If Bush really wants a safer Middle East, he should stop giving Tehran compelling reasons to acquire nuclear weapons
Thursday January 11, 2007
As if George Bush did not have enough to contend with, another Middle East crisis is threatening to flare. In defiance of international condemnation and last month's UN security council resolution, Iran is pressing ahead with a programme of uranium enrichment that it claims is only for civilian energy but is widely suspected of concealing a bid to build a nuclear warhead. Is there anything the world can do to stop it - if indeed there is a pressing case for doing so?
According to recent leaks in the Israeli and British press, Israel believes that military action is the only answer. Officials in Tel Aviv argue that a nuclear bomb in Tehran's hands poses an unacceptable risk, one that a massive onslaught by warplanes - perhaps deploying Israel's own nuclear arsenal - could pre-empt and smash.
The Israelis may have a number of motives for spinning this story. They may be trying to intimidate Tehran, or soften up world opinion in advance of a strike. They could also be pressing Washington into taking a harder line with Iran. But what is certain is that the use of military force against Tehran would be an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved, not just the civilians incinerated in such an attack.
Not only would military strikes be unlikely to knock out targets that are well dispersed and defended, they would provoke deadly retaliation by Tehran's proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan against British and US servicemen; the price of oil would rocket, particularly if Iranian commanders retaliated by disrupting tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz; and throughout in the Muslim world and beyond massive popular reaction could well bring down pro-western regimes.
It is not as if Iran presents any immediate, compelling threat. Israeli officials argue that a nuclear bomb in the hands of a man who talks about Israel being "eliminated from the pages of time" poses an unacceptable risk, but he wields no power in foreign affairs. Moreover, Israel's nuclear deterrent would mean mutually assured destruction.
Most of Iran's critics continue to regard economic sanctions as an effective diplomatic tool, and last month the UN security council finally passed a resolution that imposed very mild sanctions on the Iranian regime for its nuclear non-compliance. Washington will be pushing for more if, as seems likely, Iran's enrichment programme goes on. But this would be more seriously resisted by Iran's allies on the council, Russia and China.
That is not to say that the US has no way of hitting the Iranian economy. It has put huge pressure on international banks not to back Iranian ventures, forcing many foreign businesses to curb their own trade and investment there. This has been particularly hard on Iran's oil sector, which earns nearly all the economy's foreign exchange. Yet such measures are unlikely to thwart Tehran, which will offer foreign contractors better terms or strike up closer relations with Chinese companies.
But even if sanctions did have any real economic impact, the effect would be more likely to rally ordinary Iranians to their country's nuclear cause. A civilian nuclear programme attracts wide popular support and most Iranians can hardly fail to see their nuclear cause as perfectly reasonable. Under the 1968 non-proliferation treaty, their country has an "inalienable right" to produce nuclear energy "for peaceful purposes"; and though their leaders have a track record of duplicity, most Iranians point to glaring double standards. Many other countries have been left free to pursue enrichment programmes, while others, such as India and Israel, are nuclear powers but have never signed the treaty.
Their history shows why Iranians are quick to sense injustice. For 2,000 years they have been subjugated by invaders and oppressors, from the Arabs to the Russian tsars. In the early 1950s the great Iranian nationalist Mohammed Mossadeq knew better than most how his fellow countrymen resented such iniquity. For two arduous years he rallied them to support his nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, urging them to resist devastating British sanctions with a Shia spirit of self-sacrifice and martyrdom, until he was overthrown in a US and British-backed coup.
The same historical experiences explain why Iran has good reason to fear for its national security. How ironic, then, that its critics spin rumours of military strikes or talk openly of regime change in a way that would make any country want an ultimate deterrent of its own.
Here lies the crux of the Iranian nuclear dilemma. Threats to deny any country its inalienable rights, or the means to defend itself against nuclear neighbours, are always likely to fall on deaf ears. And to talk to Iranians in such terms is likely only to inflame their worst fears. If Iranians are to change their attitudes, America and its allies need to change theirs. They need to accept that Iran has as much right as any country to pursue a programme of civilian energy, and it cannot be blamed for pursuing nuclear weapons when it is surrounded by countries - Israel, Pakistan and the US - that have their own.
To dissuade the Iranians from pursuing either goal - nuclear energy or warheads - Washington would have to make massive concessions. It would need to fit the issue into a wider Middle East picture and find ways of making Iran feel less threatened. In return for cessation of uranium enrichment, or for more effective guarantees that it would not be used for a weapons programme, Washington could offer not only to lift all sanctions but also to drop calls for regime change and undertake not to meddle in Iran's domestic affairs; pull back its military presence in the region; and pressure Israel into surrendering or scaling down its nuclear arsenal. Israel talks about its defence against annihilation, but it might be such wider consequences of an Iranian nuclear programme that it really fears.
Unfortunately, Bush looks a long way from even considering such moves. He has rejected the recommendations of last month's Baker-Hamilton report, which called for dialogue with Tehran after 26 years of estrangement, and of congressmen who have called for a "grand bargain" to settle all the differences between Iran and the US.
By doing so, he has dramatically raised the stakes in the Middle East. In the coming months there is a real risk that Iran's nuclear ambitions could spark conflicts that make Iraq and Afghanistan look like small fry indeed.
· Roger Howard is the author of Iran Oil: the New Middle East Challenge and What's Wrong with Liberal Interventionism firstname.lastname@example.org