Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A nuclear Iran may be peace for our time

There is an unpalatable truth that we in general and Washington in particular have to swallow, and it's that if Iran wants nuclear weapons, it's going to acquire them. In an ideal world, it would be better that Iran didn't have nuclear capability, or at least it would reassuring, but that's no longer a realistic option, always assuming that Iran's claims to want only civilian nuclear installations is hokum. Frankly, if you were in the Iranian government, you'd want nukes too. Iran is now surrounded by American bases in Central Asia, Turkey and now of course Iraq. The USA is quite clearly hostile to Tehran and the two countries haven't even been civil to each other for twenty-seven years. Admittedly Iran started it by taking the US embassy's staff hostage in 1979, but nevertheless, the two countries are no longer on speaking terms and they won't be until something changes radically in the political landscape. The USA is also a demonstrably bellicose power that will tolerate no threat to its desired hegemony. Iran is a permanent thorn in the US' side in this respect since it is the most influential power in the USA's petrol station and its influence has only been increased by the Iraqi adventure. But in the aftermath of the Cold War, there is one constant in geopolitics: no-one tries it on with a nuclear-armed country: just look at North Korea. Therefore from a Iranian strategic point of view, it makes sense to acquire nukes, or at least to make others believe that they might have them. The real power of nuclear weapons is their value as a deterrent after all. No-one has anything to gain from actually using them.

The West is unanimous in its demand that Iran should desist from giving itself the means to produce nuclear weapons. Even France agrees with the US on this one, and everyone has tried to prevent this from happening. The EU, or rather the joint efforts of France, Germany and the UK, had a valiant attempt at a diplomatic solution, and obtained from Tehran that Iran stopped enriching uranium in 2003. However since then, the reformist (by Iranian standards) government of Rafsanjani was replaced by Ahmadinejad and his hardliners. It's fair to say that these chaps are by and large not very diplomatically inclined. In fact, the Militant Pine Marten suspects that Ahmadinejad is a posturing loud-mouthed idiot. In different circumstances he would probably be enjoying an all-expenses paid holiday at the Bush ranch in Texas, since both presidents share an interest in ill-advised macho soundbites, big guns, moral absolutism and not drinking. No matter. Unfortunately, the current Iranian government isn't interested in arriving at some form of agreement with Europe. It was always going to be difficult discussion anyway, as the arguments as to why exactly Iran shouldn't have the means to enrich uranium are questionable. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has never been a very convincing one, since in effect it stipulates that no-one is allowed nuclear weapons except for those who already have them. Strictly speaking that would exclude Israel, but the Israel has never really admitted to having nukes. At the same time, Iran has never admitted to wanting them. And since the Iraq business, our claims to have intelligence on middle-eastern countries' secret weapons programmes are devoid of any credibility whatsoever. You can see how the Iranian government isn't too impressed with our explanations as to why they shouldn't have nuclear weapons.

We tried nicely and it didn't work. So now we're going to take them to the UN Security Council, whose main means of action is economic sanctions, however those didn't work in Iraq and there's no reason to expect a different outcome in Iran. It will create a sense of national unity, of defiance, it will rally the more liberal Iranians to the theocracy, and any hardship will be blamed on the West and specifically the US (and probably Israel too for good measure). But they won't back down. You have to hand them that: they're a tenacious nation, the Persians. And so it remains for the USA to make not-very-veiled threats to physically prevent Iran from building nukes. This is also useless as Iran won't give in to such threats. They have more stomach for a fight than we do by a long way. The USA can't really invade Iran. Its forces are massively overstretched already, they have two wars on their hands in the region already, and Iran isn't as delapidated as Iraq was. So it would probably use air strikes to destroy nuclear facilities and kill scientific personel. However they also know that Iran will retaliate with low-tech means such as sabotage (sabotage is really easy when targeting oil infrastructure too given the combustible nature of the target), blocking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, unleashing Hizbollah in Lebanon and generally creating a guerrilla warfare zone that stretches from Gaza to Afghanistan. And if that happened, you'd have to wonder if it wouldn't have been better to let them have a couple of nukes. After all, when it comes down to it, we have hundreds if not thousands of them.

If we can't convince them, scare them or fight them, how exactly can we stop them from acquiring nuclear weapons? We can't. The solution would be a lot worse than the problem. More generally, the technology is fifty years old now. Everyone knows how to make simple nuclear weapons so eventually, we'll have to choose between a world where everyone can have nukes, or where no-one can. Hopefully we'll choose the latter. In the meantime, we will have to accept that Iran is an important regional power, and we have to treat them as such and stop ignoring them as we have done for 27 years now. They won't do as they're told and we can't make them. Iran has won this round, as fairly and squarely as anyone in the game of geopolitical chess.

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