Exploding the myth of the Iranian Bomb
How much evidence is there that Iran is developing deadly WMDs, as Western leaders constantly claim? Not much at all. None, in fact.
Upon his presidential election victory in 2008, Barack Obama received a congratulatory letter from the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama’s response was not exactly gracious. ‘Let me repeat and state what I stated during the course of the campaign’, he told the international media, ‘Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable. We have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.’
They have proved to be telling words. Over the past few years, the international obsession with stopping Iran from building its very own nuclear weapon appears to have developed an almost internal dynamic quite apart from what the Iranian government may or may not be doing. In battling Iran’s aspiration towards nuclear warheads, real or not, Western leaders seem to have found a cause, a Good Fight. If Iran’s nuclear ambition didn’t exist, you get the feeling that Western governments would be only too happy to invent it. Which, in part, they may have done.
Take Obama’s speech from July 2010, when he announced yet further sanctions against Iran: ‘We are striking at the heart of the Iranian government’s ability to fund and develop its nuclear programme. We’re showing the Iranian government that its actions have consequences. And if it persists, the pressure will continue to mount, and its isolation will continue to deepen. There should be no doubt – the United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.’
Or take French president Nicolas Sarkozy speaking in August 2011: ‘Iran’s military nuclear and ballistic ambitions constitute a growing threat that may lead to a preventive attack against Iranian sites.’ And just this weekend, the UK foreign secretary William Hague was similarly angered by Iran’s apparent attempt to build a nuclear weapon, calling it ‘the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented’. Talking of the onset of a ‘new Cold War in the Middle East without necessarily all the safety mechanisms’, Hague described Iran’s intentions as ‘a disaster in world affairs’.
It has not just been fearful, bellicose rhetoric either. In November last year, the US decided to add to its raft of 30-year-old sanctions by imposing new measures against non-Iranian companies that may merely have aided Iran’s oil and petrochemical companies, while the UK and Canada were busy ordering all financial institutions to stop doing business with their Iranian counterparts. Not wanting to miss out, the EU announced its own list of punishments against Iran in January, including an oil embargo. Given that the EU constitutes nearly 20 per cent of Iran’s oil export market, this will hit Iran’s oil-dependent economy, not to mention the lives of millions of ordinary Iranians, very hard indeed.
So what’s driving this obsession, exactly? Evidence of a clear and present danger? Proof of nefarious intent? Well, no, not really. Hence when US secretary of defence Leon Panetta was asked last month whether Iran was actually trying to develop a nuclear weapon, he responded in unambiguously ambiguous terms: ‘No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability.’ A nuclear capability? This, as it turns out, is not exactly a threat to world peace. In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with the development of nuclear power as a civilian energy source. As Yousaf Butt explains in Foreign Policy magazine, any country with a civilian nuclear sector has, ‘by default’, a nuclear capability. In fact, in Panetta’s terms, Iran is doing no more than what Brazil or Argentina are also doing by developing a civilian nuclear sector – and both Brazil and Argentina, like Iran, do not permit full International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.
But what of the IAEA report published in November which, in the words of the US State Department, claimed to show that Iran ‘has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’? Again, firm evidence, let alone a smoking gun, was found wanting. As Seymour Hersh pointed out in the New Yorker, the report, aside from a few computer-modelled predictions, drew on virtually no post-2003 intelligence. In fact, its main source of information was a stolen laptop of dubious, possibly Israeli provenance. Little wonder that at a Senate hearing this month, the director of US national intelligence, James R Clapper, admitted that he was not convinced that Iran was trying to build a nuclear weapon. ‘There are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time’, he said, in an allusion to the specific steps necessary to prepare a nuclear device.
All of this – the lack of evidence, the lack of knowledge – lends the Western obsession with Iran’s supposed dream of a nuclear arsenal an unreal air. It seems to have less to do with Iran itself, than with the existential needs of Western leaders desperate for a way in which to demonstrate their moral authority on a global stage. And what better way to do this than by chastising the pantomime villain of Iran, a one-time member of Obama’s predecessor’s ‘axis of evil’.
In many ways, this should not be a surprise. The obsession with who can have nuclear weapons and who cannot, institutionalised in the international Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the late 1960s, was always informed by an attempt to justify and maintain the global divide between the West and the rest. Back then, with anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia having cast off their imperial fetters, and many in the West itself questioning the rectitude of older racial notions of Empire, a new non-racial framework was sought to justify Western superiority. So it was that in this context of a withered colonialism that the NPT acquired its original meaning. It helped to reframe the global order in terms of responsible states and fragile, unstable states, between the militarily responsible and the militarily unpredictable.
Whether consciously or not, Obama’s administration drew upon the idea of non-proliferation as a source of international moral authority right from the start of his presidency. In spring 2009, for instance, Obama set out his ‘agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons’ to much media fanfare. We were told that the US had a ‘mission’, a ‘moral responsibility’, to rid the world of the nuclear threat. And then at the Nuclear Security Summit the following year, 46 world leaders joined Obama to sign up to new commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and to share in the US-forged dream of a ‘world without nuclear weapons’.
Iran’s current status as No.1 threat to world peace owes much to this US-led, Western focus on non-proliferation. Iran has provided the likes of Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy with the morally irresponsible Other against which they can affirm their own moral authority, as the responsible possessors of nuclear weapons. This is the key dynamic driving the increasingly hysterical attitude towards Iran’s nuclear programme: a quest for moral authority on the international stage, not Iran’s putative quest for a really powerful bomb. And so they keep sending in IAEA inspectors to demonstrate their role as the world’s moral guardians. And so, in turn, the Iranian authorities resent the inspectors’ presence, as shown this week by the IAEA inspectorate’s non-admission to particular sites.
Not that Iran’s rulers have not played their part in this surreal, rapidly escalating conflict. Just as Obama et al are keen to use nuclear non-proliferation as a means to demonstrate Western powers’ moral superiority, so the Iranian government is keen to use its nuclear-power programme as proof both of its own strength and its refusal to kowtow before meddling Westerners. Hence, the state unveiling on Iranian national TV of some new uranium enrichment centrifuges. Ahmadinejad’s speech on live TV showed that he was less interested in nuclear technology than in defying those foreign states that pose as his betters: ‘The era of bullying nations has passed. The arrogant powers cannot monopolise nuclear technology. They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed… our nuclear path will continue.’
There is one thing worth remembering throughout all this posing and counter-posturing over nuclear weapons: to this day, there remains only one country that has ever deployed a nuclear weapon against a civilian population. And it is not Iran.
Tim Black is senior writer for spiked.
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