The Avoidable Crisis
Airstrikes on Iran would kill considerable
numbers of people; would be illegal and counterproductive; would
undermine international treaties and encourage nuclear weapons
proliferation; and would boost al-Qaeda and other forms of terrorism.
There is a safer, less costly alternative.
Negotiations: A Path Away From Disaster
After North Korea announced that it had
nuclear weapons, the US participated in direct talks (which started
in Aug. 2003 and which have not yet ended). North Korea has not
been referred to the UN Security Council (UNSC). (See this BBC
report on an abortive agreement, and linked documents).
With Iran, the US refuses direct talks,
and is calling for sanctions and a UNSC resolution that can be
taken as authorization for military action. But no one is alleging
that Iran has acquired nuclear weapons, the allegation is only
that Iran may one day be able to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran's Nuclear Rights
By signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT), Iran agreed not to develop nuclear weapons (Article
2), but also gained the right to ‘develop research, production
and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination’
(Article 4). (NPT text)
International concern centres on two issues.
Firstly, Iran hid part of its nuclear power programme from the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until this was exposed
in Dec. 2002.
Secondly, the technology for uranium enrichment
that Iran is using to produce nuclear fuel (3% enriched uranium)
can also be used to produce material for nuclear weapons (90%
Worrying as these facts are, it remains
the case that Iran has the legal right to uranium enrichment technology
under Article 4 of the NPT.
Iran's Nuclear Status
Since Feb. 2003, IAEA inspectors in Iran
have operated with greater freedom under a new agreement with
Tehran. On 27 Feb. 2006, the IAEA again confirmed that ‘all
the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for’,
and that ‘the Agency has
not seen any diversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons
or other nuclear explosive devices’. (Report,
Questions remain, but as yet there is no
proven weapons programme in Iran.
In Sept. 2005, the International Institute
for Strategic Studies said
that ‘Iran’s nuclear option is not imminent’:
‘On purely technical grounds, Iran
appears to be at least several
years away from producing enough fissile material for
a nuclear weapon, and whether Iran has the expertise to fabricate
a nuclear weapon from this material is unknown.’
This is the worst-case scenario in terms
of how soon Iran could produce a nuclear weapon. It would take
‘several years’ only if Iran prioritized speed over
secrecy, and did not try to conceal its programme from the outside
Iran's Nuclear Policy
On 14 Jan. 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad said: ‘The
countries which seek nuclear weapons are those which want to solve
all problems by the use of force. Our nation does not need such
More significantly, Iran’s Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is said to have issued a ‘fatwa’
or legal ruling that: ‘the production, stockpiling and use
of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic
Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons’. (Announced
in Aug. 2005)
No one takes such declarations of policy
at face value, whoever is making them. However, it is at least
interesting that the Iranian leadership has such a strong stand
against the development of nuclear weapons.
President Ahmadinejad has been reported
as calling for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’.
In fact, a better translation (by Israeli
monitoring group MEMRI)
is ‘eliminated from the pages of history’. He quite
clearly meant the political state of Israel, not the people of
Israel; one of his examples of apparently invincible regimes which
had been ‘eliminated’ was Iran—the dictatorship
of the Shah of Iran. (See this
Ahmadinejad’s influence over foreign
policy is actually quite limited. In Iran, it is the Supreme Leader
(currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) who controls foreign and military
policy. (See this BBC Online
explanation of the constitutional arrangements.)
Ayatollah Khamenei responded
to Ahmadinejad's remarks by saying: ‘We will not commit
aggression towards any nations.’
As we have seen, he is also said to have
forbidden the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Preventive War - Illegal
Under the standard view of international
law, pre-emptive self-defence can only be justified when the threat
is ‘instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means,
and no moment for deliberation’. (See this BBC
article explaining the origins of this terminology.)
According to its ‘National
Security Strategy’, the US will attack enemies ‘before
they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction’.
This is not pre-emptive,
this is preventive war,
before the enemy is even able to attack.
A US attack on Iran would be totally illegal.
When Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw accepted
this: ‘We could not justify it under Article 51 of the UN
charter which permits self-defence.’
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says:
‘I do not believe that military strikes can solve this problem.
They can delay development at best. Following an attack, the Iranians
would most certainly go underground to produce a weapon as quickly
and deliberately as possible.’
If there are airstrikes, civilians will
be killed (see the Paul
Rogers report), Iran will refuse UN inspections and leave
the NPT, anti-Western terrorism will rocket, and we will be no
nearer knowing the truth about Iran’s ambitions. Iranian
missile attacks could reach every oilfield in the Gulf.
Airstrikes would also undermine the IAEA,
and the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself. An NPT signatory nation
would have been attacked simply for exercising its rights under
Article 4 of the NPT.
Regime Change And Nuclear Threats
US reporter Seymour Hersh was told
by a former US defence official, who still deals with sensitive
issues for the Bush Administration, ‘that the military planning
was premised on a belief that “a sustained bombing campaign
in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public
to rise up and overthrow the government.” ’
According to Hersh, Pentagon officials have
concluded that the only way to destroy deeply-buried Iranian facilities
would be to use nuclear weapons, which they did not recommend.
But when the US Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to remove the nuclear
option from evolving war plans for Iran, the White House vetoed
this move. Senior US officers are apparently considering resigning
over this issue, Hersh reports.
Hersh’s source, a Pentagon adviser
on the ‘war on terror’, says:
‘The problem is that the Iranians realize that only by becoming
a nuclear state can they defend themselves against the US.’
The alternative is for the US to offer Iran
cast-iron security assurances. (This has been missing from the
EU proposals so far.) With North Korea, the US participated in
direct talks, and signed an
agreement in which Washington made exactly this kind of security
assurance, promising not to attack North Korea with either nuclear
or conventional weapons.
Senior Republican Senator Chuck Hagel urges:
‘Ultimately, any resolution will most likely require security
assurances for Iran.’ (FT,
8 May 2006, p. 17)
Times warns that
attacking Iran would be ‘a catastrophe’, and proposes
‘Iran would have to halt uranium
enrichment and stop work on its heavy water reactor as well
as fully account for past and current nuclear activity. The
US would have to complement European trade and investment carrots
with security guarantees
(including not to invade) and by facilitating regional security
arrangements. This is an opportunity that must be seized.’
(15 May, p. 16)
The Israeli Nuclear Monopoly And Counter-Threats
A ‘grand bargain’ could also
include Israel’s nuclear weapons as part of a deal to rid
the region of all weapons of mass destruction. The biggest incentive
to proliferation is Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region.
Note that the new Israeli vice prime minister
Shimon Peres has also used unacceptable language: ‘Now when
it comes to destruction, Iran too can be destroyed [but] I am
not suggesting an eye for an eye.’ (Telegraph,
9 May 2006)
Inspections, Guarantees, Disarmament
If Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons,
no one can now prevent this—by airstrikes or otherwise.
We can restrain
Iran’s nuclear ambitions by UN
inspections on the ground, monitoring and reporting.
We can remove the
incentive to proliferate by meeting Iran’s genuine
security needs, with cast-iron security
guarantees from the US, and a regional
WMD disarmament process that includes Israel’s
The alternative may be a catastrophe.
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