Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Iran and Nukes

Cif America
Pride before a fall
With the US beating the war drums, Iran should carefully consider if its nuclear energy programme is worth the effort

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Monday June 30, 2008

Seymour Hersh's latest revelations, that the US has stepped up covert operations, show that Iran is playing a very high stakes game for its nuclear ambitions. National pride is one thing but, given the risk of an attack from the US or even Israel, Iran's civil nuclear programme doesn't make a lot of sense.

True, until the US took the issue to the UN Security Council, there was nothing "illegal" about Iran's uranium refinement programme. We have the IAEA, and indeed the US government's own National Intelligence Estimate, agreeing that whatever Iranians are up to, it is not a weapons production programme. They are compliant members of the IAEA and have disavowed any interest in weapons.

But as I told an Iranian pundit on Press TV last week, just because I may have the legal right to burn my house down, does not mean it is a very clever thing to do.

Sadly the people who are telling the Iranians that, the British, French and US governments, have somewhat diminished credibility since they are all pushing for their own civil nuclear power stations under the guise of green technology. The greenest nuclear power gets is that there may be a green glow from all that untreated nuclear waste, which none of them have successfully shown how they will cope with it.

To substantiate their activities, the Iranians claim that they need the nuclear power stations for energy self-sufficiency and to ensure that their scientific expertise is world class. Britain and the US went for a nuclear programme despite being lands of coal surrounded by a sea of oil and gas, so they are hardly in a position to object to that claim.

But in fact Iranian technology, science, and indeed conservation, is badly mistargetted with its nuclear project. Iran subsidises domestic petrol supplies and – despite being the world's fourth largest exporter of crude - is desperately short of refinery capacity and has to import petrol.

One would have thought that a better use of Iranian capital and brainpower would be to develop refinery capacity now and research conservation methods, maybe even charging an economic price for gasoline, rather than pour resources into building future Chernobyls a few decades down the line. The Russians are, very slowly, building the reactor at Bushehr, which they quite correctly point out, is entirely within the NPT and IAEA safeguards. The original reactor, planned under President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace programme, was to have been built by the Germans in the 1970s for the Shah – with no protest from the USA or indeed Israel.

Somewhat contradicting their environmental green-ness, Iranians argue that since their only major export, aside from pistachio nuts, is oil, it is better to use nuclear power for domestic energy and save the natural gas and oil for export. In economic terms, this is a really bad strategy, which traps them in commodity dependence. Once again, there are better things they could do with their scientists and capital, and the Gulf States just across the water could show them.

In fact, I suspect the Iranian point about national prestige (shared across the political spectrum) is really the most important factor. Tehran can truly claim victimization. The US has echoed Israel, the only non-signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty, and the only nuclear power in the region, by threatening direct military action against Iran. To get the vote needed to refer Iran to the Security Council, the US stroked India, another NPT hold out, and maintained the flow of weaponry and subsidies to Pakistan, another nuclear power.

The hawks in Israel and the USA are publicly chomping at the bit for an attack against Iran, which has solidified domestic support for Iran's government, which could probably get a big majority of the population in support of an actual weapons programme. After all, John McCain - who could conceivably be president - mimicked the Beach Boys, singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran", while his opponent Barack Obama promised Aipac that no option was ruled out against Iran.

If Bush and Israel can be restrained from starting Armageddon before Inauguration Day, and if Obama keeps up to his earlier promise, there is maladroit diplomacy on all sides to untangle. Above all, the Iranians want a little respect. When the Security Council was imposing punitive damages on Saddam Hussein for invading Kuwait, the UN released its report branding Iraq the aggressor in the war against Iran. I went to the Iranian ambassador to the UN and asked why they were not asking for damages since, after all, as Saddam's first victim they had a fair claim. He replied that all Iran wanted was vindication. Morality or madness, they have been consistent about it since.

Some stroking is called for. The US and the Europe should recognise that Iran has the right to the full fuel cycle, but ask what it is worth not to exercise that right, or ask nicely if the Iranians would sign on for the additional protocols for the IAEA and accept additional inspections.

In return, the US could agree a non-aggression pact with Iran, and promise to hold off any unprovoked Israeli attack, not to mention open up trading and financial relations.

Of course this would be pandering to a dogmatic and religiose government with authoritarian tendencies that executes and imprisons far too many of its own citizens. But most countries managed to maintain relations with the Bush administration despite all that. The last war Iran was involved in was when Saddam Hussein was encouraged by the West to attack. Who is the real threat to peace around there?

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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