Averting the Iranian nuclear flashpoint

Averting the Iranian nuclear flashpoint


Iran’s nuclear programme, and the world’s reaction to it, raise the most profound questions about the strength of international law, the purpose of the United Nations and the rights of states that feel threatened by others. More prosaically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a potential flashpoint for war in West Asia.
I am concerned that in too many countries, the dangers are seen as theoretical, the time frame leisurely. We have not yet reached the crunch, but all members of the United Nations Security Council need to recognise the stakes and the options if we are to avoid it.

Dealing with Iran, we are prisoners of our history. Over the decades, there have been missteps by the West, including but not only by the UK, and mistakes by Iran, that have created something worse than a climate of mistrust — a standoff in which both sides talk past each other. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says it is un-Islamic to have nuclear weapons, but Iranian actions don’t give credence to this claim. President Obama reaches out to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and his offer is dismissed either as a PR stunt or part of a crafty plot — and certainly not seen for what it was, a ground-breaking offer to change US-Iran relations.

In the last six months, engagement with Iran has become far more complex. Because the country is itself undergoing a searching examination of what it stands for — led by its own people on the streets. Because getting Iran’s leaders to abandon duplicity and opacity in respect of their nuclear intentions, and to engage in a broader rapprochement with the world, is hard to choreograph when they are divided among themselves. And because there are many Irans.

One Iran is seen in a highly educated, entrepreneurial people, with a celebrated culture and civilisation. That Iran exists in diasporas around the world, but is also clearly present among those in Iran demanding a right to have a say in the future of their country.
Then there is an Iran whose economy is a mess. Despite sitting on the world’s second largest gas reserves, it imports gas. Corruption is rife — Transparency International ranks Iran 168 out of 180 countries. According to the IMF it has the highest brain drain in the world. This Iran destabilises its neighbourhood by supporting terrorism; isolates itself from international cooperation on Afghanistan; rants about the destruction of Israel and suggests that US support for a devastated Haiti is a ploy to invade it. This Iran restricts access by its educated citizenry to international media for fear of what they might learn.
The regime deliberately confuses these Irans. It talks of winning the battle for technology when it launches worms into space 40 years after man went to the moon. It claims to be a defender of human rights while Iranians who assert their basic freedoms are imprisoned, beaten, shot in the streets and executed after show trials.
The resolution of the nuclear issue, and an active process to achieve its resolution, matters because the two alternatives — Iran with the bomb or Iran bombed to deny it getting one — are, as President Nicolas Sarkozy said, horrific.

No credible explanation
The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that it is unable to verify that Iran’s nuclear programme is for exclusively peaceful purposes. Iran offers no credible explanation for producing fissile material with a clear military application, while refusing to address IAEA questions about past contacts with the nuclear black market.
Meanwhile, after months of stalling, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready for a deal with the IAEA to provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Because of the politics in Tehran, other leaders immediately opposed it. And just days later Ahmadinejad announced Iran would enrich uranium up to 20 percent — a significant step closer to weapons-grade material, and with no civilian end use because Iran, despite grandiose claims, cannot turn this uranium into usable fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor or for nuclear power stations that have not been built.

The nuclear issue cuts to the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the future of West Asia. Gulf countries would likely join the nuclear bandwagon if Iran goes nuclear. Israel has made it clear that it sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat and would act if necessary in its self-defence. The consequences of both would be devastating.
To avoid this we need action that shows unity and resolve. That is one reason I went to China last week. The UN Security Council needs to take seriously its responsibilities, not just countries such as Britain and China but non-permanent members such as Brazil and Turkey. The EU has stated that it will take action and countries in the region need to join with us to increase the pressure. The international community is actually united in its opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran. There also has been unity on the clear offer presented to Iran that if it comes clean on its nuclear programme it will get support for a civilian nuclear-power program; and that if it fails to do so it will face increasing pressure. Now is the time for unity on the need for pressure to supplement the engagement.
Sceptics say sanctions can be blunt; that Iran would never accept humiliation; and that Iran is still some way from a nuclear capability. All are true — but not the point. Sanctions can be blunt, but they can also be targeted, on the financial system, on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and on nuclear technology. The offer on the table, proposed in June 2008 and still waiting for a reply, allows Iran to claim the rights enjoyed by other states. But with those rights come responsibilities, and Iran’s refusal to clarify its activities means that there is a fundamental lack of confidence in its assertions that the program is for peaceful purposes.

Sanctions are not a silver bullet. But that is not the test. The question is whether targeted, proportionate and reversible sanctions would add to the pressure inside this complex and teeming society for a more sensible attitude on the nuclear issue. I believe they would, that they are needed urgently, and that they can help avert one of the most dangerous flashpoints in world politics today.
The New York Times

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