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COMMENTARY
US's impasse over a 'nuclear' Iran
By Ehsan Ahrari

Washington's latest buzz about Iran is that there is no consensus on whether to confront it about its nuclear aspirations, or engage it with a view to abandoning it. Such a description creates an impression that the administration of President George W Bush could be serious about engaging Iran and is interested in initiating dialogue. However, if the past performance of the current administration establishes one reality, it is that there is not likely to be dialogue with Tehran in a second Bush administration. It should also be noted that the arms-control community was stunned this month to hear from the United Nations' watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran "planned to convert 37 tons of milled uranium, known as yellowcake, into a compound that can [not only] be used in a peaceful nuclear power program but also can be used to make weapons-grade enriched uranium".

Washington's non-proliferation community lives in a make-believe world of addressing heady issues without injecting a heavy dose of reality into that discussion. There are issues related to Iran that, when not viewed from the viewpoint of realism, portray a different - or even an incorrect - picture. One such reality is the conventional wisdom in that Iran, by going nuclear, presents a serious threat to Israel. Needless to say, Israel plays a leading role in making sure that such conventional wisdom not only stays alive, but that it constantly drives America's policy that ensures that Iran never becomes a nuclear power. No one bothers to ask why a nuclear Israel is not a threat to Iran, or why a nuclear Iran's paramount purpose would be to threaten Israel, knowing full well the implications of such threats for its own survival.

The fact of the matter is that, as a nuclear power since the 1960s, a primary purpose of Israel's policy is to disallow other Middle Eastern neighbors the option of going nuclear. So the real purpose underlying Israel's policy has little to do with threats to its security. The ultimate objective is that Israel does not want to lose its nuclear monopoly over other Middle Eastern states. That fact is applicable as much to Iran, which is regarded as an unfriendly state, as it is on Egypt, which has not only been at peace with the Jewish state since 1979, but also has diplomatic ties with it.

If one were to examine the history of US behavior toward nuclear proliferation, one would easily find a powerful precedent of Israel's current proclivity regarding its nuclear status. The United States also did not want the former Soviet Union to break its nuclear monopoly by becoming a nuclear power. The stated purpose of the Baruch Plan, presented by the US in 1946, was to "create a world without nuclear weapons". It called for the creation of "an international agency that would be responsible for fostering the development of atomic power programs in other countries, licensing and regulating those programs, and ensuring that no country developed atomic weapons". It "advocated the use of automatic sanctions if countries were found to be in violation of the agency's terms". However, the USSR rightly interpreted the real intent of that plan: that it was aimed at prolonging, if not permanently forestalling, its emergence as a nuclear power. Consequently, Moscow promptly rejected it. Israel is pursuing the very same type of policy, but in an era when the chief purpose of US non-proliferation policy is to deprive the so-called "axis of evil" states (Iraq, Iran and North Korea) of nuclear weapons. That makes Israel's job of maintaining the current status on nuclear non-proliferation quite easy.

One proposal that is currently being advocated by the nuclear-non-proliferation community in Washington is US-Iran engagement, not just on the nuclear issue, but also on a whole spectrum of issues. However, the second reality in Washington is that the Bush administration has no such preference. If anything, there is that hawkish inclination epitomized in the approach of John R Bolton, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, which sponsors a tough approach toward Iran, even though many other officials at the State Department have argued for engagement.
However, at the topmost levels of the US government, President Bush's chief foreign-policy adviser is Vice President Dick Cheney - the superhawk and neo-conservative par excellence - who has an established record of loathing countries such as Iran, Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, whose policies he has evaluated substantially on the basis of their implications for the security of Israel. Cheney's world view may not be driven by Christian fundamentalism; however, it is very much in harmony with Bush's own world view as a born-again Christian. In that view, the security of Israel remains much too important at the expense of everything else related to the Middle East.

Given the strong ideological penchant of the president and vice president of US, where is the room for compromise? The very notion of compromise is based on the necessity of a quid pro quo and a search for common ground. That search, in turn, requires a thorough understanding of Iran's security interests, a shared view of how Iran views its regional as well as global strategic environment, and how to go about calming Iran's genuine fears regarding its security, so that it does not see the necessity for acquiring nuclear weapons. Those characteristics are utterly absent in the Bush administration, with, perhaps, the lone exception of some State Department officials. Even those officials are opting to lie low for now.

The only other viable option on the part of all parties is to bide time until the presidential elections in November. In the meantime, the Bush administration is relying on its European allies to persuade Iran to allow as complete a transparency for its nuclear program as possible. The US knows that Iran would not adopt that path in good faith. So the next choice is behind-the-scenes suggestions that the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) bite the bullet and refer Iran's case to the UN Security Council for possible economic sanctions or other punitive measures.

The European countries - especially France and Germany - on their part are also concerned that pushing Iran might result in the break up of delicate negotiations. Besides, those European countries have a low level of trust in the Bush administration's description of Iran's nuclear capabilities or intentions. Lies and exaggerations related to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities before the US invasion of that country continue to color their reception of Washington's position regarding Iran. As Francois Heisbourg, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, told Patrick Tyler of the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, "This is an administration that's bent on polishing its macho image seven weeks before an election." Besides, France and Germany - and even the UK - have their respective business interests in Iran that are also driving them to continue looking for a diplomatic resolution to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons-related aspirations.

There is another not-so-subtle problem associated with referring Iran's alleged desire to possess nuclear weapons to the Security Council, however. There is no assurance that either China or Russia would not veto possible sanctions on Iran. Great-power relations are currently somewhat precarious because of their own idiosyncrasies. Washington cannot count on a posture of across-the-board cooperation either from Beijing or Moscow. Until November 2, both countries are putting their own respective policies toward Washington on hold, to see who wins the presidential election. The election of John Kerry would present them with an array of options, mostly of re-evaluation of their policies on a number of durable great-power-related issues. However, if Bush is re-elected, there is still little chance that either China or Russia would go along with sanctions against Iran.

Both China and Russia played important and, perhaps, a range of subtle-to-not-so-subtle roles in Iran's quest for nuclear know-how, including its ballistic-missile capabilities, and even possible development of nuclear weapons. They have long supplied Iran with nuclear technology. Both of these countries have envisaged the emergence of new nuclear powers as an inevitable reality of global affairs in this and following decades. They do not envisage such a possibility as inherently threatening to their own status as powers. The US, on the other hand, has no room in its strategic calculation for such alleged inevitability. It has always rejected the prospect of a world where a multitude of nuclear powers co-exist. If nothing else, such a world creates a situation of constrained US options regarding conflicting issues of global consequence. Washington vividly remembers the Cold War years when its policy options were intermittently constrained by what the USSR's reaction would be. In the post-Cold War years, on the other hand, the US has become too used to the freedom of operating in a unipolar world. After September 11, 2001, such independent US actions resulted in two successful military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. If one is to ignore the fact that neither of those countries has emerged as a stable or peaceful place, having the independence to conduct such campaigns in the future is much too enticing for the US to resist. Besides, the emergence of a nuclear North Korea continues to weigh heavily on America's behavior of doing everything to forestall such a potential regarding Iran.

In the final analysis, the current policy impasse in Washington is temporary. It may even be spurious in the sense that the Bush administration only creates an impression of remaining undecided about a "nuclear" Iran. That appearance is also misleading. Choices regarding Iran have already been made. The only necessity is to await the decision of US voters on November 2.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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Sep 14, 2004



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