Monday, February 06, 2006

Talk Softly

In an historic break with the normal operating procedures for this blog, I'm actually going to suggest what we should do about something rather than just criticising what we're actually doing. Never one to shirk a challenge (he lied), this is what I think the government should do about the Iranian nuclear programme. First, I'll try to explain a little about how I think we arrived at the current situation, and why.

I've seen it argued that the current "crisis" is one entirely of the West's making and it is true that there is no evidence that Iran has committed any breach of the NPT. At all. The Iranians were not obliged to inform the IAEA of their "secret" activities as these facilities were not near to completion. It is my understanding that they would have had to notify the IAEA of these facilities six months before the first introduction of nuclear material. Neither of the "secret" sites were near that stage when their existence became known. In terms of the NPT, Iran is not in breach today, and there is no evidence that it ever has been.

All the same, I don't think the recent increases in tension can be exclusively blamed on US and European governments. The Iranian government has decided to restart the programme, broken the UN seals and so forth, and this is one of the main reasons why the situation has changed. It should be noted that the decision to suspend activities was a voluntary one and that the Iranians have no legal duty to continue that voluntary suspension. Iran does have a right to develop enrichment technologies for peaceful purposes if it wishes.

It's the dual use of enrichment technologies which creates the problem. This is leaving aside the the heavy water reactor at Arak. It's not going to be operational till around 2014 but is cause for concern - the IAEA thinks it's too small for power generation but too big for medical research. There's plenty of time to sort that out though. The enrichment facility, on the other hand, could be up and running in around two years according to ElBaradei. To properly get to grips with nuclear physics, you really need a degree in, well, nuclear physics, but here's my layman's understanding of it.

If you run uranium in the centrifuges for a period of time, it'll convert it into a sort of medium grade uranium which can be used to fuel a light water plant like the one at Bushehr. This wouldn't produce anything particularly useful for bomb building. But, if you run the uranium for a bit longer (and possibly a bit faster too?) it'll convert into highly enriched uranium which is useful for bombs. All signatories to the NPT have the right to build and operate centrifuges but they must not use them to make weapons grade uranium and then put that uranium in a nuclear bomb.* The fear is that the Iranians might do just that and that this is actually the central motivation for their entire nuclear programme. It is not an unreasonable concern.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, issued a fatwa forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons on August 9, 2005. My understanding of Islam leads me to believe that fatwa's are not undertaken lightly. My understanding of politics leads me to believe that there's a hole that commitment. Aquiring the means and the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon has not been ruled out. This is, I suspect, what the Iranians are currently looking to do. Not to build nuclear weapons but to have the ability to build them. If they had the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons in relatively short order, this would be a useful deterrent against any potential future US military action against Iran.

This still leaves a problem with Iran's activities. Ahmadinejad has adopted an intentionally belligerent stance towards the West and Israel. There's no doubt that he's been deliberately provocative in recent months. You might well argue that this is entirely counter-productive as it has hardened opposition to the whole Iranian nuclear programme. I think that misses the point though. To borrow from Python, what he's saying is intended to provoke us into a reaction so that the Iranian people will then "unite against the common enemy". Us.

The hardliners are worried that their power is on the wane in Tehran; moderates and reformers are attempting to "woe the masses" and expand their influence. Iranians are a proud people with a long history and they generally resent western interference in their country. They are also strongly in favour of a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme (80% is the figure I heard). Ahmadinejad and his cohorts are attempting to use those factors to rally the people into renewed support for the hardline Islamic leadership. In Iran, people see us opposing what they see as their legal peaceful programme and we become the hated western imperialists once again. This perception of an enemy at the door then boosts support for the incumbant regime. It's a standard ploy. See Bush or Blair for further details.

In recent days, the 27 of the 35 member states on the IAEA board voted to report Iran to the Security Council. The Iranian government responded by withdrawing from a voluntary agreement to allow short notice IAEA inspections. On the face of it, the IAEA action has made the situation worse; they have less access now than they did a week ago. Under the face of it, things aren't any better.

Elbaradei believes it would would take another two and a half years or so for Iran to build a bomb.

So what now?

*Puts on pragmatic international relations hat*

1. Stop publicly insisting that Iran must not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon if you've got nuclear weapons. It stinks of hypocrisy. I really don't want the Iranian government to have nuclear weapons but every time Bush says it, it irritates me enormously. I can only imagine that it has a similar, if considerably larger effect on the average Iranian. It may well be a worthy sentiment but it's counter-productive. So stop it.
2. Remember that the Iranians chose the timing of this "crisis". They did so because they know they are in a strong position. If there is to be a crisis, we'll decide when it's going to be thank you very much. For now, talk it down - it's troubling, but at the moment it's really just a minor difficulty over the precise nature of the rules for IAEA inspections. We can always talk it back up later if we need to.
3. Take away the sticks. Every threat made is one gleefully received by the Iranian government. Unite! Unite! Enemies at the gates... Stop playing their game.
4. Adopt the classic (I never thought I'd say this but *winces*) "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear" strategy. But do it extremely diplomatically. Be unreasonably reasonable. We should say that we're perfectly happy for the Iranians to enrich their own uranium for power generation. We should say that we accept their assurances that the programme is for exclusively peaceful purposes. And we should say that we'd really like to make sure a suitable IAEA monitoring procedure is in place, just to reassure the slightly excitable, cynical elements of our societies, you understand. Importantly, we should, as a gesture of goodwill, agree to allow the IAEA to have equal access to our own facilities. Really. (Those who think that's an outrageous suggestion might ask themselves why they find it so strange that the Iranians keep refusing.)

If the Iranians don't agree to allow satisfactory inspections under those conditions, we can start considering other measures. In a year or so perhaps. At this stage, when the Iranians have done fundamentally nothing wrong, the softly softly approach is the way to go. Carrying a big stick will almost certainly be counter-productive.

And, one final point (because I can't write one post without mentioning the Blair). I should again point out that I have absolutely no confidence in his ability to handle this situation. I doubt the man could tell which end of the stick is the sharp and pointy one, never mind be able to wield the thing responsibly.

* There is a clause in the treaty which says it's OK to build bombs if you've already started. It's called the Magnus Magnusson clause. No, I made that up. We and the US just ignore the fact that we're not supposed to do it either. Who's going to stop us?

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