Martin Woollacott, writing in Friday's Guardian (UK), writes that "the inescapable fact is that Iran would not be in breach of its treaty obligations" were it to resume the nuclear activities it suspended in November 2004 as a goodwill gesture, though no casual reader of the U.S. media these days will come away with this impression. -- Should the U.S. decide to attack Iran, says Woollacott, "it is arguable that the real disaster would be that America had truly and finally gone beyond the international pale rather than that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons." -- The fact that the Bush adminstration is pushing with all its might to place as its representative at the United Nations John Bolton, a person who believes philosophically that international law has only a notional existence, is not mentioned in the article, but is scarcely reassuring....
A BIGGER THREAT THAN THE BOMB
By Martin Woollacott
** The world can live with Iranian nuclear weapons. But can the U.S.? **
May 13, 2005
How much would it matter if Iran had the bomb? Merely to pose this question, within the Bush administration, would almost be treason. European countries, for their part, consider it indiscreet to raise it -- better to say that a nuclear-armed Iran should be avoided if at all possible. Yet the question of how dangerous a development it would be is crucial.
Dangerous enough to justify a war, which is what the United States, and sometimes Israel, seem to think? Dangerous enough for major sanctions, in addition to the American ones already in place, which both those countries certainly would argue? Or merely regrettable and worrying, but not worth making worse by either economic or military action, which is probably the underlying position of the three European nations trying to mediate between the United States and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program?
These differences, usually hidden by the efforts of the U.S. and the EU to "stay on the same page" on Iran, are likely to be wrenched into the open in the next few weeks if the Iranians resume fuel-enrichment activities, as they have said they will. First at the International Atomic Energy Authority, and then, if the issue goes there, at the U.N. security council, the Americans and the Europeans will be trying not only to overcome the indifference or hostility of many non-western states but to reconcile their own deeply divergent views.
The Iranians may, of course, retreat or sidestep -- they have done that before -- and they might well respond to a proposal for another saving round of negotiations. There is certainly a possibility that this crisis is being pumped up because of the Iranian presidential elections, perhaps by supporters of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who is running for office again next month. They might want relations with western countries to be in a temporarily vexed state so as to take advantage of Rafsanjani's reputation as a fixer and a pragmatist, someone whom Iranians should vote for because he will be able to extricate the country from confrontation.
Even if that is true, manufactured crises can easily get out of hand. But, whatever happens this time, it is obvious that Europe and America could come to a parting of the ways over Iran, which would be worse and more complete than the quarrel over Iraq. If a confrontation with Iran played out to the end, an isolated America would have no European allies for either serious sanctions or military action.
That is, first, because the inescapable fact is that Iran would not be in breach of its treaty obligations, at least not immediately. And, second, because the Europeans do not see Iranian nuclear weapons capacity as a catastrophe in the way that the Bush administration does. Shaped as it is by men who want to reverse the defeats of their youth, among which the Iranian revolution and the consequent seizure of American diplomatic hostages stands high, Bush's men want to see the Tehran regime gone from the world stage, not emboldened by the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The Americans have made it clear at the review conference on the non-proliferation treaty going on in New York that they believe the treaty should be revised to reduce the entitlement to enrichment technology. But they act as if their mere wish that it should be ought to have the force of law, and have alienated the countries conferring in New York, making it even less likely that the security council would back serious action against Iran.
At least there were legal arguments back and forth over Iraq. But, were there to be war over Iran's nuclear activities, it would be war without law, and America and Israel, were she foolish enough to join the US or act as its proxy in an attack, would be alone in it. War may be seen as too big a word for the aerial attacks on nuclear installations that America and Israel might conduct. But the civilian casualties from such strikes might well be high, and worse if there were radioactive releases. In any case, there is no doubt that Iran would retaliate, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and elsewhere.
If we should ever get to that point it is arguable that the real disaster would be that America had truly and finally gone beyond the international pale rather than that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. For, if it is not doing so now, it certainly would be in the wake of attacks, or in response to the threat of them.
What would an Iranian nuclear weapon, or the achievement of the capacity to produce one in short order, actually mean? The Iranian regime is on the defensive at home, where it has lost the trust, and even the interest, of a large proportion of the people, and in its region, where it fears Israel, and has no friends other than Syria. A long view in Tehran might suggest that events in Iraq may work out ultimately in Iran's favor, and then there are new economic relationships with China and India that could have useful political consequences in the future.
But the overwhelming reality for the Tehran regime is the enmity of America and Israel under their present governments, and this is an America which, thanks to Iraq, is now on Iran's doorstep. That, in these circumstances, an insecure Iranian government might seek to develop a nuclear weapons option, a "bomb in the basement," would not be surprising. But that once it possessed such a capacity it would use it aggressively is hard to credit. Against Israel, whose response would be devastating? Against which other neighbor? Against the U.S., except in the event of an American invasion, and then only on the invading forces? The conclusion must be that an Iranian weapon might constrain Israel and the U.S. a little in their dealings with Iran, but it would not threaten them or anybody else.
It would still, of course, be a bad thing. Proliferation by its nature increases the chances of the use of nuclear weapons, multiplying the bad possibilities of their use by states or by terrorists. But, if it were to attack Iran, the United States would face a world united in its opposition to what the leading power was doing. Israel's chances of peace, if it took part, would be terribly damaged. Iran's possible evolution into a freer society, evident in the social, demographic and cultural developments that are already leaving the mullahs trailing behind, would be disrupted. In any sane ordering of calamity, an Iranian bomb or "near-bomb" must surely rank well below the disaster of a major conflict between the United States and Iran.