Reaping the Iran whirlwind

The crux of the nuclear problem is that the same technology can be used to generate nuclear power and, eventually, to arm nuclear weapons, and that - perhaps surprisingly - the scientists are unable to determine from afar which use is intended. Until, that is, a nuclear bomb is detonated, which is somewhat late in the day. Lacking a scientific solution to a potentially lethal problem, the United States has to resort to suspicion, allegations and threats against any regime it self-fulfillingly depicts as evil and, ergo, not fit to possess nuclear technology.

Currently in the USA's sights is Iran. Having conspicuously failed to aid the reform movement, it should have come as no surprise to the Bush regime to find a conservative nationalist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently elected as President, with, as ever, the ayatollahs casting an even darker shadow over his shoulder. With great pride, and, it seems, widespread public support, he announced that Iran has succeeded in producing enriched uranium and had "joined the group of countries which have nuclear technology."

Separating fact from fiction over Iran is more tricky than ever, so before we launch into the morass, it is worth establishing as many facts as possible. Unlike Israel, India and Pakistan, all of whom possess nuclear weapons but are not members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran ratified the treaty in 1970. The NPT explicitly permits the development of "nuclear energy for peaceful purposes", indeed it calls upon all the Parties to the Treaty to co-operate in scientific research into the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Next there is the unpalatable fact that it was the USA that funded the first elements of Iran's nuclear programme back in the 1950s. Of course, that was under the Shah. That was then, and this is now, but it does at least serve to demonstrate that the motives of the one world superpower are determined more by narrow self interest than by any altruistic desire for world peace. Certainly by 1967 Iran had an operational US supplied 5-megawatt nuclear reactor. By 1974 the Shah himself openly foresaw a time when the oil would run out, hence his plans for diversification into nuclear energy.

What of the other nuclear states? Therein lies the hypocrisy as perceived by Iran and its friends: Iran, an NPT member, with no proof that it has broken its treaty obligation, is excoriated, whilst the three countries which will not - indeed, cannot - sign the NPT are praised. Israel has been a client of the USA for over forty years. If the American administration stopped signing the cheques, Israel would very quickly have to find a permanent basis of peace with the Palestinian Authority. Without such financial imperatives Israel can continue to develop nuclear weapons without censure - with Iran as its number one target.

Even more remarkably both India and Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons has recently been given the Bush benediction despite the fact that any massive escalation of the volatile stand off between these two contiguous countries gives no opportunity for delay before launch. Perhaps the Bush administration really believes in the nuclear deterrent theory - in which case the logic is to ensure that every country has the damn things. Outside the White House, however, it is fairly obvious that in the age of the suicide bomber, the deterrent theory has certain intellectual challenges to surmount.

One aspect of political Islam which is rarely commented on is that, in a world in which corrupt politicians all too often thrive, political parties which have a strong moral basis are often seen by the electorate as being a way of combating that corruption. Thus in Indonesia the existence of a strongly Islamic party in the governing coalition was seen as strengthening the fight against corruption. Similarly in the recent Palestinian National Authority elections some of the votes garnered by Hamas were a protest against the former governing party's - Fatah's - corrupt behaviour.

There is a clear danger in singling out one potentially beneficial moral attribute from an otherwise repressive and misogynist package, but it has a relevance in the Iranian context. A reliance on truthfulness may well be easier with a regime backed by Islamic clerics than one driven by Bush's clever manipulators. Whatever else Islamic extremism may be guilty of, hiding its aims and purposes has not been uppermost.

The way out of the current war of the words will not be found in bombastic rhetoric or in belligerent threats. One of the iron rules of politics, as of physics, is Newton's Third Law - for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. It is high time that those who bear the delicate responsibility for our ultimate security understood and accepted this crucial rule. Iran is a powerful country and the Iranians are a proud people. The more that they are pilloried, accused of lying and told that they must abandon their current plans, the more they will press on and will minimise all inspection and control.

It needs to be stated very clearly that there is no current evidence that Iran has taken any action in breach of the Non Proliferation Treaty. Thus far every ground inspection has shown that Iran is using its nuclear capabilities within the terms of the NPT and has not pursued nuclear weapons. Report after report by Mohamed Elbaradei, head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, from November 2003 to 31 January this year has confirmed that Iran has provided access and that all "the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for."

This may change, indeed, it may have changed in the past few days, but there is no other means of verification of the truth of President Ahmadinejad's claim to be only pursuing a civil nuclear energy capacity than through the IAEA's mandate. Neither Bush nor Blair can force Iran to accept a "third force" of inspection, and the UN Security Council knows that there is no military capacity nor political will to even begin to contemplate a military fantasy in Iran.

The simple fact remains that Iran says it is committed to peaceful use of nuclear energy and the western say, in effect that they don't believe it. Elbaradei and the IAEA have an excellent track record and need to be allowed to continue their key task without Bush and Blair breathing down their necks and shouting slogans for consumption by their home electorates. One key error in Iraq was the failure to let Hans Blix and his UN team to finish their inspection. USA and Britain knew better; weapons of mass destruction were there, and the gravitas of Colin Powell was employed to prove it, complete with photos and charts.

We now know otherwise and, three years later, are still embroiled in a fiasco that shows no sign of abating. Why, with so recent and so vivid an example, should the USA, Britain and other Security Council members embark on a similar course with a much more formidable opponent? Stop harassing the Iranian authorities; step back from the brink; accept the possibility that what they say is what they mean; and encourage the IAEA to carry on with its job in a constructive atmosphere rather than have to overcome a defensive antagonism. Then we all will have a chance to discover what is going on in Iran and an opportunity to build bridges rather than trenches.

13 April 2006