The Iranian dilemma

In his State of Union Address of 2002, President Bush named Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’ for ‘exporting terror’ and developing weapons of mass destruction. Since then, a ‘cold war’ has frozen relations between the two countries. I am convinced that had things gone better for America in Iraq, Iran would by now have been bombed by the American or Israeli Air Force. President Ahmadinejad has consistently met American hostility with defiance. Speaking at a rally on Monday, he again denounced western pressure.

The question of nuclear proliferation and Iran was thrown open by El Baradei’s IAEA report in November 2007 and, above all, by the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in December 2007. Its conclusion – that Iran had ceased its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 – spiked America’s guns (and to some extent, therefore, Israel’s too), made Bush’s and Cheney’s rhetoric sound ridiculous, and allowed Russia and China to resist moves for further UN sanctions.

But the problem has not gone away. Iran restarted its civilian nuclear programme in summer 2005. This is worrying because civilian nuclear technology can be converted to military use with relative ease. Plus, Iran has yet to build a reactor in which to burn the enriched uranium it has been producing at Natanz. (The reactor at Bushehr – due to begin working in the summer – was built by Russians and is supplied with Russian fuel only). Iran’s right to nuclear power is debatable. Its enrichment activities have been illegal since it decided to ignore UN resolutions calling upon it to stop. But Iran’s desire for nuclear power is not unreasonable: it has access to uranium, its gas/oil infrastructure needs huge investment and gas/oil prices look set to stay high.

The world may now have to wait for a new American president before dealing with Iran’s nuclear power programme. While Bush is around nothing much can be done. The NIE scotched any aggressive measures he might have taken and divided the UN. Some, like the hawkish journal The Economist who believe that Iran is basically untrustworthy, hostile, and determined to get a bomb, think that publishing the NIE was a suicidal step. Their most recent article on the subject concluded: ‘Iran may not yet be home free, but the international campaign to stop it getting the bomb that many countries think it wants is on the point of failure’. Others are not so cynical. Iran is open to dialogue – if not with Bush. The next American president will have to enter into serious negotiations if he/she is to neutralize the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. The bluster and preconditions will have to stop. Iran is now much more powerful than it was. First, its strategic position has been immeasurably strengthened by the removal of Saddam and the Taliban – its two hostile neighbours – and by the US military bog-down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, high oil prices have made the Iranians all but impervious to financial pressures. Third, Iran has accelerated its civilian nuclear programme. This means that the next American president will have to pay a much higher price for Iranian cooperation and may even be forced to recognize the legitimacy of the clerical regime.

Iran is putting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1967 under great strain. As long as some countries, notably America and Russia, continue to justify their nuclear arsenals using the logic of deterrence it will make no sense to deny such technology to other countries on the grounds that they are ‘evil’. The path to a non-nuclear world lies in the nuclear disarmament of the nuclear powers. America and Russia must take the lead by agreeing to reduce their own still gargantuan nuclear stockpiles.