The Insanity of Military Action Against Iran
Reuters, via Le Monde.
As Bush charges into war, the American public is adrift without an sanguine analysis or the facts. Jean-François Bayart obliges in Le Monde. (Sorry, but I wasn't fast enough to post a direct link. The article is now in the archives for which payment is required. If you happen to subscribe to Le Monde on-line, you can query the article).
Dissuading Iran, by Jean-François Bayart
LE MONDE | 02.05.06 | 13:36 . Updated on 02.05.06 | 17:12
Europe is caught in the trap of a trick question to which it believes it has an answer: How to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Day after day, the voice of reason is fading. We are constructing a crisis whose consequences are incalculable, without having the slightest idea of how to manage it.
The Iranian nuclear program dates back to 1974. It included a military dimension, but no one mentioned it because it was meant to counter the USSR. Iran was an ally of Israel, whom Washington permitted to acquire the bomb. France and Germany cooperated with Tehran without worrying themselves over its purpose. Imam Khomeini abandoned this program but Iranian leaders restarted it in the mid-1980’s to put their territory, threatened by invasion from Iraq, off limits. The US air strikes on Baghdad in 1991 strengthened their decision by the demonstration of the vulnerability of their country.
Today, the single uncertainty is to know if Iran seeks to develop the capacity to fabricate nuclear weapons by remaining just under the “threshold”, as Japan has done. Or whether it intends to produce the bomb, like India and Japan. Or whether it intends to acquire the bomb secretly, as Israel has done. In any case, Western “hawks” perceive the threat of Islamic revolution for which Israel would be the first target. It is very unlikely. Iran has abandoned the myth of Islamic Revolution in all Muslim countries in order to promote its state interests. The idea that it would risk total destruction to defend an Arab cause is just crazy.
The Islamic Republic wishes to defend its national territory by applying the reasoning behind the French doctrine of dissuasion. It wishes to affirm its standing as a power in a nuclear weaponized region. However, the argument put forward by the regime that it wants this technology to reduce its dependence for energy on petroleum cannot be dismissed out of hand. The reserves of the country are not inexhaustible; pollution in its cities is a major problem; and, the Iranian elite believe that it is natural to acquire expertise in one of the aspects of modernity.
The panic felt by Western “hawks” also originates in the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President of the Republic whom they blame for the hardening of Iran's nuclear policy. In reality, nuclear policy is decided collegially within the High Council of National Security of which Ahmadinejad is a member along with a core of directors who, since the 1980s, have been (or were formerly) in charge of the nuclear program. The decision to restart uranium enrichment testifies to the frustration of Tehran of having received nothing tangible, either from Europe or the United States, after two years of negotiations –with the exception of simple promises of civilian nuclear cooperation should they renounce the ambition. The return to the starting gate occurred before the arrival of President Ahmadinejad in power and was publicly ordered by his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.
The antagonism between an Iran determined to acquire the atomic bomb and Western powers bent on denying them this right in virtue of the NTP, to which it is a signatory, appears to be ineluctable. It is certain that Iran is legally bound to its 1968 engagement. But politically the argument has its limits now that India and Pakistan enjoy a sort of special bonus awarded to non-signatories to the NPT and are courted by the United States and France in the area of nuclear cooperation. The West was the first to undermine the international treaty on which it insists.
Even if Tehran has hidden a number of facts from the AIEA, Western “hawks” find themselves in a tarnished position to denounce it: their own lies on Iraq’s weapons and the consequences of the military action carried out in 2003 undermine the legitimacy of their call to a new pre-emptive war. Moreover, their bellicose posture evokes unease after the United States and France encouraged Iraqi aggression against Iran in 1980. Finally, it is paradoxical to forbid a country to acquire atomic weapons to guaranty its security while simultaneously refusing to sell it conventional arms.
The only coherent position of the West is a visceral distrust of the Islamic Republic. However, Iranian opinion supports the nuclear program after having been the victim of two centuries of foreign interference and aggression. This is also the opinion held by the Iranian émigré community, frequent critics of the Islamic Republic. The underestimation of national sentiment and the regime's legitimacy is more worrisome than the “hard line” adopted by its leaders. To imagine that the Iranians are going to be cowed by financial sanctions, an embargo on gasoline (which, lacking sufficient facilities, it imports) or bombings and that the population would welcome these things to see the destruction of hated institutions is pure folly.
Is the West sure of support? Russia, China, and Japan unwilling to support any escalation. Brazil does not wish to mortgage away its nuclear future. The position of Egypt and the Republic of South African is ambiguous. It is true that Iran is not certain of its potential allies and that it has been unpleasantly surprised by the position taken by India and South Korea.
But beyond the possible recourse to terrorism as self-defense against the West as it did the 1980s, it has the means for retaliation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Its slightest action in the Straits of Hormuz would have an immediate effect on an already nervous world market and would destabilize Western economies while simultaneously raising its revenue.
What levers does the West possess to force Iran into submission? The regime has a solid reputation of getting around sanctions. Its dependence on the importation of gasoline should not be exaggerated: an appreciable portion of this fuel is illegally re-exported to neighboring states. As to a military option, nothing guarantees its success, and it will be devastating for the West itself. Especially if the United States resorts to tactical atomic weapons. One can see the absurdity in ending up with the first use of the atomic bomb since 1945 in the name of enforcing a non-proliferation treaty which was unable to prevent Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea from clearing the barrier and whose signatories are penalized while the free riders of the international system go unpunished.
It is a better thing if Iran does not get the bomb: for the future of the NTP, the stability of the region and for the prosperity of the Iranians, who have better goals to fund. But if Iran does acquire the bomb, the worst is far from certain. Why should Iran be a greater danger than India under the nationalist party, BJP? Setting off a new major international crisis has no comparative advantage from a security standpoint: it would be like striking a fire now in the hope of finding a stove -- uncertain to exist-- later.
Article published in the 3 May 2005 edition.