Friday, January 27, 2006

Iran's Nukes Are A Non-Issue

By William Pfaff
International Herald Tribune
January 27, 2006

PARIS--Why is all this pressure being mounted against Iran when both Washington and Jerusalem unofficially concede that there is nothing to be done to prevent Iran's government from continuing along its present course of nuclear development?

The contradictions in Western official and unofficial discourse about Iran and its nuclear ambitions are so blatant that one might suspect disinformation, but it probably is simply the cacophony of single-minded bureaucracies working at cross purposes, and the effect of the multiple lobbies involved and of U.S. domestic political exploitation, and the paradox of the American policy itself, whose nonproliferation efforts actually provoke nuclear proliferation.

The Washington official line seems meant to build pressure at the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, even while conceding that nothing practical is expected to result, and that nothing can be done about Iran's resumption of nuclear processing. Iran at present is doing no more than it has a right to do in international law.

The crossfire of public pronouncements draws attention to the inherent criticism of the Western position: The United States and the other Security Council members can have nuclear weapons, and Israel, Pakistan and India (non-Security Council members), can have them too, but Iran shouldn't proceed with its (currently) nonmilitary program. The United States is even in discussion with India to supply nuclear materials (for strictly peaceful purposes, of course).

All of this piles up in righteous Iranian eyes as evidence that Iran needs to go beyond its present program and actually build nuclear weapons. National prestige and pride are involved, obviously - and nationalism is probably the most powerful of all political forces.

Military strategy is also involved. So far as anyone in the non-Western world can see, Iraq's mistake in 2003 was not to have a nuclear bomb or two in working order. That would have kept the United States at bay, just as uncertainty about North Korea's nuclear arms inhibits U.S. policy in the Far East.

Iran already possesses non-nuclear deterrents to American attack, which Iraq did not, and they are probably strong enough to keep both the United States and Israel away from Iranian nuclear sites.

Iran can close down a major part of Middle Eastern oil shipments by closing the Strait of Hormuz. It has combined Revolutionary Guard and ground forces three times the total of American forces now active in Iraq, where Tehran also has influence on the Shiite clerical leadership, which holds the key to Iraq's future.

Nuclear weapons proliferation in the non-Western world is an old American preoccupation, but it is directly linked to third-world perceptions of the threat of American military intervention. The main, if not the only, advantage that nuclear weapons provide a country such as Iran is the deterrence of intervention by the United States or Israel. The urge to possess these weapons is directly reciprocal to American nonproliferation pressures, and the threat of attack.

(The India-Pakistan case is an exception to these generalizations, since there the perceived threats are strictly bilateral, and the two countries have simply replicated for themselves , at great cost, the balance of terror that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.)

Possession of the bomb would also bring comfort and prestige to Iran in dealing with its nuclear-armed neighbors, which include Pakistan and Russia, as well as Israel.

In theory, a threat of aggressive use of nuclear weapons exists, but in the Middle East it is accompanied by certainty of overwhelming Israeli (or even American) retaliation. Warning by American politicians that "rogue states" might attack Israel, the United States, British bases on Cyprus, or Western Europe, are manipulation or propaganda. Individual Muslims may welcome martyrdom, but nations, even Muslim nations, do not.

Israel, with its conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction, is amply capable of assuring its own military deterrence and defense, whatever Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thinks or says. But Israel cannot expect long-term security without resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. As Israeli leaders know, solving the problem is chiefly up to Israel. Forty years of American involvement have mainly enabled the Israelis to avoid doing so.

The danger of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons exists, if barely. This would be possible only with a nuclear state's complicity. The political plausibility of any government giving terrorists control of such weapons is next to nil, considering the risks involved for the benefactor state. The technical and logistical complexity of such an operation would also be great.

There are serious problems in international affairs and there are baroque ones. This one is baroque.

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