By Jonathan Power
Where do Iran’s grand ideas about itself come from? From the history of its once great empire but also from the fact that the US encouraged Iran at the time of the Shah to both build up a nuclear industry and to become the regional power in the Gulf.
Where does all the misleading information about Iran’s apparent desire to build a nuclear weapon come from? Mainly from the politicians of Israel. (But not always from Israeli intelligence. Two of its former bosses have cast doubt on the views of the politicians.)
Where does the conviction of most of the US Congress that Iran is well on the way to building a bomb come from? US intelligence concluded in 2007 and has reaffirmed twice since that Iran abandoned its weapons program twelve years ago.
(Iran is, of course, enriching uranium, for use, it says, in its civilian power plans to enable it to use nuclear power when its oil reserves start to fall. It has also invested large amounts of money in wind and solar power.)
Why have negotiations never got off the ground until now? Initially, because President Bill Clinton was up to his eyes in negotiations with Israel and Palestine and also North Korea.
Why did his successor, George W. Bush, rule out cooperation with a country he regarded as part of “the axis of evil”, even refusing to respond to a conciliatory hand of friendship offered by Iran? Because at the back of his mind he thought if it became clear that Iran was set on building nuclear weapons the US could bomb to bits its nuclear research and development plants.
Why did the advocates of bombing get Bush’s ear? That’s the kind of thing he liked to hear. But the fact is military action would set back Iran’s program for only a couple of years.
Why also did Bush sabotage anti-bomb negotiations with North Korea which under Clinton had advanced to within sight of completion? Clinton was preparing to visit North Korea when he got bogged down in the Israel-Palestine negotiations. Clinton had already succeeded in persuading North Korea to freeze its plutonium production infrastructure. The Bush position was that its nuclear programs had to be completely dismantled, not frozen, even though the country was desperate for energy. The result of Bush’s shortsighted attitude to compromise was that North Korea stockpiled plutonium and tested a nuclear bomb.
Similarly, because of all the delay in refusing negotiations unless Iran was prepared to give up all its enrichment activity – a policy nullified by President Barack Obama – Iran advanced from having 164 centrifuges in 2006 to over 15,000 today, happily spinning away to enrich its uranium stockpile at a rapid rate.
Thus, late in the day, when the time of true compromise is water under the bridge, there are no “good” deals on offer with either North Korea or with Iran, ones which could have been obtained if not for the flawed priorities of Clinton and Bush. Nevertheless, the Iranians are offering a reasonably good deal which the US must now grab if it is to avoid being left with, what some would say, including the Republicans in Congress, no alternative but to bomb.
As Obama keeps saying, there is no other way forward but this deal. War, he believes, is not an option. Its consequences are dangerously unknowable. It is very doubtful if the American public would support one more Middle East war.
The negotiations which should conclude at the end of this month have two outstanding issues to be settled- when Western and Russian sanctions would be lifted and how inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities should be conducted.
The differences are not huge enough to sabotage a deal that the world now expects. Indeed, if it is not clinched and relations begin to deteriorate the Europeans and the Russians could well break with the US.
Obama has already indicated he will sign an agreement by executive fiat, if Congress is not willing to approve the deal. But the Republicans are boasting that they will have enough votes to override a veto by Obama of a Congressional resolution meant to block the agreement.
The Republicans don’t seem to care that this isn’t just an American-Iranian deal and say that if made it can be undone at a later date. But European and Russian signatures- the US negotiating partners- will be added to America’s. The UN Security Council will be asked to approve it and there will be a unanimous vote in favour. If the US later decides to buck the Security Council’s authority such a serious, unprecedented, breaking of international law would profoundly undermine world order.
Not least, Republicans need to be reminded that if the US walks away from an accord so will Iran. If building a bomb was its intention all along it will build it.
Copyright Jonathan Power