[Mb-civic] Iran Decision time approaches Economist

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Mon Sep 6 11:09:39 PDT 2004



Decision time approaches

Sep 2nd 2004 
>From The Economist print edition

The hard diplomatic task of denuclearising Iran


IS IRAN'S theocratic regime much of a threat to anyone other than its own
mightily put-upon people? And even if it is, what can the outside world do
about it? Twenty-five years after the revolution that brought the ayatollahs
to power, their grip is again crushing the breath out of would-be reformers.
Critics in the press are locked up. Human rights are trampled. A new
conservative-dominated parliament has squelched plans for much-needed
economic reforms (see article). With hardliners in the ascendant, hope of
turning aside Iran's troubling nuclear ambitions is fading too. Yet a
nuclear-armed Iran is a danger worth averting.

 Over the past 18 months Iran has reluctantly confessed to breaking every
rule in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rule-book. That is, bar
one: it still denies trying to build a bomb. Few believe that. If all it
wanted, as it claims, was to use nuclear power to keep the lights on, why
lie for 18 years to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN
body that checks that nuclear materials are not diverted for military
purposes? Why secretly experiment with plutonium and uranium (both possible
bomb ingredients)? Why buy machinery from black-market middlemen‹the same
ones who supplied Libya with a weapon design as part of its
uranium-enrichment starter kit? The IAEA's latest report on Iran this week
adds no new charges. Yet the rule-breaking record stands.

Would it matter if Iran did get the bomb? It no longer attempts to export
revolution, and it lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, now with American
troops also nearby. Although it contributes to those dangers, by refusing to
recognise Israel's right even to exist, and by arming groups that reject
peace with it, Iran fires off rhetorical salvoes, not missiles. Wouldn't a
nuclear-armed Iran be similarly deterred, since any attempt to use its
weapons would invite a devastating response?

Bear in mind that cold-war deterrence between America and the Soviet Union
barely survived numerous crises and miscalculations. A fissile region that
has lived uneasily with Israel's bombs would be unlikely to accept a
nuclear-armed Iran with equanimity. Whatever Iran's motives‹regional primacy
or mere technological one-upmanship‹the nuclear chain reaction could quickly
see Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and even Turkey follow suit. Unlike India,
Pakistan and Israel, which never signed the NPT, Iran's violations would
also fatally undermine a treaty that has so far kept regional rivalries
below the nuclear threshold in many dangerous places.

 It was in hopes of averting all this that last October Britain, France and
Germany offered Iran a face-saver: a delay in reporting its nuclear
transgressions to the UN Security Council if Iran suspended all
uranium-enrichment-related activity and told all to the IAEA's inspectors.
If suspension turned permanent, more trade and technology would flow. But
Iran's nuclear story was full of holes. Enrichment-related work never quite
ceased, and more is under way again. Yet Iran wants the IAEA off its case.

Beyond shoulder-shrugging, outsiders now have two options: more diplomacy,
or force. There are no very good military options‹Iran's nuclear
installations are scattered, and some may be hidden‹but there are some. As
Israel likes to point out, its attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 put
back Saddam Hussein's bomb-building ambitions. It is also worth noting,
however, that it did not end them. Yet for diplomacy to nudge Iran on to a
safer course, it will need to be a lot more muscular, and better
co-ordinated, than hitherto.

Add to the costs, expand the benefits

 The Europeans' October gambit has failed. When the IAEA's board meets later
this month there is no longer any excuse to delay reporting Iran's
rule-breaking to the Security Council. But then what? When North Korea was
similarly reported, for breaking the NPT and then flouncing out, Russia and
China blocked further action. Russia claims to oppose both treaty-breaking
and force; in that case, it needs to lean on Iran a lot harder. America
argues, rightly, that without the credible threat of international sanctions
(not just its own), hitting trade and investment in oil and gas, the clerics
won't budge. Yet if they are to weigh differently the costs of their nuclear
option, they also need to know what alternative future to expect.

Iran can still enjoy the benefits of civilian nuclear power, even after
giving up its dangerous fuel technologies. Talks on that need to lead on to
a wider dialogue‹including with reluctant America. Meanwhile an Iran that
lives up to its anti-nuclear promises would be a likelier candidate for WTO
membership. And as a first step towards a more secure Middle East, free of
all weapons of mass destruction, there needs to be serious discussion of
regional confidence-building measures. Will Israel-hating Iran buy any of
that? Backed by the threat of real sanctions, it is worth a try. If
diplomacy is ever to denuclearise Iran, the time to try harder is now.

 Copyright © 2004 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All
rights reserved.


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