Monday, January 23, 2006

Crisis? What crisis?

Here's my piece on the Iran nuclear 'crisis' from today's Australian.

Deterrence best policy for nuclear states
23 January 2006

'LEADERS meet to discuss Iran crisis." It all sounds rather familiar. In 1999, "leaders" met to discuss the Kosovo "crisis"; we now know there was no genocide in Kosovo. In 2003, "leaders" met to discuss Iraq's weapons of mass destruction crisis; we now know there were no WMD in Iraq.Now it's Iran nuclear ambitions that represent the "crisis". If past form is anything to go by, we can be fairly sure that once again this is a crisis of the Western powers' making. Instead of becoming caught up in the wave of hysteria, the question we should all be asking is: What is really so alarming about Iran exercising its legal right to enrich uranium under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
The Iranians maintain that developing nuclear energy is an urgent necessity for a rapidly industrialising country with a fast-growing population, and one which is faced with the prospect of steadily dwindling oil reserves. It is hard to dispute the logic. With an abundance of accessible natural uranium ore, a nuclear program would come relatively cheaply for the Islamic republic, far cheaper than the estimated $40 billion it would need to develop the excess capacity for its oil industry.
The objections to Iran developing nuclear energy are, as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has pointed out, hypocritical. After all, it was the US that provided Iran with its first nuclear research reactor in 1967. And unlike Western allies Pakistan, India and Israel, Iran is a signatory to the NPT. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied that Iran has any ambitions to use its uranium enrichment program to develop nuclear weapons, a line reinforced by the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who issued a fatwa last August forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.
Considering that Iran is routinely attacked for the role that Shia clerics play in its governance, how could it be that this strongly worded and unequivocal pronouncement from the only man in Iran who can declare war, gained so little international attention?
Those calling for strong action against Iran are, of course, keen to portray the Islamic republic's determination to go nuclear as a serious threat to world peace.
The usual analogies to the 1930s have been made (for example, see Niall Ferguson's piece on this page last Wednesday): a line of argument that sees Ahmadinejad's Iran (like Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein's Iraq before it) likened to Nazi Germany, a threat that can only be removed by pre-emptive military action.
Such analogies are absurd. In 1939, Nazi Germany had over 1.5 million well-trained men available for action, and possessed the second largest armed forces in the world after the Soviet Union. It could boast some of the planet's most up-to-date military hardware and had already showed its aggressive intent on the international stage. Iran, by contrast, has invaded no one and its armed forces are only the ninth largest in the world. Its number of airborne units (954) and portable and static surface-to-air missile systems (1760) are easily outnumbered by Israel's (1230 and 3153 respectively); and Israel, lest we forget, unlike Iraq, also possesses nuclear weapons.
For Ferguson and fellow advocates of strong action, the preferred solution to the Iranian crisis is a pre-emptive strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear sites. Israel must bomb Iran within the next two months, opines Douglas Murray, author of Neo-Conservatism: Why We Need It. "[It] is the only country with the capability and political will to carry out this important operation."
Such action will, Murray concedes, have appalling repercussions, but, he assures us, the alternatives will be much worse. Would they? There is an alternative to the neo-conservative remedy, one that carries with it no risk of appalling repercussions and which possesses a proven track record of preventing military conflicts.
It's called deterrence. For more than 40 years, deterrence kept the peace in the Cold War, preventing both a Soviet nuclear strike on the West and a Western nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. And for another 12 years, from the end of the first Gulf war up to 2003, it prevented Saddam from launching another attack on Kuwait or against any other of Iraq's neighbours.
Having served us so well in the past, why are we now so keen to believe those who claim that the principle of deterrence no longer applies? Let's just suppose that the scaremongers are right and Iran does secretly intend to develop nuclear weapons. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it would take Iran to the end of this decade at the earliest to develop a nuclear bomb; other estimates suggest the process would take more than 10 years. Are we seriously expected to believe that Iran's Supreme Leader would authorise a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Tel Aviv, knowing that the result would be the certain annihilation of his country?
President Ahmadinejad (who is not the leader of Iran's armed forces and cannot declare war) may have expressed his desire to wipe Israel off the map, but words and actions are two very different things. If Iran were to launch a pre-emptive strike, it would be the first example in history of a country attacking an opponent that, together with its allies, had the ability to destroy it several times over.
In reality, Ahmadinejad does have one very good reason to develop nuclear weapons. Not for launching a kamikaze raid on Israel or for threatening other pro-Western states, but simply to protect his country from invasion. Iraq had no WMD and got shock and awe; North Korea, by contrast, claims to have WMD and gets offers of aid. The lesson could not be clearer. If you want the respect of Uncle Sam, get a bomb, advises veteran US politician and conservative Pat Buchanan.
If Ahmadinejad has indeed been telling porkies about his nuclear ambitions, then much of the blame must lie with the neo-conservatives in Washington, whose calls for military action against the Islamic republic predate the coming to power of the West's latest bogyman.
True, Ahmadinejad has not helped his or his country's cause by making offensive remarks about Israel and the Holocaust. But since when does a foreign leader saying things we don't like or agree with constitute a crisis? Whipping up a crisis over Iran when in truth none exists serves a purpose for the US, bogged down in an unwinnable war in Iraq, and a European Union wracked by internal division and economic stagnation.
The day after the US and European powers announced their intention to have Iran referred to the UN Security Council, an official assessment of the security situation in Iraq was published by the US Agency for International Development. Iraq is described as being out of control, a country in which foreign jihadists, including those attached to al-Qa'ida, were gaining in number and in which criminals have almost free rein.
How much more convenient it is to shift attention on to an artificially created crisis in Tehran and away from a very real crisis caused by an earlier deviation from the tried and tested path of deterrence.
Copyright N.Clark/The Australian 2006

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