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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Liberticidal Hat Trick

A fair proportion of the Militant Pine Marten's readers land here while looking for information on actual pine martens, only to be disappointed by the lack of focus on mustelid natural history. Just this once, I'm going to give make their visit worthwhile by giving them a world exclusive on the UK's population of pine martens. Here's the scoop: they're all going to leave this Sceptred Isle. They're not going to be eradicated by pollution or persecution, and although loss of habitat doesn't make life any easier for British pine martens, there's enough old pine forest left for a population to survive here if they want to. But pine martens don't just need suitable habitat, food and indulgent gamekeepers, they need freedom too. They don't take kindly to being caged up and they're bolshie animals. So they could survive here if they wanted to, but the word on the forest floor is that they're not actually certain that they want to any more, and they're considering emigrating to Canada where all the material conditions for mustelid happiness are met and the government isn't quite so zealous on curtailing individual freedoms.

In the past two days, the House of Commons has passed two liberticidal bills, and they'll be trying for a hat trick today. On Monday, appeased by what must be one of the weakest government concessions to avert a defeat in the Commons ever, MPs voted in favour of the introduction of ID Cards but more importantly of the associated database's creation. Many MPs were opposed to making ID cards compulsory, but were apparently fooled by the sop that they would only be compulsory for people who wanted passports. Since about 90% of the UK population have passports, this "concession" still makes ID cards pretty close to compulsory. Even MPs aren't by and large so stupid as to not realise this, which suggests that amongst potential Labour rebels, they were glad of the opportunity to claim to have made a stand for civil liberties whilst simultaneously not antagonising the government. There's a place for that sort of face-saving ploy, and it's not when voting on bills that will fundamentally redefine the balance of power between the Citizen and the State. This was a shameful display of collective spinelessness.

Possibly to reward MPs for their compliance, yesterday the government allowed a free vote on its' proposal to outlaw smoking in public places. Now obviously telling people that the entire country has become a no smoking area isn't on the same level as recording everyone's fingerprints and iris patterns, but it does fit well within the Blair government's well-established predilection for generally forbidding people from doing things that they took for granted before. The MPs' choice was really quite remarkable. They could have chosen to allow people to light up in a few selected smokers' reservations such as pubs that don't serve food and private members' clubs (surely the whole reason for the existence of a private members' club is that you can choose who joins and make up your own arcane rules?), but no, they thought it would be better for us all if no-one could light up anywhere outside their homes any more. That's indicative not merely of a justifiable concern for public health, but also of a level of puritanical authoritarianism and haughty disregard for people's ability to make informed choices for themselves. There are after all greater evils that having a smoke in the pub.

One such evil is, according to Gordon Brown, "glorifying terrorism". Now the Militant Pine Marten has already covered this in some detail back when the idea was first mooted just under a year ago. To summarise, it's a bad idea because "glorifying terrorism" is legally very similar to "openly approving of people, organisations or movements that the government doesn't", or put more succinctly "sedition". The Lords have already rejected this new offence for this very reason, so why is it suddenly back on the table? Because Gordon Brown is doing a Sarkozy and is preparing to become Caliph instead of the Caliph, and so he has decided that he too needs to engage in some macho political one-upmanship, and at the moment that means being even tougher on terrorism while draping himself in the rhetorical Union Jack. Obviously there must still be people out there who believe that terrorism is legal in the UK.

Blair and his government started on this path in 1997 by showing a blatant disregard for parliament, for due process, for the so-called gentlemen's agreement that passes for a British constitution. This led to systematic small abuses of power, loss of accountability, institutionalised contempt for anyone outside Blair's inner circle. Blair's growing messianic zeal and personal belief that if he thinks that something is right, it is, and therefore those who disagree are in effect political blasphemers, has led us into the Iraq war and now seriously threatens our liberties, and we're finding that there isn't much that we can do about it. But what's even worse is that most of the electorate doesn't even seem to care. On Monday, only 70 people demonstrated against ID cards outside Parliament (some distance away because the government banned protests outside parliament following the messy looking protests against the foxhunting ban, which just projected the wrong image or something). Now I know that people are at work on Mondays but where for example are all the politically-minded students? And I'm prepared to bet that the Tories, who are finally shaping up to look like a real opposition party, won't include anything about repealing ID cards in their manifesto because there are no votes to be won in civil liberties. Let's hope that it all turns out to have been worth it. In exchange for all this, let's hope that we really are very safe indeed. In fact we'd better be invulnerable to any harm. Because otherwise we'll be no better off than the Syrians, and at least they have good weather and can have a cigarette where they choose.

