Bruce Anderson

Let them build nukes

Bruce Anderson says it is dangerous to try to bully the Iranians into abandoning their nuclear ambitions

Text settings

It would appear to be another August crisis. From Washington to Tel Aviv there are expressions of alarm and despondency, especially in Brussels. It looks as if European diplomacy has failed. The Iranians seem determined to press ahead with their nuclear weapons programme. To judge by the newspapers, one would assume that this has come as a shock. But anyone involved with Iran policy who claims to be shocked is only pretending.

Apart from Britain’s relations with the EU, it is hard to think of a foreign policy question on which there has been a greater divergence between the public version of events and the policy-makers’ private thoughts. Over the past few months, I have discussed Iran in Washington, Paris, London and Tel Aviv. All my interlocutors were dismayed at the dangerous and destabilising consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear power. Yet none of them could come up with a solution. They saw no harm in the Europeans trying to negotiate. But no one had any faith in the possibility of success.

Until the recent Iranian elections, some American neoconservatives thought that there were grounds for optimism. They believed that because of public alienation the regime was on the point of collapse. A couple of years ago I listened to Richard Perle explaining why there was no point in talking to Khatami, the then Iranian president. He was like one of those now-forgotten final-phase communist leaders in Eastern Europe, trying to persuade the West that he was a legitimate reformer when he was about to be swept into history’s dustbin.

In Iran, it has not quite worked out like that. Not that Mr Perle was alone. Hardly anyone predicted the outcome of the recent elections, and almost every commentator overestimated the strength of the Iranian liberal opposition. It appears to have been much smaller and much more Tehran-based than we had thought, or hoped.

There was a further problem. Suppose that the theocracy had imploded and been replaced by a more amenable regime. Iranian liberalism has no equivalent of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the absence of such a charismatic leader, the new, almost certainly weak, government would have been striving to consolidate its hold on public opinion. In such circumstances, is it likely that it would have abandoned the nuclear weapons programme? Admittedly, one would rather that its leaders had their fingers on the nuclear trigger instead of some mullah with a sublime faith in paradise. But Iran would still have been moving towards nuclear status.

If one spends five seconds trying to look at the world through Iranian eyes, it is easy to see why. Iranians know that they live in a dangerous neighbourhood. If the Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis have nuclear weapons, why not them? They are more democratic than Pakistan, while their human rights record is much better than China’s. Then there are Russia, America — and Israel. As an intellectual exercise, try to find a justification which one in 100,000 Iranians might accept for Israel having nuclear weapons, but not Iran.

Iran is an ancient civilisation. Its people have an exalted conception of their destiny. Like the Chinese, they complain that in recent times the rest of the world has not paid them the respect which they are due. The resulting insecurity makes them quick to take offence, and to feel threatened. The nuclear dégringolade will encourage both reactions.

So what can the West do? Let us begin by dismissing any military fantasies. America could attack Iran, on one condition: if the Iranians were to behave so atrociously that 90 per cent of the American public demanded war and conscription, instantly. Short of that, the US has neither the men, the political will nor the geopolitical insanity for an invasion of Iran. That would mean the end of the Western Alliance, while the Middle East would go up in flames, as would Pakistan, not to mention the oil price and the world economy. Anyone who thinks that President Bush would act in such a way must believe him to be the Michael Moore version, after several lobotomies.

Lesser military options are equally implausible. In 1981, the Israelis destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Osirak, and thank goodness for their chutzpah. But it was an easy target, standing out in the desert like Ozymandias’s statue before its fall. There is no Osirak equivalent. We probably cannot be sure where all the vital kit is located, and some of it will be in hardened silos which could not be destroyed by conventional weapons. A pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran? We are back in Michael Moore-land.

That leaves sanctions. At one level, they would work, as they did in Iraq. The Iranian economy would suffer. The problem of poverty, already severe, would intensify. But would this undermine support for the mullahs? There are good reasons for scepticism. The mullahs would be able to appeal to nationalism and anti-Americanism. Their efforts would be reinforced by the Shia ethos, which encourages adherents to embrace suffering and martyrdom. Religion, national pride, xenophobia: it is a potent blend. The liberal minority would no doubt remain impervious. Would it cease to be impotent?

The mullahs would not be impotent. We would have done our worst. As sanctions sank their teeth, Iran would retaliate. More support for Hezbollah, more trouble-making in Iraq, stirring it up in some of the smaller Gulf states just across the road, hitting at Western interests wherever the opportunity presented itself; treat Iran as a pariah, and it will behave like one.

At this juncture, we should seek guidance from two of the golden rules of foreign policy. The first is to see the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. The second, that if a course of action has no prospect of success, there is no point in persevering with it.

If we were to change tack, we would start with one advantage. Iran is not a fruitcake-ocracy like North Korea. It is a complex society. Its government’s actions, though often unwelcome, are neither irrational nor unpredictable. Above all, it should be possible to talk to the Iranians. They are sophisticated. If we showed some willingness to understand their point of view, they might reciprocate by accepting that not all our disputes with them arise from black hatred.

They want to be taken seriously as a regional superpower. As they are one — with a population of almost 80 million — that should not overtax us. They seek reassurance that they are not about to be attacked: equally easy. They have already been helpful to the West over drug-smuggling through Afghanistan; they do not like drugs. We should build on that to encourage other forms of co-operation. We should also maximise trading links, on the assumption that growth would assist Iran’s evolution while stagnation would retard it.

That leads to one short-term difficulty. We appear to be locked into the IAEA/ Security Council/sanctions route. But when the Pakistanis were naughty boys over nukes, they were merely made to stand in the corner for ten minutes. We needed them as allies, so expediency ruled. Let us be equally expedient with Iran.

Does this mean that in ten years’ time Iran will no longer be troublesome? That depends on what is meant by trouble; there is bound to be some. But we can be certain on one point. Within ten years Iran will be a nuclear power. So do we want it stewing in poverty, isolation and hatred, or would we prefer it to be part of a framework of diplomacy and entente? That question answers itself.