By Jonathan Schell, Globe and Mail, April 11, 2012
Jonathan Schell is a visiting fellow at Yale University. He is the author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.
Later this week, Iran is scheduled to meet with representatives of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – plus Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) in an effort to decide the fate of Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly preparing its third nuclear test, as if to provide a discordant soundtrack for the talks.
If the talks fail, and military action against Iran becomes more likely, no one should be surprised. Over the past decade, a new kind of war has been invented: a war designed to stop a country from obtaining nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The first “disarmament war” was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its goal, spelled out plainly by U.S. president George W. Bush’s administration to the Security Council and the U.S. Congress, was to destroy Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and production facilities. Of course, as it turned out, no such stockpiles or facilities were found, and the war proved to be an exercise in bloody futility.
This experience illustrates one of the great drawbacks of the use of force as a tool of disarmament. An attack must be timed to perfection, and it must be launched after the WMD programs are in operation and evident, but before they have produced any weapons. If the attack comes too early – or if, as in Iraq, the programs are not there at all – people will die for nothing. But if the weapons have already been produced, the attack could prompt their use and, possibly, counter-use by the invading party, leading, conceivably, to the world’s first two-sided nuclear war.
Although the invasion of Iraq was a debacle, the policy underlying it has survived. Curiously, that policy may have escaped discredit in part precisely because its target was a mirage. Is a military action a true test of a disarmament war’s efficacy if the arms in question are missing?
Now another disarmament war – this time against Iran – is taking shape. Once again, the intelligence is at best fuzzy. There is much talk of “red lines” – some technical or other step that Iran might take to turn its nuclear-fuel program into a nuclear-bomb program – that must not be crossed. But what are these red lines? Would research on an explosive lens suitable for detonating an atomic bomb be a red line? Would further dispersal of Iran’s nuclear facilities be one? Would a report of a “decision” by someone in the Iranian government count?
In short, how can we be sure that a red line has been crossed? No one knows, and no one is saying. But it appears that upon such obscure determinations a decision between war and peace will depend.
The Iran crisis raises new issues as well. To achieve lasting disarmament, military action would also have to be lasting, beginning with regime change and continuing with a long occupation. But, while President Barack Obama has said of Iran that “all options are on the table,” occupation clearly is not among them. The American public has lost its appetite for occupying Middle Eastern countries, which means that only air power is available. But air power alone cannot impede Iran’s nuclear program for more than a year or two.
What an air attack can do – and is likely to do – is to goad Iran, which may or may not want to acquire nuclear arms, to launch a crash program to accomplish just that. Would other Middle Eastern countries not follow suit?
The aim of a disarmament war is to prevent proliferation, locally and regionally. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is one route to proliferation. But a war to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear arms is probably a quicker and surer route to the same destination.
Fortunately, there may still be a way out of the impasse. Mr. Obama has called an Iranian atomic arsenal “unacceptable.” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly stated that holding such arms is a sin, as well as “useless, harmful and dangerous.” So the two leaders agree. In this, there may be the basis for a deal.
The bone of contention is uranium enrichment, which the P5+1 have so far insisted that Iran suspend, at least provisionally. Iran claims the right to enrich under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The P5+1 reply that Iran lost that right by concealing nuclear programs from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has declared Iran to be in non-compliance with the NPT. It has been suggested that the U.S. will demand dismantlement of an enrichment facility in the mountain stronghold of Fordow.
But the essence of a deal lies in permitting Iran to continue uranium enrichment for civilian purposes, in exchange for full disclosure of all programs, including any that were or are devoted to nuclear-weapons research. To facilitate the process, Pierre Goldschmidt, a former IAEA deputy director-general, has proposed “a grace period during which Iran would not be penalized should it voluntarily disclose the existence of undeclared nuclear material and activities, and/or acknowledge any past violations of the NPT or of its safeguards agreement.”
When the cause of peace makes justice impossible, forgiveness is never easy. But, like South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the Catholic sacrament of confession, Mr. Goldschmidt’s plan would prevent the perfect from becoming the enemy of the good.
Another war to achieve disarmament, or another war to prevent another war?
Seems ironic that the military machine has become, and continues to be, the "ultimate weapon" and its ultimate deployment is the prevention of, in this case, nuclear armament by Iran, and ostensibly others countries in the Middle East.
Or is it? Is not the real weapon, in this case, as in many others, the access to the truth.
Witholding information, for private purposes, renders either a nation state, or an individual in a family, not only the black sheep, but the most disruptive member of the group. In fact, is it not the group's coherence, and the groups solidarity, and the group's compliance with specific norms that is threatened by the witholder of significant information.
To get the truth from individuals, there have been various, nefarious attempts to elicit it, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, torture, solitude, numerous interrogation techniques. And yet none of them produce the truth. And with Iran, no individual, and certainly not the IAEA has been able to ascertain the full purpose of Iran's nuclear program. A grace period to permit "voluntary disclosure" sounds like a reasonable proposal, certainly one to push war past the November elections in the U.S., something the Obama administration desperately wants. Moving 'red lines' without definition or agreement, and thereby without enforcement, hardly seems to be the answer.
Sanctions, including oil embargoes, have had some impact, but, with the growing appetite for oil in countries like India, Iran can count on continual customers, in whatever currency the buyer wishes, for its oil, and thereby preserve the basic aspects of its economy, rendering sanctions a limited instrument.
Power and its ownership (with both allies and hegemonic designs), against an opposing power and its collective deployment....these actors and their agendas underpin the current "brinkmanship" and we all pay dearly at the pump and in reduced security and stability internationally. Witness Iran's ally Syria, providing backdrop for the current round of talks with Irannot to mention the rumbling from North Korea about a new missile test and a possible underground nuclear test as well. Is this violent backdrop being choreographed, for example, by Iran itself in order to destabilize the P5+1 and the meeting itself?
It is powerlessness that neither side can tolerate, in the face of threats from the opposition. And powerlessness is the great satan, not the U.S. and not Iran....although both protagonists portray the other as Satan. So there is an absence of the facts, one form of needed truth, and there is an agreement to misrepresent the enemy, another form of deception.
It was in the art of war that the Chinese author, Sun Tzu, centuries ago reminded us that deception is the sine qua non of any war. And it is deception that we must attempt to remove, if we are to live, relatively without conflict on a shrinking planet, with shrinking resources, and galloping and voracious "power" needs, both physical and political. And removing deception, like removing cancer, is one of the more intractable of political problems, since, at the core of every political debate, is a substantial measure of subterfuge, deception, deceit and a perception of scarcity of power, rendering the actors too needy to conduct a mature, adult and frank discussion about what is really going on.
And, learning how to project 'smoke and mirrors' in power games merely demonstrates the capacity to play those games, not the capacity to tell the truth. Little wonder that the political arena is so unattractive to so many, and so dangerous for those unwilling to play by its suspect rules.
Kicking this radioactive football down the road has implicit danger for both sides, and for the rest of the planet. And failing to kick it down the road has similar and even potentially more serious dangers for us all. And that may be the best we can expect from these talks.