own policy. Democracy itself is putting half Iraq in thrall to its powerful neighbour.
Iran is the regional superstate. If ever there were a realpolitik demanding to be "hugged close" it is this one, however distasteful its leader and his centrifuges. If you cannot stop a man buying a gun, the next best bet is to make him your friend, not your enemy.
Britain's double standards on Iran
Wednesday January 18, 2006
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, issued a reminder on Saturday that the west's dependence on imported oil meant: "You need us more than we need you." Iran's ambitions to develop nuclear power for civilian use are often derided because it is the world's fourth largest oil exporter. But oil is a finite resource and the development of alternative energy sources is a legitimate concern for all nations. Tony Blair has signalled that he is in favour of developing a new generation of nuclear power stations to meet Britain's energy gap. He is also in favour of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons - the rationale being that although the UK has no nuclear-armed enemies at present, we may have in the future.There is little reason to trust the Iranian government and one might infer that it is developing nuclear weapons to deter attacks from its nuclear-armed enemies, Israel and the US. But is it not disingenuous for the UK to attack Iran for employing the same logic to the problems of energy and defence as we do? The Iranian crisis is part of a wider, global crisis: the end of the cheap oil era. We are at a historical cross roads - one path leads to an era of nuclear proliferation, resource wars and possible systemic collapse; the other demands a massive commitment to developing renewable energy resources, nuclear disarmament and positive systemic change.
Recent reports that Iran plans to resume research into uranium enrichment have raised fears that the technology may not be used purely for nuclear electricity. But Europe and the US could call the bluff of the Iranians by offering to build enough concentrating solar power plants to supply all of the country's needs. Iran has enormous quantities of energy falling as sunlight on to its deserts and CSP is a proven technology for tapping into this vast resource (see, for example, www.eere.energy.gov/solar/csp.html.) In one of the simplest of several variations, an array of mirrors focuses sunlight on to a tank filled with water mounted on a low tower. This raises steam that can be used to generate electricity and there are techniques for storing solar heat so that generation of electricity can continue at night. Even if the bluff were accepted, it would be an inexpensive way to reduce worries about the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
To the north of Iran lies Russia, an expansionist nuclear state that has invaded Muslim Chechnya. To the west is Iraq which invaded Iran in the 1980s and is now occupied by two nuclear-armed powers, Britain and the US. Also to the west lies Israel, another nuclear power. Although President Ahmadinejad's latest statement makes it clear that his country has no desire to develop nuclear weapons, the case for Iran to have an independent nuclear deterrent is far stronger than that for the possession of nuclear weapons by the UK.
You are correct in stating (Tangling with Tehran, January 12) that Iran is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. What you do not mention is that the British government is intent upon its own breach of the NPT: a replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system. In terms of world safety, Iran should not pursue nuclear weapons - but it is double-standards for Britain to flout the NPT while escalating tensions with Iran on the suspicion that it might be intending to do so. It is now crucial that existing nuclear states move towards genuine disarmament talks in compliance with the NPT.
Chair, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Jack Straw has said that Iran has a history of concealment and deception. That's a bit rich from a member of a government that will not let the public see the legal advice on which it went to war with Iraq, and that pretended Iraq had WMDs when it knew it didn't.
Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh