Iran’s nukes: Jack’s straw man

Why did the British foreign secretary get so hot under the collar over Iran's desire for nuclear technology?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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For third world countries, the humiliation of being lectured to by the West must increase tenfold when the person doing the lecturing is Jack Straw. Britain’s usually invisible foreign secretary, best known in this country for his occasional bumbling performance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and for having a son who once protested against his dad’s government’s proposed tuition fees for students, has given a stern telling off to Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for giving a ‘disappointing and unhelpful’ speech at the UN General Assembly in New York on Saturday.

Ahmadinejad defended Iran’s ‘inalienable right’ to enrich uranium and attacked the ‘nuclear apartheid’ that allowed ‘powerful states’ to access materials for nuclear technology, while denying access to less powerful states (1). Straw was outraged. He accused Iran of inflaming tensions with the West and said the issue would have to be ‘resolved by all facilities available to the international community’ (2). This is code for sanctions: US and EU officials will now debate whether sanctions should be enforced against these ‘disappointing’ Iranians. The US State Department, meanwhile, said Ahmadinejad’s speech was ‘very aggressive’ and accused him of ‘crossing the line’, and some Bush officials – the cranky ones who fantasise about ‘full spectrum dominance’ etc – have hinted that military action might be required to put the Iranians in their place (3).

Reading the coverage and watching Straw get hot under the collar on the BBC, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ahmadinejad had declared his country’s intention to build a nuke, aim it at London or Washington, and make all of our worst fantasies about an ‘Islamic Bomb’ – long the stuff of James Bond-style fiction – a gruesome reality. In fact, his speech was a defence of Iran’s right to use nuclear technology for ‘peaceful purposes’. He said Iran has no interest in building nuclear WMDs but rather is keen to develop a ‘nuclear fuel cycle’, and intends to do so ‘within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, international regulations and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’ (4). It hardly sounds like a return to a world organised around MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

The Iranians’ defence of their right to develop nuclear technology sounds positively Blairite. Defence minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar says that ‘since fossil fuels are going to run out, we should replace them with nuclear energy’ – the same argument used by the Blair government in its half-hearted public commitments to developing nuclear technology (5). And you don’t have to take Ahmadinejad’s word for it when he says Iran is not building nukes. Just last month a group of experts and scientists from around the world, working under the auspices of the IAEA, said it found ‘no proof’ that Iran was trying to build bombs. Two years ago, some bomb-grade uranium was found at one of Iran’s nuclear facilities, leading to international accusations that it was attempting to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, said the team, these traces ‘came from contaminated Pakistani equipment and are not evidence of a clandestine nuclear weapons programme in Iran’. One of the experts said: ‘The biggest smoking gun that everyone was waving is now eliminated with these conclusions.’ (6)

Given that there’s no proof that Iran is making nukes, and considering that it seems to want to use nuclear technology to the same ends that Western governments use it, why all this hoo-ha over Ahmadinejad’s speech? Why the handwringing headlines about Iran’s ‘defiance’, and why the pale-faced denunciations from Straw? US officials say the speech was ‘very aggressive’ and the Financial Times worries that Ahmadinejad spoke in an ‘aggressive tone’ (7). Are those the WMD the West is really worried about – Words of Mass Destruction?

The fuss over Ahmadinejad’s speech has little to do with any serious threat from Iran to the free world. Rather, it’s a product of the double standards over nuclear technology, and especially nuclear weaponry, that permeate international relations. It is the nuclear divide created by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – which divides the globe between those deemed trustworthy enough to have The Bomb and those untrustworthy types who face punishment if they try to get it – that means Iran can be lectured, threatened with sanctions and generally harangued for defending its right to access nuclear materials. And this is one of the few issues through which America and European powers (despite the small fact that some of them really do have nuclear weapons) can still make a global impact: there is a sweeping consensus, from pacifist movements to the Pentagon, that the NPT is a good thing and that it should be rigourously enforced.

The consensus about Iran’s nuclear ambitions posing a threat is remarkably widespread. Much has been made of the fact that there’s a split between America (which has talked up the possibility of military action) and Europe (which prefers sanctions) – but that is only a debate over tactics, mostly motivated by political point-scoring between Europe and America rather than by any fundamental disagreements over Iran.

This was best summed up last month when Gerhard Schroeder (who was then definitely Chancellor of Germany) said, in response to President Bush’s claim that ‘all options are on the table’ for dealing with Iran, ‘Let’s take the military option off the table. We have seen it doesn’t work.’ (8) He won widespread praise for taking a ‘brave stand’ against America. In truth, while Germany and America may have bickered over the highly unlikely scenario of America invading Iran, they totally agreed on their right to tell Iran what it can and cannot do with its nuclear power. As one newspaper headline put it at the end of June, during earlier talks between Washington and Bonn, ‘Bush and Schroeder agree on Iran nukes’ (what nukes?). Or as Schroeder himself put it, he ‘couldn’t agree more with the President’s stance against Iran’s nuclear ambitions’ (9).

The same is true of Straw: he no doubt pleased the people of Islington when he said, ‘This stand-off will not be resolved by military means, let’s be clear about that’ – which was also read as a swipe at the Bush administration (10). Yet Straw still considers it his place to have a ‘stand-off’ with Iran in the first place, and to threaten sanctions against Ahmadinejad’s regime for its ‘nuclear ambitions’.

