As Israel plays up the country’s nuclear threat, the west should be seeking active dialogue with Tehran
“Actions,” said Samuel Johnson in his life of the English poet Abraham Cowley, “are visible.” What are secret, Johnson added pointedly, are “motives”.
In the case of Iran’s nuclear programme what we know of Tehran’s actions and motives are the following.
With some degree of “overall credibility” – according to the 2011 board of governors’ report from the International Atomic Energy Agency – we know that Tehran, in all likelihood, made active studies of technologies associated with nuclear weapon design and payload design. By and large, the report believes, that activity ceased in 2003, coincident with the US-led invasion of Iraq.
We know, too, because it has been even more visible, that Iran has come close to mastering the nuclear fuel cycle as well, including enrichment of uranium up to 20%.
The problem with the present dangerous debate, as it has been framed ever-more closely through the exclusive prism of Israel’s security concerns and its ever-louder threats to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, is that far from illuminating what actually motivates Iran in its nuclear ambitions, it has tended to obscure Tehran’s motives instead.
So what does Iran really want?
Writing in 2009, Kayhan Barzegar, an expert on Iran who has taught both in Tehran and in the US, described what he called the “paradox of Iran’s nuclear consensus“. He was attempting to lay bare the complex and competing historical, political and strategic considerations behind the theocratic regime’s nuclear decision-making processes.
Referencing two centuries of internal criticism of Iran’s failure “to acquire substantial power, influence and wealth”, Barzegar cites more recent history that has persuaded many Iranians, not least in the country’s elites, that the west, and Britain and America in particular, have long conspired to throw obstacles in the way of Iran’s development both economically and as a major regional player.
From an Iranian point of view, there is ample evidence of this: from the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh’s government in a CIA and MI6-led coup in 1953, after he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, to western resistance to the shah’s Esfahan steel manufacturing project to President Clinton’s killing off a $1bn deal for the US energy company Conoco to develop offshore oil fields. It is a suspicion that has been amplified by the country’s post-Islamic revolution politics.
Indeed, one of the bleakest of historical ironies is that the early revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini actually halted the western-supported civil nuclear programme in place under the shah and it was only persuaded that it needed to acquire nuclear weapons technology because of Iran’s massive losses in the war with Iraq, then supported by the US, which saw Iran targeted with chemical weapons.
It is these twin considerations – a combination of desire for deterrence in a neighbourhood where there are five nuclear powers and a sense of frustrated regional ambitions – that have long driven Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, summed up in its 20-year strategic plan, ratified by its powerful expediency council, which calls for Iran to “rank first in the region”.
Iran’s decision-making over its nuclear programme, not least its pursuit of weapons technology, is complicated by a number of other factors. Indeed, the 2010 US National Intelligence Estimate, in agreement with other analysts, argued that far from having already concluded it would build a bomb at any cost, Tehran is more flexible on the issue, “guided by a cost-benefit approach”, a judgment recently endorsed by 16 US agencies that have studied the issue and concluded there is no evidence Iran is actively trying to build a bomb.
Indeed, as Barzegar argued: “There are quite a number of reasons why, from the perspective of the Iranian leadership, weaponisation is untenable, unnecessary and unwise.”
If Iran’s deliberate policy of ambiguity is one complicating factor, a second and equally important issue is how the nuclear programme, and the consequent international pressure on Tehran, has become ever more politicised in both the factional wrangling within the regime and the country’s wider politics.
That has meant, counterintuitively perhaps, that as international pressure on Iran over its nuclear ambitions has increased, it has made it harder, not easier, for the regime to come to an accommodation as even some leading members of the Green opposition have criticised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for any perceived concessions.
If the motivation of Iran is far more complex than that described by the present, simplistic debate, a question needs to be asked, too, about the motivation of Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and those of his Israeli allies who have been pushing most vigorously for military action.
With not even 20% of Israelis believing that Israel should launch a unilateral attack against Iran, according to one poll, and the country divided over how effective a joint Israeli-US strike would be (Israel is not in a position to act alone), Netanyahu, even as he lectured American supporters, has failed to convince his own public.
More cynically, as a recent column in the Economist argued, Netanyahu’s promotion of the threat posed by Iran, described in evermore apocalyptic terms, has been a convenient piece of “displacement” by an Israeli leader absolutely determined to avoid any meaningful engagement with the Palestinian peace process or bring an end to the occupation of the West Bank.
Because of this, a debate that should be about Iran’s real nuclear ambitions and motives, and about how to engage with the regime constructively to prevent further proliferation, has been hijacked by a largely false premise.
For those of us who were intimate observers of the headlong charge to war against Iraq, it seems nothing more than a dispiriting rerun, not least in David Cameron’s hyperbolic claim – counter to the weight of all current available evidence – that Iran is actively pursuing the construction of a intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the west, an assertion eerily reminiscent of Tony Blair’s untrue claim that Iraq could strike British interests within “45 minutes”.
A war with Iran is not inevitable, but it might yet become so if the debate does not become both more honest and realistic. Indeed, the west has misread Iran for the best part of a century and more, not least since the country’s revolution.
To go to war twice in the Gulf within the space of a decade based on rhetoric, lies and misunderstanding would not simply be a tragedy but an utter catastrophe that would shame the west.
from Peter Beaumont