Fri, 26 Sep 2003

Europe, U.S. must rethink their strident stand on Iran

Jonathan Power, Columnist, Istanbul

No country prevaricates so much unless it has something to hide. The more the Iranians dodge and weave the clearer it becomes that an important faction in its divided ruling class wants to keep open the option to build a nuclear weapon. Yet at the same time it is also apparent that another powerful faction regards this as a mistaken policy that will set back all the enormous effort that has gone into mending fences with both Europe and America.

It takes no great effort to understand that Iran has reasons for wanting nuclear weapons. Not least because Israel has them. It is not so much that Iran believes it could engage in nuclear brinkmanship to force Israel out of Palestine. Nor does it believe it could use its own nuclear armory to neutralize Israel's and then seek to engage it with conventional forces.

All these would be too risky strategies. It is more a simple question of international standing. It is to be able to claim that it is the one who most faithfully supports Palestinian Muslims. It is the one that dares goes nose to nose, at least theatrically, with the regional "bully" Israel.

Then there is Iraq. If Iraq had nuclear weapons during its war with Iran, 1980-1988, it may well have used them. After all it did use chemical weapons and at the time hardly anybody protested.

The arguments against further proliferation are immensely strong yet there has always been something unpersuasive in the stick being waived by an America that continues to develop the sophistication, if not the numbers, of its immense nuclear arsenal. Moreover, it is joined in its Iranian quest by a Europe which has two nuclear weapons states, both of which have great intellectual difficulty in explaining why in a post Cold War world they hang on to their armories.

Over the decades western policy towards proliferators has been ambivalent, indecisive and inconsistent, none more so than towards Pakistan whose nuclear weapons arsenal is now accepted (as long as the government keeps it out of the hands of Taliban sympathizers). But in April, 1979, the attitude in Washington was almost as harsh as it now is towards Iran.

The Carter administration, convinced that Pakistan was secretly building a nuclear weapon, suspended military aid in a move mandated by Congress's Symington amendment. However, when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December of that year, the Administration persuaded Congress to overrule the amendment and a large arms aid program was started up again.

For the next decade, in return for Pakistan's help in building up the anti-Soviet mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan, who later went to work for Osama bin Laden, Washington turned a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear bomb efforts. Only in 1990 with the Soviets driven out of Afghanistan did President George Bush senior decide to cut off military assistance.

Once again this was reversed under his son, President George W. Bush, as America wooed Pakistan for help in defeating the Taliban and hunting down Al Qaeda members. Not only is the bomb tolerated, not much fuss was made last year when the U.S. discovered that Pakistan was acquiring missiles from North Korea.

Likewise, Washington's long refusal to acknowledge what it knew since the early 1960s about Israel's secret nuclear reactor and weapons plant in the Negev desert has cost it dear. Israel with the U.S. behind it has never lacked an adequate conventional defense. Its nuclear weapons program has been as much an unnecessary provocation as its settlements policy.

Credibility and consistency are necessary and important allies in the war against nuclear proliferation. But the same solemn international agreement that the U.S. and Europe are now waiving at Iran, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is the very one in which the nuclear-haves solemnly promised to make rapid progress in getting rid of their nuclear weapons in return for most of the rest of world remaining signatories. All this dissembling and double talking lowers the bargaining strength of the West at this critical moment.

Yet the last thing the world needs is an Iranian bomb or Iran to be within a screwdriver turn of having one. One more accidental launch or opportunity for nuclear theft waiting to happen have to be avoided.

The U.S. and Europe need to rethink their increasingly strident stand. Offer Iran all the civilian nuclear cooperation it can swallow in return for open books and regular intrusive inspections. Offer to end all political and economic estrangement (a policy turnaround long overdue). And, not least, set a better example in their own nuclear disarmament programs. There is no good reason why if the West played its cards well it couldn't help Iran become another Turkey, democratic, pro Western, militarily strong if it so wants, but bomb free.