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More than mullahs

On February 2, when the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets in a special session to consider Iran?s compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India will once again face the choice it faced on September 24.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2006 00:15 IST

On February 2, when the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets in a special session to consider Iran’s compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India will once again face the choice it faced on September 24. It could either abstain from a vote that declares Iran a threat to peace or vote for it and embed itself a little more securely in the emerging US-dominated international power structure. The second would appear the safer choice, but it could exact a very high price in the long-run.

The crisis has, admittedly, been brought on by Iran itself. In August it resumed processing uranium yellow cake into uranium hexafluoride gas. This brought on the September attempt to take it before the Security Council. On January 10 this year, it broke IAEA seals at the three facilities and began to process the uranium hexafluoride to produce enriched uranium. This has sent the US, and the EU-3 (France, Britain and Germany) into a towering rage and brought on the February 2 meeting.

All the signs indicate that this time the US and the EU will take the confrontation to its bitter end. Both are carefully preparing public opinion to back their actions. In the beginning of January, British sources supplied the Guardian with a report that detailed Iran’s attempts to purchase missile and nuclear technology through a curtain of dummy companies and research institutions. This report had already been in existence for a full six months, so the timing of its release was significant.

Perhaps not coincidentally, a report appeared on almost the same day, based on a book being written by a journalist, James Risen, that Iran might already have received the design of the all-important trigger device of the nuclear bomb as the result of a CIA plot to send its scientists off on a wild goose chase, that went hopelessly wrong.

In the fortnight after Iran broke the seals, BBC, CNN and other European channels have aired a spate of special reports on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On January 19, US ambassador to the IAEA George Schulte accused Iran of having broken faith with the international community by breaking over 50 seals at three locations in order to recommence uranium enrichment. Three days later, the BBC ended a special report on Iran’s nuclear programme with the words “on January 10 Iran defied the will of the international community and broke the seals at...”.

The use of the term ‘the international community’ to refer to themselves shows to what extent the US and, in this case the EU, has assumed the right to deny others the right to speak for themselves.

A closer examination shows, however, that Iran took the decision to restart uranium enrichment activities in August partly because Britain, France and Germany failed to persuade the US to concede its right to process uranium and partly because the Khatami regime sensed, and wanted to forestall, the rise of the populist nationalism that brought President Ahmedinejad to power.

In doing so, it broke no law and no commitment. Its November 2004 agreement with the EU stated explicitly that it had the right to enrich uranium under the NPT. The EU also recognised that “this (Iran’s) suspension is a voluntary confidence-building measure and not a legal obligation”. What is more, there is nothing covert about what Iran is doing, for it is carrying out all of its enrichment activities under the eyes of the IAEA, in facilities that are under not just full-scope safeguards but enhanced safeguards that Iran is observing on its own.

What the US and the EU are objecting to is Iran’s acquisition of the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. And here, its fears are far better grounded than they were in the case of Iraq. Not only did Iran acquire most of its technology from the A.Q. Khan network, which was explicitly nuclear-weapons oriented, but it kept its nuclear enrichment programme hidden from the IAEA till it was discovered by satellite photos in October 2003.

Once its programme was discovered, Iran ‘came clean’ and put everything under IAEA safeguards. To reassure the international community it voluntarily accepted an enhanced safeguard regime. But the West refuses to be mollified. What it wants Iran to do is forswear uranium enrichment altogether. According to Schulte, “Pilot-scale enrichment establishes the ability to produce fissile material at any level of enrichment — for a reactor or for a weapon — and at any location — open or covert.”

The West’s suspicions about Iran’s intentions may well be justified. But does the mere attempt to acquire dual use nuclear technology make a country a threat to international peace? Is the purpose of acquiring nuclear capability necessarily offensive? Can it not be defensive? And when does one violate the NPT — when one acquires the capacity to build a bomb or when one actually does so? If it is the former, then Japan, Sweden, Germany, Canada and half a dozen other countries violated the NPT decades ago.

So what makes Iran so different from these countries that the mere shadow of future technological capability makes the US and the EU send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director Porter Goss and the Secretary General of Nato, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to Ankara within days of each other, to broker a deal that will enable them to use Turkey as the launchpad for a military attack?

It is their absolute conviction that Iran will start building nuclear bombs the moment it has acquired all the technology it needs to do so.

According to Schulte, mouthing the neo-con logic of Washington, Iran will do so, not because it is the most seriously threatened country today, but because it is innately evil and simply will not be able to resist handing over the technology, as well as a few bombs, to al-Qaeda.

Thus, by a roundabout route have we come back to the central feature of the post-Cold War world — the invocation of the so-called security doctrine of pre-emptive strike to destroy all foci of actual or potential resistance to the construction of an American empire. The only difference between Iran and Iraq is that in the latter, France and Germany opposed the US and Britain. In the case of Iran, they have quietly hopped on board.

Before New Delhi too hops on board, Manmohan Singh will do well to reflect on precisely where an endorsement of the American ‘security’ doctrine will lead. Unlike deterrence, the doctrine of pre-emptive strike blurs and finally erases the distinction between peace and war.

This is because the more a country feels distrusted and threatened, the more feverishly will it seek to complete the activities that are arousing fear in its adversary. The threat of pre-emptive attack, therefore, sets in motion a vicious circle that makes the attack inevitable. What is even worse, the vicious circle continues even after the attack. The more a country has lost, the less there is left to lose. As a result, the deterrent power of the threat of a future strike grows weaker with each strike. Since the strikes destroy organised resistance and organised government, they end by channeling the pent-up fury of victims into terrorism. The American security doctrine will thus end by creating the very monster it was fashioned to destroy.

The right course is to treat Iran as a normal nation and not as an incarnation of evil, and address its legitimate security concerns. An Iran that feels no threat will not go beyond the acquisition of nuclear dual-use technology. An Iran that feels moderately threatened would probably opt for recessed deterrence, relying on the possibility that it may have the bomb, to shield it from pre-emptive attack.

But an Iran that feels besieged and threatened from all sides will try to make at least a few bombs and publicise its achievement to keep itself safe. That is what North Korea has done.

First Published: Jan 27, 2006 00:15 IST