Date: Fri, 7 Apr 2006 14:19:35 +0300
From: Brady Kiesling
Thwarting the Nuclear Fundamentalists
In 1998 the Hindu nationalist BJP party won the Indian parliamentary
elections. The BJP had scored points by claiming its rivals had bowed to
U.S. blackmail on nuclear testing. To fulfill its campaign promise the BJP
tested five nuclear warheads. The Pakistani government promptly followed
suit with six of its own, though the U.S. government begged it not to. The
political duty to keep up with the neighbors outweighed fear of U.S.
Technically, neither India nor Pakistan was in violation of international
law. Neither had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Still, President Clinton imposed
draconian economic sanctions as required by U.S. legislation. After a few
months, Congress quietly rescinded the law: U.S. companies resented missing
out on India's economic boom, and no one believed America could starve this
nuclear genie back into its bottle.
America's powerlessness to defang South Asia did not visibly reduce the sum
of human well-being. Proving that mutual extermination was a genuine option
did not increase Indian or Pakistani enthusiasm for it. The pro-Israel
pundits in Washington walked away from this lost cause without a second
glance, as if they had never blustered about America's "duty" to prevent, by
force if necessary, Pakistan's development of an "Islamic bomb."
The pundits are back. This time the nuclear program in question is Iran's.
There are dangerous differences between 1998 and now. First, the Bush
administration wears the same ideological blinders the pundits do. In 2005
the State Department's Arms Control Bureau was reorganized out of existence,
a bureaucratic ploy to promote Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's goal of making
future arms control treaties impossible. U.S. nonproliferation experts took
early retirement, or else became experts in "coercive diplomacy." At the web
page of the "Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation" a click
on the link "Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons" now
generates a scary message: "Sorry, you have tried to access a page that is
Pakistan was an unaffordable enemy in 1998, both because it already had
nuclear weapons and because the CIA still needed its help in Afghanistan.
Iran is an ideal foe for a government that must continuously justify
cramming hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars down the throats of
defense contractors. Safely isolated by U.S. sanctions, Iran is unknown to
ordinary Americans and has no ethnic lobby in Washington. On U.S.
television, no spokesman rebuts the racist implication that Shiite
self-flagellation on the Ashura holy day is proof that Iranian leaders are
suicidal enough to attack the United States.
A key difference with Pakistan is that Iran, as a signatory of the NPT, has
a legal obligation to full transparency in its nuclear programs. Having
caught Iranian nuclear officials lying about experimental uranium
enrichment, the international community demanded and received the right to
intrusive inspections. Thus, the U.S. military is confident that Iran is
still years away from having a bomb.
Iranian officials tell their people and the world that nuclear weapons are
un-Islamic and immoral and therefore Iran has no intention of developing
them. Pundits cite a Shiite doctrine called Taqiyya ("dissimulation") to
dismiss Iranian assurances as worthless. This is bigotry masquerading as
punditry. It is more realistic to acknowledge that most Iranians, like their
counterparts in the 181 other NPT countries that signed away their right to
nuclear weapons, would welcome a world without instruments of mass murder.
Pending that moment, Iranian scientists are determined to keep open as
credible a nuclear option as Iran can afford.
Sanctions did not thwart even impoverished Pakistan's nuclear program. The
world is addicted to Iranian oil, so economic sanctions are doomed from the
outset. As the price tag mounts toward a trillion dollars, Iraq-style regime
change is longer seen as affordable, even if the Pentagon had enough
soldiers to replicate its exploit next door.
The currently favored U.S. option, a barrage of cruise missiles and
"bunker-busters," would slow Iran's uranium enrichment progress, gratify the
Israel lobby, and perhaps preserve the Republican majority in the 2006
Congressional elections. It would also make acquiring nuclear weapons a
sacred political duty for the next seven generations of Iranian leaders. The
likely chain reaction of Iran-funded terror attacks and U.S. retaliation
could topple several U.S. allies in the Middle East. The price of oil would
rise sharply, bad politics for any administration.
Iranians have an ancient, reasonably self-confident civilization. They are
content within their current borders. They share with the U.S. the goals of
a stable, democratic Iraq and an Afghanistan that shuts down the heroin
pipeline. Iranian insistence on justice for the Palestinian people, like
U.S. insistence on freedom for Cuba, is a fine political aspiration but not
an adequate motive for nuclear suicide. The sensible course for a
responsible superpower is to sneer down the pundits' self-promoting hysteria
and start thinking seriously about Iran as a potential non-nuclear security
partner in a messy region.
President Bush claims a mystical talent for distinguishing between virtuous
foreigners, who break the rules only when they cannot afford to obey them,
and evil foreigners, who follow the rules only when they cannot afford to
break them. A wiser, humbler president would instead negotiate rules of
international behavior that promote the security and prosperity of the
world's population by also promoting the self-interest of any politician
willing to obey those rules. Applying consistent rules to virtuous and
vicious alike, to Israel's nuclear arsenal and Iran's empty centrifuges,
offers the only reasonable hope, though no guarantee, that Iran will honor
its pious pledges of a purely peaceful nuclear future.
This article first appeared in an adapted form in the Athens News of April
* John Brady Kiesling is the former political counselor at the US embassy in
Athens. His book "Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower"
will come out this summer.
All best, Brady