Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Iran Here we go again

Publlished in the Asia Times 14 March 2006

Security Council presidential statements are non-binding. But despite the toothless nature of the one under consideration at United Nations headquarters this week, it's a slippery slope. The current US administration has a record of seeing a mandate where no one else can, and the gnomic comments of its members, refusing to exclude any possibilities and hinting atunilateral action if the UN fails to satisfy, should send chills down anyone's spine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put his finger on it last week when he talked about a sense of deja vu, referring to his time as ambassador when the US was trying to push the other members of the Security Council into authorizing an attack on Iraq for allegedly having weapons of mass destruction. Now the UN is being invited to another Snark hunt, this time to authorize action against the future possibility of nuclear weapons, since not even the US Central Intelligence Agency has been elbow-twisted into manufacturing evidence of a proximate threat.

There is no doubt that the United States is trying to enlist the world into a crusade of sorts against Iran, which is all the more worrying since the outcome of this diplomatic campaign is so vague. Both the US and Israel are hinting at military strikes, and then burst into indignation when an Iranian delegate of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) threatened "harm and pain" if they try. It is worrying that the administration of US President George W Bush has browbeaten the IAEA council as far as it has, including the reference of Iran to the Security Council. Far from adding leverage to the IAEA's efforts, it is provoking more nationalist stubbornness from Iran.

In fact, while China and Russia are currently saying no to sanctions and to military attacks, one cannot be sure they will hold to their principles on the issue. Who would have thought six months ago that China and Russia, or even the European Union, would have gone so far to accommodate Washington on Iran? It has not helped Iran that almost every statement President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has made since he took office has given excuse for desertion of the few friends Iran had. In the end, regardless of the legal niceties, no one really wants atomic ayatollahs, or certainly not enough to tangle with the US over it. In the end, I suppose none of them wanted to get into a fight with a 900-pound gorilla on behalf of a cheeky monkey.

If it approves military action when it next considers the IAEA report, possibly in less than month, then the Security Council may as well dissolve itself and hand a rubber stamp to the White House. If it does not, then, in the end, the US may well take action and claim it was acting to enforce UN and IAEA decisions anyway, as it did only three years ago in Iraq. Nobody is saying what he actually wants or means, although one would have to be deaf and blind not see and hear the subtext in the US statements. For example, to believe that this is about stopping nuclear proliferation in abstract is close to believing in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

This is not about nukes. It is a grudge fight against Iran. US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton and the US government succeeded in sabotaging attempts to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2004. The NPT review conference, for example, was considering making the voluntary additional inspections compulsory, and also locking up the door through which North Korea bolted by renouncing the treaty. This weekend, Iranian leaders started threatening to withdraw from the treaty, which, like the North Koreans, they are perfectly entitled to do. This month Bolton announced firmly that the Indians had acquired their nuclear weapons legally because they had done so outside the NPT regime. "The only completely consistent people are the dead," Aldous Huxley once said, and on that basis Bolton is very much alive.

One can feel sure that if Iran were to quit the treaty, Bolton would not give it the same indulgence, no matter how legal. To compound the double standards, to ensure that India voted the right way on Iran in the IAEA council, the US has ridden a juggernaut through the NPT by signing a nuclear-cooperation deal with India. It would almost be churlish to mention Israel's nukes. John Bolton certainly won't, because if he did, it would imply sanctions against his best friends in the region. We should remember that the Iranians have consistently denied that they actually want to build nuclear weapons. Officially, they claim they want to enrich fuel for a civil nuclear program.

Strangely enough, both the current British and US governments have been pushing for nuclear solutions to energy shortages and emissions. Personally, I think they and the Iranians are guilty of serious miscalculations about the long-term risks and costs of radioactive waste, but it is observable that proximity to nuclear power has strange mental effects on rulers, who all start behaving as if central casting has sent them to audition for a remake of Doctor Strangelove. French President Jacques Chirac, part of the team currently beating up on Iran, has been threatening to use nukes in retaliation for terrorism. Last year, Chinese General Zhu Chengdu was threatening to nuke the United States if it protected Taiwan. And of course it would be churlish not to mention the plans in the basement of the Pentagon for new nuclear weapons.

I suspect that Iran began by using the nuclear issue as a bargaining point, but in the long negotiations with the Europeans it found they were not living up to their promises and, more to the point, they were not bringing the Americans to the table. Iran's previous reformist administration, in particular, wanted some tokens of appreciation from Washington. Iran had cooperated in the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and could, at the very least, have made things much, much worse in Iraq for the US , difficult although that is to imagine. In return, of course, the Iranians discovered that, apart from Bush's acknowledgement that they were the first victims of Saddam Hussein's aggression, they were still a member of the "axis of evil" as far as Washington was concerned.

Like the Palestinians, the Iranian electorate seems to have decided that if the price for accommodation is a kick in the teeth, let's go with the straight shooters. By now, the whole issue of nuclear enrichment has become an intense symbol of national pride, which it would be difficult for the Ahmadinejad government to relinquish without some large concession. And that concession has to be larger than what the Russians are offering. Mired in their demonization of Iran, it is difficult to see what the Americans could offer without falling foul of the domestic indignation that the administration has already fired up. Apart from the hostage incident 30 years ago, there is an irrational element about the US obsession with Iran, as indeed there was about Bush's dynastic feud with Saddam Hussein. It probably does not help that Israeli politicians and their supporters in the US have been pushing hard for action. They have been saying that air strikes will do the job, and anti-missile defenses in Israel will cope with Iranian retaliations.

One would like to think that this White House would be too sane to launch a ground war on Iran while still mired in Iraq, but no gambler has made money recently betting on Washington's rationality. There was an intriguing hint in a Bolton interview with the British Broadcasting Corp, about the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative, an alliance of the bullied that he much prefers to the UN anyway. Could it mean that the US would do some Cuban-missile-crisis-type interdiction of ships heading to and from Iranian ports? And could it be that they do not anticipate Iranian reaction?It is clear that any action against Iran will have serious blowback throughout the region, beginning with the Shi'ites in Iraq, who have so far functioned as expedient allies of the US occupation. Seeing the disruption caused by a minority in a small part of Iraq, it is chilling to think of the consequences if the majority gets involved. As usual, a collateral casualty is likely to be the United Nations.

The Security Council has already allowed itself to be dragged into an intensely political and partisan issue, but it can expect no more gratitude than the Iranians received from the Americans. While there is a certain irony seeing two conservative, nationalistic and religiously fundamentalist presidents confront each other, it is really the job of the Security Council members to avoid giving any encouragement or cover to the slide to war. It is supposed to be protecting the world's peace and security, not providing a fig leaf to US attempts to rock the globe.

It would not be an anti-American thing. On the contrary, looking at what is happening in Iraq, the real friends were not Britain and Australia, but Germany and France. If they had been listened to, 2,300 young Americans would be alive and the US would not be ranking below China in most international popularity polls.

Ian Williams
is author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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