The 12-year standoff between Saddam Hussein’s former regime and the US displayed a circular logic: the Iraqi refusal to “come clean” about possibly non-existent weaponry simultaneously fed, and fed off of, Washington’s belligerence toward Iraq. With most eyes on the denouement of that malign symbiosis, something similar is developing between Washington and Iran over the apparent nuclear ambitions of the Islamic Republic.

In contrast to their well-founded skepticism toward the claims of American hawks about Iraq’s nuclear program, European governments and independent arms control experts share Washington’s worries about Iran’s apparent quest for the bomb. These worries intensified over the summer, when Iran admitted to producing small quantities of enriched uranium and plutonium that could be used to make atomic weapons. Tehran’s concealment of these activities violated the spirit of the 1975 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory.

Mindful of the apparent success of past UN inspections in Iraq, and therefore doubly resistant to Washington’s harsh reaction, the Europeans are following a policy of “constructive engagement” to dissuade Iran from joining the nuclear nations. But, as with Iraq, the adversarial dynamic between Washington and Tehran portends a cycle of crises with progressively higher stakes. Bold measures are required to avert this.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution of November 25, which decried Iran’s clandestine acquisition of enriched uranium and plutonium while declining to ask the UN Security Council to consider punishment, was widely seen as a victory for compromise over confrontation. Under heavy European pressure, Iran had previously agreed to sign the Additional Protocol to the NPT (providing for surprise inspections of nuclear facilities) and to desist from enriching and reprocessing uranium. With these diplomatic achievements in hand, European negotiators at the IAEA parried the US thrust for Security Council action, which they feared would prompt Iran to renege. Yet the hawks’ wings were only partially clipped: Washington succeeded in appending a clause promising that should “further serious Iranian failures come to light, the UN nuclear watchdog would have’ all options at its disposal” — including recommending sanctions.

Iran has yet to formally sign the Additional Protocol, or set a date for doing so. Meanwhile, both Hassan Rohani, the moderate conservative head of Iran’s National Security Council, and Hamid Reza Asefi of the Foreign Ministry, which is generally sympathetic to the parliamentary reformists, have insisted that uranium enrichment is Iran’s “natural right.” Iran’s voluntary suspension of that activity, they say, is subject to change.

Rohani and Asefi did not break any rules with these swells of national pride. However, Undersecretary of State John Bolton used them to claim that Iran had “mixed feelings” about keeping its word to the IAEA. Bolton embodies the approach to weapons proliferation best articulated by Vice President Dick Cheney: “Arms for our friends, arms control for our enemies.” In line with this philosophy, he has repeatedly listed Iran among a group of “rogue states” to whom atomic piles and ballistic missiles will not be permitted.

In early December, Bolton’s former colleagues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute hosted a “town hall meeting” with people advertised as “opposition leaders in Iran,” which they beamed into Iran on an exile-run radio station. Meanwhile, right-wing Sen. Sam Brownback has attached a rider to the final 2004 appropriations bill that would allocate $1.5 million of American grants “to support the advancement of democracy and human rights in Iran.” The White House, so far, has not opposed the provision. While the amount is tiny, no such funding has been approved since the 1981 Algiers Accord, in which the US undertook not to interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs.

Iran’s signature of the Additional Protocol would calm the hawks for the time being, and would be a positive step for non-proliferation. But the hawks are counting on Iran’s perceived security needs to prevail over European offers of trade and help with peaceful nuclear energy. They are aware that the Iranian regime sees itself surrounded by hostile neighbors, three of which — the US, which occupies Iraq, Israel and Pakistan — have atomic weapons in their arsenals. While regime change is not in the offing, the hawks want the Islamic Republic to believe that such an option is slowly cooking on the back burner.

Perhaps they would also not be upset if the Iranian regime concluded that to avoid Iraq’s fate it must build an atomic bomb — a project that would find very few defenders. Beyond inspections, however, there is a road not taken in the decade-long Iraq drama that could simultaneously undercut Iranian fears and expose Washington’s double standards. An often forgotten article of the UN ceasefire resolution after the 1991 Gulf war set the goal of “establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery.” Before hardliners in both Washington and Tehran narrow their options, there is an opportunity to revive this vision — which serves Iranian aspirations for greater freedom and democracy far better than an arms race does.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "To Deny Iran Atomic Weapons, Create a Nuclear-Free Region," Middle East Report Online, December 16, 2003.

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