A recent incident reminded me of the strong emotions that underlie thinking about Iran by some officials and ex-officials in the United States and parts of Europe.
In this instance, an academic who had questioned whether Iran’s safeguards agreement gives the International Atomic Energy agency (IAEA) a right to demand that Iran account for activities not involving nuclear material (a valid question, in my view) was accused of being “the Ayatollah’s lawyer.”
I have come across other instances in which experts declining to assume the worst of Iran’s nuclear intentions have been labelled “apologists” and accused of giving comfort to the enemy.
These incidents and experiences when I was still in active service, suggest to me the existence of a faction that considers Iran a hostile state and sees Iran’s nuclear activities as a threat to national defense.
Is it reasonable to perceive Iran’s nuclear activities as a threat to national defense? Since the end of 2007, the US intelligence community has told us that we cannot assume that Iran’s leaders are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Other intelligence communities, including Israel’s, appear to have come around to the same view.
Iran’s nuclear research has allowed them to master a technology – enrichment – that can be used for both civil and military purposes, and they possess enough nuclear material to make dozens of nuclear weapons. But one cannot infer from this that they intend to acquire nuclear weapons and are therefore a threat. One can only infer that they have the potential to acquire weapons and are therefore a potential threat – in a world full of potential threats.
Is it reasonable to perceive Iran as hostile to the US and Europe? Iran’s interests and views diverge from ours at many points. Iran believes it was a mistake to tolerate the creation of an exclusively Jewish state in the Levant; we do not. Iran supports the right of Lebanese Shi’a to resort to force in self-defense; we consider Hezbollah terrorists. Iran has longstanding ties to the Syrian government; our sympathies are with the Syrian opposition. Iran is at odds with Saudi Arabia in Iraq and the Yemen; the Saudis are our friends. And so on.
But to be on opposite sides of a dispute taking place on neutral ground, so to speak, is not the same thing as being in a state of hostility. Nations can have conflicting interests and opposing views without being enemies. It happens all the time.
Iran’s official security doctrines imply a defensive, not an offensive orientation. Contacts with Iranian officials suggest that Iran’s leaders find political advantage in demonizing certain Western countries but are not bent on attacking them. If Western intelligence agencies are aware of Iranian plans to start a war against the US, Europe or Israel, it is surprising that this intelligence has not been leaked.
So perhaps one can legitimately say that the case for seeing Iran as an enemy and as a threat to our homelands is unproven.
So what? Perhaps it is unreasonable to see Iran in these terms, but does that matter? Yes, because it colors the Western approach to the nuclear problem. It leads us to place undue weight on the application of pressure to induce Iran to submit to our wishes; to misrepresent evidence to justify additional pressure; and to advance contentious interpretations of Iran’s safeguards agreement, the IAEA Statute, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the UN Charter, to prejudice the international community against Iran and justify measures that harm Iran.
Pressure can of course play a useful role in dispute resolution. It can be necessary. But the dose has to be right. Too much pressure can be counter-productive, stimulating defiance and a determination to concede nothing. Over-reliance on pressure can turn policy into a one-trick pony.
Misrepresenting evidence has been a recurrent feature of the last ten years. In 2002, for instance, we claimed that Iran had no intention of declaring the Natanz enrichment plant because no declaration had been made before construction began; yet at that time Iran was only obliged to declare plants 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material. Last year, we claimed the IAEA had found evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme; yet the evidence, still unconfirmed, was of research into how to make nuclear weapons, not of the construction of weapons.
As for contentious interpretations, they are too numerous to list. One of the most egregious, though, is the claim that Iran may not enrich because it is in non-compliance with the NPT. Not only would an impartial court (if such existed) be challenged to determine that Iran has been in NPT non-compliance since its pre-2004 safeguards failures were corrected; but the NPT is without provision for the forfeiting of rights, and in the 2003-5 period the Europeans fully accepted that Iran’s suspension of enrichment was a voluntary confidence-building measure, not an obligation, as did the IAEA Board of Governors.
A more dispassionate approach would allow us to see the Iranian nuclear problem more clearly, as an instance of past non-compliance with NPT safeguards obligations that has generated distrust in Iran’s nuclear intentions. The problem can be resolved by giving Iran an opportunity to rebuild confidence in its intentions, particularly in its future resolve to respect the NPT.
If the US and parts of Europe cannot bring themselves to take a dispassionate view, they should step aside and allow the lead to pass to states which can be dispassionate. NPT compliance is the business of all 189 states that are NPT parties; it ought not to be the preserve of a handful of states that have axes to grind, still less of a state – Israel – that is not even a party to the NPT.