Time for the US to recognise reality of Iran’s nuclear plans
The National: April 04. 2010 1:08AM UAE / April 3. 2010 9:08PM GMT
Iran diplomacy in Washington these days consists principally of coaxing the likes of Russia and China to support new sanctions – and persuading gullible journalists that Moscow and Beijing are “on board”.
On Friday, the US president Barack Obama told CBS television that Iran is trying to get the “capacity to develop nuclear weapons”, and that he and his allies “are going to ratchet up the pressure ... with a unified international community”. Nobody sets much store by such talk, of course, because President George W Bush had been saying the same thing since 2006 with little effect.
Sure, Russia and China have agreed to finally discuss a Security Council resolution to increase sanctions first imposed three years ago over Iran’s failure to comply with all the transparency requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But Moscow and Beijing have also made clear that they don’t believe Iran is building nuclear weapons. Nor does the US, for that matter. The CIA’s assessment is that no such decision has yet been taken, and that Iran’s current nuclear efforts will simply give it the option to build nuclear weapons.
As a result, Russia and China have also made clear that they will block any new sanctions that inflict significant pain on the Islamic Republic, aware that the stand-off can only be resolved by dialogue, and that sanctions are unlikely to help.
The international community is certainly united in the belief that Iran should not be allowed to build nuclear weapons, but “the capacity to develop nuclear weapons” is a different matter. Any state with a full fuel-cycle civilian nuclear energy programme has the “capacity” to develop nuclear weapons, and such a programme is Iran’s right as a signatory to the NPT. Until now, the position of the US, France, Britain and Israel has been that Iran can’t be allowed to enrich uranium for energy purposes, because enrichment gives it the means to create weapons-grade materiel. But for the rest of the international community, the issue is simply ensuring that Iran’s enrichment programme complies with NPT safeguards against weaponisation.
Now the position of the US has proven to be untenable. “The Iranians are determined to have a nuclear programme,” the former US secretary of state Colin Powell said last week. “Notice I did not say a nuclear weapon. Notwithstanding the last six or seven years of efforts on our part to keep them from having that nuclear programme, they have it. I don’t yet see a set of sanctions coming along that would be so detrimental to the Iranians that they are going to stop that programme. So I think ultimately the solution has to be a negotiated one.”
Similarly, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, John Kerry, warned last June that the US demand for Iran to forego enrichment altogether was “ridiculous”, noting that as a signatory to the NPT, “they have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose”.
Mr Powell and Mr Kerry were advocating that the US boost its chances of diplomatic success by accepting Iran’s right to enrich uranium, while strengthening safeguards against weaponisation. But the Obama administration has not changed its stance. And after the failure of a deal to swap most of Iran’s current enriched uranium stockpile for reactor fuel, Washington has focused its efforts on grinding out agreements for incremental increases in sanctions – sanctions that everyone expects will fail, and for which there’s no Plan B. Mr Obama still talks gamely about “leaving all options on the table” (code for threatening military action), but the US strategic establishment is openly sceptical of a course of action that risks a disastrous region-wide war in exchange for very limited gains.
As the defence secretary Robert Gates put it late last year: “There is no military option that does anything more than buy time,” suggesting that bombing would set Iran back by just one to three years.
And despite the apocalyptic rhetoric in the Israeli mainstream, coolheaded analysts say Israel won’t be in a position to take military action against Iran without US approval and assistance – which is unlikely. That has left some resigned to a Cold War-type strategy of “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran, which also presents considerable perils of a possible war. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Mr Obama is locked into the same paralysis as his predecessor was on Iran.
US leaders often claim that they’re acting against Iran on behalf of the whole Middle East region, implying that their strategy has the backing of Arab governments. Washington hawks insist that the Arabs would applaud if the US bombed Iran, utilising the silence of the Arab regimes to speak as if on their behalf. That underscores the importance of the Arab voices that have begun challenging the idea that a confrontation with Iran could produce any positive outcome.
At last week’s Arab League summit, the secretary general Amr Moussa called for the stand-off to be tackled through Arab dialogue with Iran. “We need to see where we differ and where we disagree with Iran and how to deal with that,” Mr Moussa said. “Iran is not an enemy and dialogue will help bring about peace and stability in the region.”
The Arab League had best get on with it, because nothing coming out of Washington right now offers any hope of breaking a stalemate that could yet engulf the region in flames. Washington and Tehran both need help finding their way to a new modus vivendi. Some of that help will come from China, Turkey and even Japan, which has discreetly been trying to broker a nuclear deal. But it is the Arabs on whose behalf Washington hawks are urging that Iran be bombed, and it is the Arabs who would suffer many of the disastrous consequences of such an act of war. That should give them plenty of incentive to play a meaningful role in keeping the peace.