Joe Hendren

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Iran and nuclear weapons

With a tip of the hat to Empire Notes, I found an interesting article on Middle East Report Online that includes very relevant background to the current ‘Iranian nukes’ debate.

In going to war with Iraq, Joost R. Hiltermann says the Bush administration sought to prove that Clinton’s policy of dual containment – a decade of sanctions, threats, military action, and UN-led disarmament had failed to stop Iraq from developing WMD. But Iraq, it turned out, had no WMD in March 2003, and probably did not have any for most of the preceding decade. Hiltermann points out “Iraq, of course, was not the only target of dual containment. So was neighbouring Iran, which likewise was suspected of having secret programs for building weapons of mass destruction and was seen as a destabilizing force hostile to US interests.” As the Bush Administration failed to find their proof of the failure of dual containment in Iraq, will they force a similar method of ’proof’ onto neighbouring Iran?

According to Hilterman, Iran sued for peace from the Iran/Iraq war at the end of the 1980s because Iraq’s escalating use of chemical weapons made Iranian “human wave” assaults ineffective. Human wave assaults are barbaric, but using chemical weapons against them is one step worse. Following Iraq use of chemical weapons in 1983 Iran asked the international community for assistance.
"Tehran’s repeated remonstrations with the United Nations fell virtually on deaf ears. For six years, Iranian diplomats wrought ever more sophisticated legal arguments to persuade the UN that it should have an institutional interest in upholding the relevant precepts of international humanitarian law. In particular, the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices,” was directly on point. The UN’s failure to uphold such precepts, the Iranians said, would undermine its credibility and impartiality, while giving rise to a regional arms race.”
Washington also conducted a disinformation campaign that sought to equally blame Iran and Iraq for the use of chemical weapons, a campaign that helpfully took the pressure off Iraq, then a US ally. Faced with journalists asking questions about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons the US slapped on a ban on the export of chemical precursors to both Iran and Iraq in the spring of 1984, despite internal documents showing US officials had been aware of Iraq’s conduct for at least six months.
“It is generally accepted that toward the end of the war Iran had gained the capability to field its own chemical weapons. Parliamentary speaker (and future president) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani declared two months after war’s end that “chemical bombs and biological weapons are poor man’s atomic bombs and can easily be produced. We should at least consider them for our defense…. Although the use of such weapons is inhuman, the war taught us that international laws are only drops of ink on paper.”
Hilterman concludes
“[T]he world’s ability to challenge Iran on any programs it may have today is reduced dramatically by the Iranian perception that it has nothing to protect it from WMD in the hands of a regional power, such as Israel, but its own WMD deterrent. The current standoff over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program is a graphic illustration of the problem.”
In any discussion of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the significance of the country starting ‘I’ should be obvious. As the only country with nuclear weapons in the region, the lack of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) is just plain dangerous, as it can only encourage a regional arms race, as countries like Iran fear that Israel could use nuclear weapons without the disincentive implicit in MAD. Remove the fear of a nuclear cloud from Iran and any moral rationale (if there is any) to develop its own weapons would disappear. This is likely to be the key reason why Iran refuses to permanently suspend its (low-level) uranium enrichment program, even though such processing is not prohibited under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran is a signatory to the NPT, making it subject to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) while Israel remains as a rogue state outside of the NPT. Even if it is shown that Iran is disregarding the crucial tenants of the NPT, this does demonstrate the advantage of potentially nuclear capable countries being inside the NPT tent. Of course, signatories with nuclear weapons disregard crucial tenants of the NPT by making no moves to disarm, but that’s another story.

US attempts to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons would have far more force and credibility if they applied the same standards to Israel. In the case of the Middle East it was ‘I’ who cast the first stone. If calls for Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons were combined with a genuine call for a nuclear free Middle East and an unequivocal call on Israel to disarm, the US message would have far more moral force and credibility. Otherwise, it just looks like more US hypocrisy.

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