And the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the peace group that has been marching against The Bomb for some 40 years, takes exactly the same line as Schroeder and Straw. It says: ‘CND supports the efforts of the EU to reach a mutually acceptable agreement on Iran’s enrichment of uranium and their nuclear power programme. We believe the IAEA can serve as an effective safeguard to ensure Iran’s adherence to its obligations….. CND opposes both the use of force against Iran and any acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities by Iran.’ (11) In that last sentence, CND has a pop at those American officials dreaming of using force against Iran while explicitly accepting America and the West’s right to tell Iran how to behave. It plays the same game as Schroeder and Straw: attacking the straw man of an American invasion while calling on the West to do more to set Iran straight.

This consensus comes from the NPT, a ‘peace treaty’ that came into force in 1970. Its stated aim is to ‘prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology’, which sounds very laudable – only the reality is a different ballgame. The NPT forbids any state from building or seeking to build nuclear weapons, except the five states that already had them when the treaty was signed in 1970: the USA, Britain, France, China and Russia, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council who, of course, have the final say on war and other such matters. While the NPT makes it illegal for any signatory state to build the Bomb, it only ‘encourages’ the Big Five, over an unspecified time period, to get rid of their Bombs.

The very first Article of the treaty focuses, not on getting rid of those nukes that already exist, but on ensuring that no more are built by ‘non-nuclear states’. It says: ‘Each nuclear-weapon state undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices…and not in any way assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon state to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.’ And in case you missed the point, Article 2 spells it out again, from the other side: ‘Each non-nuclear weapon state undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices…and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.’ (12) Got that? The NPT disallows any state – apart from America, Britain, France, China and Russia – from even thinking about building the Bomb. (In the real world, of course, the Big Five have turned a blind eye to friendly states’ acquirement of nuclear weapons capabilities, including South Africa, Israel, India and Pakistan.)

The NPT creates a global division, between those states considered responsible enough to own The Bomb and others that are possibly a bit dodgy, and who must submit to intrusive inspections by the IAEA to ensure that they aren’t surreptitiously making nukes. It nurtures a moral separation of the nuclear-weapon states from the non-nuclear weapon states, and legitimises Western intervention into the affairs of states that arouse suspicions – whether it’s North Korea (which today has announced that it will give up its nuclear weapons programme, following two years of international pressure) or Iran (which seems only to be developing nuclear technology).

America and European powers have become more reliant on the NPT over the past decade, as they have felt their moral authority to lecture the third world slowly being sapped. It’s a long time since it was PC to present the West as a civilising force for good in third world affairs, and even America’s half-hearted attempts to ‘democratise’ Iraq have been criticised for imposing Western values on a culturally different state. So a group of Church of England Bishops argues in a report on war and terrorism published today that democracy should be introduced into foreign fields in ‘culturally appropriate ways’ (perhaps by sending the Bishops rather than bombs?) (13).

That is one reason why the NPT has been dusted down by Western foreign policy wonks in recent years, and actively used to bash states like North Korea and Iran: it is a not-very demanding way of striking a moral pose on the international stage, and one likely to win the approval even of those of an anti-war persuasion. It also allows the West to claim that, while the Cold War might be over and the Soviet Union in disarray, we still are threatened – at least potentially – by terrible destruction from ‘over there’. This was the thinking behind American warnings throughout the 1990s about an ‘Islamic Bomb’, where it was claimed that a fundamentalist Islamic state might somehow get hold of nuclear know-how and use it against people in the West: that was an attempt keep alive the Cold War idea of a nuclear threat to civilisation as we know it. The NPT has become an important source of legitimacy for Western powers keen to intervene in other states’ affairs, but cautious about appearing imperialistic or bombastic; keen to indulge in some moral posturing, but wary of getting bogged down in old-style realpolitik interventions.

In effect, America and Europe are using the politics of pacifism to legitimise their right to have a stand off with a state like Iran and threaten it with punishment for ‘crossing the line’. In this, they have been ably assisted by the peace movement. Rather than questioning the divisive assumptions behind the NPT, and the intervention that such assumptions give rise to, peace groups have called for the treaty to be enforced harder and faster. CND demands that Iran adheres to the NPT (even though it already does so, and promises to continue doing so). One American peace group says it is incumbent on Western states to wind down their nuclear weapons programmes – fulfilling their part of the bargain in the NPT – because ‘the existence of these weapons creates further potential for proliferation’ (14). Even when demands are made of the West to disarm, it is as a means of sending the right message to those nuke-hungry states in the third world.

CND and others don’t like militarism and have a go at America for threatening military action against Iran – yet they uphold precisely the divisions that allow America and others to strike such a moral pose in relation to the third world. The truth is, the NPT is a bigger threat to world peace than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however loud and aggressive his speech at the UN may have been.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Iran president: ‘No nuclear apartheid’, CNN, 17 September 2005

(2) Straw rules out war over Tehran’s nuclear plan, Daily Telegraph, 19 September 2005

(3) US calls nuclear statement by Iranian president ‘very aggressive’, Voice of America, 18 September 2005

(4) Iran ready to hold purposeful talks on nuclear case, Islamic Republic News Agency, 19 September 2005

(5) Islam forbids military use of nuclear power, Lebanon Daily Star, 31 August 2005

(6) No proof found of Iran arms programme, Washington Post, 23 August 2005

(7) Iranian defiance reveals weakness in West’s lobbying, Financial Times, 19 September 2005

(8) Schroeder’s declaration on Iran, New York Times, 16 August 2005

(9) Bush, Schroeder agree on Iran nukes, Washington Times, 28 June 2005

(10) Straw says no military answer to Iranian stand-off, Pakistan Daily News, 19 September 2005

(11) Iran’s nuclear programme, CND, January 2005

(12) Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations

(13) CofE bishops criticise US over foreign policy and war on terror, 19 September 2005

(14) See NPT: a destructive agreement, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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