President Bush may reassure himself that “the world is coalescing around the notion that the Iranians should not have the means and the wherewithal to be able to develop a nuclear weapon,” but the more pertinent question is whether the world, or even any significant part of it agrees that military action might be a necessary to prevent Iran going nuclear should diplomacy fail. And frankly, the answer is probably not.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s sharp rebuke of Bush’s suggestion that military action remains an option should economic incentives fail is a reminder that while most of the world might agree that Iran shouldn’t build nuclear weapons, most — including, in all probability, even those European countries that joined the U.S. in Iraq — would also agree that it’s not worth going to war in order to stop them.
Schroeder, of course, is electioneering — his Social Democrats are in trouble, so he’s doing what worked last time around: Running against Bush, rather than against Christian Democrat candidate Angela Merkel. But while most of them would lambast him for uttering it in public and emboldening Iran, the position he’s articulating is almost certainly the consensus among the three European nations negotiating with Tehran on the nuclear issue: Iran going nuclear is a terrible idea, but the consequences of attacking Iran in order to prevent it doing so may be worse. The French intellectuals with whom Condoleezza Rice met during her Paris visit in February made clear, much to her alarm, that European public opinion, and much of its political leadership, believes a nuclear-armed Iran is inevitable. And Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has repeatedly made clear that Britain will not support military action against Iran.
Everyone agrees that the current talks are the last, best hope for resolving the matter diplomatically. And they are very likely doomed to fail because the starting point of the Europeans — that Iran refrain from exercising its rights under the NPT to enrich uranium — is unacceptable to Iran, and has become a national rallying point that crosses political boundaries in that country. But they clearly don’t agree on what happens if that process fails.
Bush pointedly chose Israeli TV as the platform from which he reminded the Iranians that military action remains an option. Dick Cheney has previously hinted that Israel might decide to take action, you know, nudge-nudge wink-wink. (Despite the Reagan administration condemning Israel’s 1981 airstrikes on Iraq’s reactor at Osirak to prevent that going online, Cheney two years ago pointedly praised Israel for taking that action and ignoring U.S. calls for restraint, saying if it hadn’t, Saddam would have had nuclear weapons. Perhaps, although what’s interesting is that the air strike didn’t stop Iraq’s nuclear program, it simply drove it underground, so that the IAEA reported after the Gulf War that Iraq had come closer than anyone imagined to building a nuclear weapons program in secret.) Bush making that point in an Israeli interview may have simply been an attempt for Bush to play the good cop routine: “If you don’t make a deal with me, you’ll have to face Sharon.”
But having pursued this program for the most part in the 24 years since Osirak (although it was, curiously enough, started by the Shah in 1975), Iran has built its nuclear program in anticipation of just such a response from Israel or the U.S., concealing much of it in hardened facilities and, intelligence analysts believe, building in considerable redundancy (creating more than one facility to undertake the same task, as a hedge against the possibility that one is destroyed). And while the neocons may have hoped the Iraq invasion would set the mullahs trembling, it has had the opposite result, emboldening the leadership in Tehran as they see the U.S. bogged down, overstretched in Iraq and unable to manage its political process to prevent allies of Iran from dominating. Iran doesn’t fear an invasion nor does it have any reason to — the U.S. simply lacks the troops to occupy a country three times the size of Iraq, and any neocon/exile protestations that no occupying force will be needed because Iranians would be so happy to see U.S. forces ring hollow in the wake of Iraq.
Despite the warnings of the Europeans about economic penalties, the political climate remains favorable to Iran pursuing the full extent of its civilian nuclear program — and thereby creating the infrastructure for rapid conversion to a bomb program at some point in the future. At the IAEA, Iran is appealing to third world countries on the argument of double-standards — that they’re being asked to renounce rights they actually enjoy under the NPT under pressure from the West. That argument — based on Western concern that Iranian concealment of elements of its program, together with the fact that Tehran is developing aspects of the fuel cycle that don’t make economic sense — will nonetheless resonate with other developing nations with nuclear energy programs or aspirations.
But like the civilian nuclear infrastructure, the “double standards” argument is also easily converted to support a nuclear weapons program. The purpose of the NPT was never to protect the monopoly of the existing nuclear powers; it was intended as a freeze on nuclearization in order to facilitate disarmament by the existing powers. That’s never going to happen, of course, and so the Iranians and others will insist that they can’t be asked to desist from developing nuclear weapons while Israel has plenty; and while the U.S., Russia, China etc. maintain their arsenals; and while newly nuclear nations are simply welcomed into the club when they do managed to test a bomb. Double standards and all that.
That’s a tougher argument to counter, as the Iranians well know: That’s why their ambassador to the IAEA made extensive reference to the events of 1945 in defending Iran’s position: “It is the most absurd manifestation of irony that the single state who caused this single nuclear catastrophe in a twin attack on our Earth now has assumed the role of the prime preacher in the nuclear field while ever expanding its nuclear weapons capability,” he said.
It’s hard to avoid concluding that the NPT is essentially doomed — the current nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel) have no intention of relinquishing their own nuclear weapons — Bush has long ago abandoned the conceptual principles of the NPT, and is turning instead to armed “counterproliferation” by developing bunker-busting tactical nukes to be used to destroy an enemy’s own arsenal. And the persistence of the current nuclear order creates the overwhelming incentive for all enemies and rivals of the currently nuclear-armed states to pursue the same. Why would Iran accept the nuclear status quo, for example? Everytime the issue comes up, it mentions Israel’s nuclear capability.
While nobody will be comfortable with the prospect of Iran or North Korea or anyone else developing a nuclear deterrent, much of the international community will recognize its inevitability. And if the U.S. draws a red line and declares going nuclear grounds for military action against a country such as Iran, it will find itself mostly isolated. It may remain an unspoken position for some time to come, but much of the international community may have come to the conclusion that as regrettable as that may be, the current eight nuclear powers will be no more able to maintain their strategic monopoly than were the British, French, Germans, Americans and Italians of World War I able to maintain a monopoly over air power.
An educated guess would say Iran will probably go nuclear, and it will hardly be the last. Indeed, if Iran declares, I’d bet on its arch-rival Saudi Arabia being next across the nuclear threshold.