Iran’s nuclear path is a challenge

Iran’s nuclear path is a challenge
By Amitabh Pal

January 10, 2006

Iran poses a difficult challenge to everyone concerned about nuclear disarmament.

The Iranian government has decided to re-embark on its path of “nuclear research,” and on January 10 broke the seals at a key facility to restart its program after a fourteen-month hiatus.

Assuming that this is a prelude to Iran developing nuclear weapons, what’s the best way to respond?

The first thing that needs to be recognized is that it is indeed an assumption that Iran is necessarily on its way to fabricating nuclear bombs. In a wonderfully nuanced analysis for Foreign Policy in Focus, Ian Davis and Paul Ingram argue that although it is quite possible that Iran is going the nuclear weapons route, this isn’t by all means certain.

And in any event, Iran is at least a few years away from obtaining a single nuclear warhead.

Second, the Iranian situation points out a huge contradiction in the mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency: to promote peaceful nuclear energy while stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Nations that have covertly built up their nuclear arsenals have often done it under the guise of developing nuclear power, be it India, Pakistan, or (possibly) North Korea. But the IAEA fails to realize this problem with nuclear power, in addition to its many other pitfalls. In fact, in an otherwise admirable Nobel acceptance speech, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the agency and this year’s Nobel Peace Prize-winner, lauded his organization’s efforts to promote nuclear energy.

Perhaps if the IAEA ditched its nuclear energy promotion, it would give nations such as Iran and North Korea, less of a chance to surreptitiously build nuclear weaponry.

Third, it has to be realized that Iran has some legitimate security fears. As Henry Kissinger, who should know, once said, “Even a paranoid has some real enemies.” This holds true for Iran, too.

The Bush Administration’s nuclear policy is not very reassuring to other countries, including Iran. From scuttling multiple nuclear arms-control treaties to updating its nuclear arsenal, the United States has in recent years conveyed the wrong signals to the rest of the world.

And when it comes to Iran specifically, there’s been a strong contingent of neocons that has been urging Bush to attack the nation.

Republican Senators have introduced bills calling for Iranian “regime change.” Bush himself has stated that he “will not tolerate” a nuclear Iran, and has named it a charter member of the “axis of evil.” In addition, the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, (its major policy statement on the subject of nuclear weapons), named in 2002 seven countries as targets, including Iran. Although the troubles in Iraq make a U.S. ground invasion unlikely, military action on a smaller scale may be a possibility, with potentially destabilizing ramifications.

And then there’s Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, with an existing nuclear arsenal roughly equal to that of France or Britain, according to analyst Avner Cohen in the April 2005 issue of Current History magazine. Ariel Sharon on a number of occasions has made belligerent statements about Iran, although he has denied having any immediate unilateral plans to attack Iran.

So what needs to be done to ensure that Iran doesn’t become another member of the nuclear club?

The United States has to provide security guarantees, and make Iran confident that it will not suffer the fate of two of its neighbors.

Plus, all the five established nuclear powers have to seriously undertake their commitment under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and take concrete steps to get rid of their nuclear arsenals.

The nuclear hypocrisy of the five established powers has been one of the major reasons that Iran’s nuclear program has widespread support among its populace.

Even Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing two years ago for The Progressive, has in a recent interview been reluctant to outright condemn Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Iranian public will become less enthusiastic about the bomb only when countries like the United States stop possessing—and flaunting—nuclear weapons as a symbol of national strength.

And Israel must be part of any solution. In the mid-1970s, Israel for the first time proposed at the United Nations the idea of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East, and as Cohen chronicles in his Current History article, it has reiterated its support a number of times in the years hence. It is very unlikely that Iran will give up its weapons program while Israel possesses a stockpile of nuclear warheads.

The question then arises: Is the current Iranian leadership rational and persuadable enough to be asked to renounce the bomb? While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has engaged in problematic behavior, and has made outrageous statements about Israel and the Holocaust, enough concerted international pressure might get him and the clerics to forsake nuclear weapons. Iran’s foreign policy is not completely irrational and fundamentalist. After all, Iran has generally been lying low in Iraq, compared to the amount of trouble it could be causing there. It has also not created too many problems in Afghanistan. And it has generally maintained a neutral stance on the issue of Kashmir, instead of siding with its Muslim neighbor Pakistan against the claims of Hindu-majority India on the disputed province.

If Iran refuses to alter its path, then the time will come for targeted international sanctions against the country, such as the freezing of its assets abroad and a bar on its leaders traveling outside the country. Hopefully, creative diplomacy by the European Union and—dare I say it, the United States—will head off such a possibility. Iran needs to realize that the nuclear dream is a fool’s errand.