So long, and thanks for all the bird's eggs.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cathartic cartoons

There exists an amateur film made in 1978 of a spectacular landslide that took place in town named Rissa in Norway. The town was built on a deposit of a particular kind of clay that is held together by salt ions. When too high a proportion of the salt ions are washed out by for instance heavy rainfall, the clay particles lose their cohesion, and a quickclay is formed, or in other words, the soil liquefies, and a rapid landslide results. In this particular case, a man was digging the foundations of a barn, and by doing so happened to just tip the chemical balance of the soil, with catastrophic consequences. The film shows the liquefaction phenomenon spreading up the valley from the digging site, and the entire valley down to the bedrock flowing like a river, carrying houses, cars, roads, absolutely everything at speeds of up to 60 km/h down to the fjord. Obviously Rissa was flushed off the map, and the resulting small tsunami in the fjord caused serious flood damage to the town on the opposite shore. In one of those strange ironies of fate, the man who dug the whole and started the whole catastrophe in the first place was one of the very few people whose house was left standing. He was also almost certainly the most unpopular man in Rissa. It occurs to the Militant Pine Marten that the chaps who ran the ill-advised cartoon competition in the Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten must feel a bit like him.

At this stage, the general consensus is that the current wave of violent reaction to the now notorious set of a dozen cartoons is as disproportionate considering the offence as the 8 million cubic metres of clay that flowed through Rissa were given that all that the poor chap who set it all in motion had done was dig a one metre deep hole in his garden. Clearly, taking offence at foreigners deriding one's culture through heavy-handed, crude stereotyping is fair enough. Lacking a sense of humour to the extent of taking it out on an entire nation and burning their embassies is something more than a simple sense of humour failure. It's tempting of course to put down the scenes of violence that we are now witnessing in the Middle-East mainly but also in Europe to a clash of civilisations, or to an Enlightenment conflict between secularism and religious obscurantism. Or if you're inclined to think that way, just to fall back on the opinion that Muslims are all a bunch of backward savages anyway. But none of these are an adequate explanation for current events. An entire people doesn't suddenly go on the rampage against a small faraway country with little or no influence over their lives because of what is essentially a collection of bad jokes.

What we're seeing here is an extraordinary manifestation of collective catharsis. By and large, since September 2001, being a Muslim has been quite uncomfortable, both in the West and in the Islamic world. In the West, there's an unpleasant climate of suspicion against Muslims. Look around you, and you'll see the apprehension in commuters' eyes when a chap with a long, thick beard steps onto the train. It isn't fair, it isn't rational, but it happens all the time and Muslims feel it. If you live in the Middle-East or Central Asia, all hell has been let loose, and that's in addition to the problems that appear endemic in the region to do with essentially awful governments, whether secular or religious. All the time, people are being permanently assured that it's all mainly America's fault, and admittedly, the USA hasn't really been helping much in this respect. So in the West, Muslims have to live with the undercurrent of hostility and try and be gracious about it, and in the Middle-East they have to watch bombs falling and their lives fall down around them while being powerless to do anything about it. In those circumstances, it's understandable that you may want to vent some frustration, blow off some steam, maybe burn the Stars and Stripes, shout very loud and break something. Noisily. What you want to break is the US Marine Corps or Ariel Sharon's neck, but Sharon's already broken and the Marines shoot back. But a couple of Danish embassies, well, what are they going to do about it? Denmark may not matter much to you, but it's Western and one of their newspaper editors was clueless enough to commission those cartoons. The Danes will do as scapegoats.

Maybe when the landslide has stabilised and the waves from the impact have settled down, we'll have a clearer view of the underlying problem. It may release some tensions, and clearly show who and what is really to blame for this insane situation, and it's probably going to turn out to be widespread paranoia on both sides of the divide, combined with (mostly) American heavy-handedness, ignorance and therefore contempt of each others' cultures, with an entrenched and erroneous belief in the Middle-East that all local problems are someone else's fault. And when everyone acknowledges that, then maybe we can stabilise some slopes and adopt a more informed approach to digging foundations for sheds in unstable areas.