Imagine for a moment that you are a senior official in Iran’s foreign ministry. It’s hot outside on the dusty, congested streets of Tehran. But inside the ministry, despite the air-conditioning, it’s getting stickier all the time. You have a big problem, a problem that Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami, admits is “huge and serious”. The problem is the Bush administration and, specifically, its insistence that Iran is running “an alarming clandestine nuclear weapons programme”. You fear that this, coupled with daily US claims that Iran is aiding al-Qaida, is leading in only one direction. US news reports reaching your desk indicate that the Pentagon is now advocating “regime change” in Iran.
Reading dispatches from Geneva, you note that the US abruptly walked out of low-level talks there last week, the only bilateral forum for two countries lacking formal diplomatic relations. You worry that bridge-building by Iran’s UN ambassador is getting nowhere. You understand that while Britain and the EU are telling Washington that engagement, not confrontation, is the way forward, the reality, as Iraq showed, is that if George Bush decides to do it his way, there is little the Europeans or indeed Russia can ultimately do to stop him.
What is certain is that at almost all points of the compass, the unmatchable US military machine besieges Iran’s borders. The Pentagon is sponsoring the Iraq-based Mojahedin e-Khalq, a group long dedicated to insurrection in the Islamic republic that the state department describes as terrorists. And you are fully aware that Israel is warning Washington that unless something changes soon, Iran may acquire the bomb within two years. As the temperature in the office rises, as flies buzz around the desk like F-16s in a dogfight and as beads of sweat form on furrowed brow, it seems only one conclusion is possible. The question with which you endlessly pestered your foreign missions before and during the invasion of Iraq – “who’s next?” – appears now to have but one answer. It’s us.
So what would you do?
This imaginary official may be wrong, of course. Without some new terrorist enormity in the US “homeland”, surely Bush is not so reckless as to start another all-out war as America’s election year approaches? Washington’s war of words could amount to nothing more than that. Maybe the US foolishly believes it is somehow helping reformist factions in the Majlis (parliament), the media and student bodies. Maybe destabilisation and intimidation is the name of the game and the al-Qaida claims are a pretext, as in Iraq. Perhaps the US does not itself know what it wants to do; a White House strategy meeting is due today. But who knows? Tehran’s dilemma is real: Washington’s intentions are dangerously uncertain.
Should Iran continue to deny any present bomb-making intent and facilitate additional, short-notice inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prove it? Should it expand its EU dialogue and strengthen protective ties with countries such as Syria and Lebanon, India, Russia and China, which is its present policy? The answer is “yes”. The difficulty is that this may not be enough. Should it then go further and cancel its nuclear power contracts with Moscow? Should it abandon Hizbullah and Palestinian rejectionist groups, as America demands? This doubtless sounds like a good idea to neo-con thinktankers. But surely even they can grasp that such humiliation, under duress from the Great Satan, is politically unacceptable. Grovelling is not Persian policy.
Even the relatively moderate Khatami made it clear in Beirut recently that there would be no backtracking in the absence of a just, wider Middle East settlement. And anyway, Khatami does not control Iran’s foreign and defence policy. Indeed, it is unclear who does. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, security chief Hassan Rohani, and the military and intelligence agencies all doubtless have a say, which may be why Iran’s policies often appear contradictory. Tension between civil society reformers and the mullahs is endemic and combustible. But as US pressure has increased, so too has the sway of Islamic hardliners.
Iran’s alternative course is the worst of all, but one which Bush’s threats make an ever more likely choice. It is to build and deploy nuclear weapons and missiles in order to pre-empt America’s regime-toppling designs. The US should hardly be surprised if it comes to this. After all, it is what Washington used to call deterrence before it abandoned that concept in favour of “anticipatory defence” or, more candidly, unilateral offensive warfare. To Iran, the US now looks very much like the Soviet Union looked to western Europe at the height of the cold war. Britain and West Germany did not waive their right to deploy US cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles to deter the combined menace of overwhelming conventional forces and an opposing, hostile ideology. Why, in all logic, should Iran, or for that matter North Korea and other so-called “rogue states” accused of developing weapons of mass destruction, act any differently?
If this is Iran’s choice, the US will be much to blame. While identifying WMD proliferation as the main global threat, its bellicose post-9/11 policies have served to increase rather than reduce it. Washington ignores, as ever, its exemplary obligation to disarm under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Despite strategic reductions negotiated with Russia, the US retains enormous firepower in every nuclear weapons category. Worse still, the White House is set on developing, not just researching, a new generation of battlefield “mini-nukes” whose only application is offensive use, not deterrence. Its new $400bn defence budget allocates funding to this work; linked to this is an expected US move to end its nuclear test moratorium in defiance of the comprehensive test ban treaty.
Bush has repeatedly warned, not least in his national security strategy, that the US is prepared to use “overwhelming force”, including first use of nuclear weapons, to crush perceived or emerging threats. It might well have done so in Iraq had the war gone badly. Bush has thereby torn up the key stabilising concept of “negative security assurance” by which nuclear powers including previous US administrations pledged, through the NPT and the UN, not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Meanwhile the US encourages egregious double standards. What it says, in effect, is that Iran (and most other states) must not be allowed a nuclear capability but, for example, Israel’s undeclared and internationally uninspected arsenal is permissible. India’s and Pakistan’s bombs, although recently and covertly acquired, are tolerated too, since they are deemed US allies. Bush’s greatest single disservice to non-proliferation came in Iraq. The US cried wolf in exaggerating Saddam’s capability. Now it is actively undermining the vital principle of independent, international inspection and verification by limiting UN access to the country. Yet would Iraq have been attacked if it really had possessed nuclear weapons? Possibly not. Thus the self-defeating, mangled message to Iran and others is: arm yourselves to the teeth, before it it too late, or you too could face the chop.
Small wonder if things grow sticky inside Tehran’s dark-windowed ministries right now. If Iran ultimately does the responsible thing and forswears the bomb, it will not be for want of the most irresponsible American provocation.