Friday, August 01, 2008

George Monbiot on a nuclear Iran

George Monbiot had a good article on the Iran nuclear issue in the Guardian earlier this week, wherein he identified the bottom line: that if Iran does want nuclear weapons, the reasons will most likely have to do with the clear security threats that it faces. Aside from the existence of Israel's nuclear weapons and those of the UNSC P5, who are obliged to disarm under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (the same treaty they wave at Iran) but refuse to do so, Monbiot could also have mentioned that Iran has Pakistan and India's weapons in its neighbourhood as well, plus US bases/allies in practically every neighbouring country and US warships in the Persian Gulf. Plus the US has invaded and occupied two of Iran's neighbours, justifying those actions with similar accusations to those now made against Tehran. And Israeli and US politicians continue to implicitly or explicitly threaten to attack Iran militarily (threats of force being illegal under the UN charter).

But I appreciate that newspaper columnists have to work within the constraints of space, and Monbiot’s article was focused on upholding the international mechanisms for non-proliferation and reminding us of Britain's own flaunted obligations in that regard. So the above isn't a criticism, more an addition to the point he was making in the article.

While I wholly agree with the main thrust of the article, I’d respectfully take issue with a couple of points Monbiot makes within his argument. He tries to portray his position as being on a sensible middle ground between Western governments who say Iran definitely does and “some anti-war campaigners” who say it definitely does not have a nuclear weapons program. But in fact he offers no challenge to the position of the former group; only to the latter. He actually seems pretty certain such a program exists, and that's a highly problematic stance.

Personally, I don’t say unequivocally that Iran does not want the bomb. I note for example Israeli historian Martin van Creveld's statement that, given the security threats mentioned above, Iran would be "crazy" not to build a nuclear weapon. But nor do I think we can state unequivocally that Iran does have a nuclear program, or even say (as Monbiot seems to) that we can pretty much assume that it does. Its important (a) to acknowledge that we don't know one way or the other, and (b) to also note the evidence that and reasons why Iran might not have such a program. These remain just as significant as the evidence that and reasons why Iran would have a weapons program. And one can't overstate the importance of looking at this particular topic in as balanced and accurate a way as possible, given what's at stake.

Monbiot accuses some anti-war folk of “clutching” at the recent US National Intelligence Estimate's (the consensus opinion of all US intelligence agencies) conclusion that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. He points out that the NIE also said that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are such that if it decided to start a weapons program it could do so quite swiftly. Fair enough. But its hardly valid to skip lightly over the difference between having a weapons program and not having one (but being able to start one quickly) as though the difference between the two doesn't exist at all. Moreover, Monbiot is failing to join the dots between this and his overall argument (that Iran wants the bomb as a deterrent). Whether the difference between Iran having a peaceful nuclear program and having a weapons program is a substantial one or not depends on the security environment. To the extent that the West continues to start wars all over the Middle East, fill the region with troops, military bases and aircraft carriers, arms its allies to the teeth and threaten war on anyone who challenges its hegemony, then yes, it becomes increasingly likely that the difference between a peaceful and a non-peaceful Iranian nuclear program will be an academic one. Monbiot could have drawn this into his overall argument if he'd seen what appears to me to be a fairly obvious connection.

Monbiot says that the International Atomic Energy Agency has many questions outstanding in relation to Iran's activities. But he should also have mentioned – because (as I point out above) it is not exactly irrelevant - that the IAEA has also said there is no evidence of a weapons program existing. What we cannot do is, to use Hans Blix's memorable phrase, turn question marks into exclamation marks in respect of this issue. That takes us into the same territory of false logic as the pre-Iraq war US and UK governments and the 9/11 conspiracy theorists. People are not convicted on suspicion; there’s a very good reason why the burden of proof is on the party making the accusation and not on the party being accused.

(It is also, I regret to say, a little cheap of Monbiot to declare – with an adjective substituting for a properly functioning argument - that people citing a strong source of evidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons program – the NIE - are in some way desperately “clutching” at something flimsy. When the IAEA and the NIE both tell us that Iran is not making nukes, that has a good deal of authority, and for Monbiot to challenge this he needs to offer better arguments than these)

Monbiot says, rightly in my view, that "those of us who oppose an attack on Iran are under no obligation to accept [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad's claims of peaceful intent". However, as Juan Cole has pointed out, "the [Iranian] Supreme Jurisprudent has given a fatwa against having or using nuclear weapons as illicit in Islamic law. You can't acknowledge that Iran is a dictatorial theocracy and then turn around and say that his fatwa is irrelevant."

Recall that it is the Supreme Jurisprudent, not Ahmedinejad, who in ultimate charge of Iranian government policy. Note also that Khamenei's power is not simply material; it also rests on his credibility as an Islamic cleric. To flagrantly breach his own explicit ruling would clearly diminish his clerical and therefore his political standing, and that's something he'd have to take into account if he decided that Iran should have the bomb. That's not to say he would never do it, but its a non-trivial barrier for him to overcome, which may mitigate against it happening. Again, this is not something we can simply ignore.

Monbiot asks "Why would a country with such reserves of natural gas and so great a potential for solar power suffer sanctions and the threat of bombing to make fuel it could buy from other states, if it accepted the UN's terms?" There are three answers to this.

First, it would clearly make far more economic sense for Iran to maximise the amount of oil and gas that it can sell on the international markets rather than hand out at subsidised rates to its own people. That's should be fairly plain. Yes, it could (and should) address this via renewable energy. But Iran's hardly the only nation on the planet that's woefully behind the curve on that issue.

Second, Iran may want to assume the position of "nuclear ambiguity": not having the weapons, but being in the position where its enemies are aware that it could assemble them in short order, and are deterred from attacking it as a result.

But third, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Iranian ruling class are highly ambitious; aspiring to the status of regional power in accordance with their nation's historic role. Iran's willingness to stare down the West and insist on nothing less than its entitlements under the NPT needs to be seen in that context. If you look at the rhetoric, you see a recurring theme of Iran insisting on its "rights". This subtext is key, in my view. What Tehran is really insisting on is its desired status as a serious player on the international stage. Using solar power does not offer Iran the opportunity to make this sort of a stand. The NPT does.

So I would caution against ascribing a very high degree of probability to the idea that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Absent any certain knowledge, and with evidence pointing in both directions, Monbiot’s approach needs to be more circumspect. Those best placed to judge say there is no evidence of such a program, and much of the Iranian behaviour which Monbiot cites as indicating the existence of that program can be plausibly explained in another way. I should neither be surprised nor unsurprised to learn for certain that Iran is trying to build a bomb. The fact is that we don't know, and in my view we can't call this in either direction with any serious level of confidence. Given the dangerous nature of the current stand-off between Iran and the West, a high degree of circumspection is essential to keep the temperature of this issue at a non-threatening level.

I should conclude by saying that I acknowledge Monbiot’s sound intentions to prevent a war with Iran (which would make the bloodbath in Iraq look like a tea party) and to hold our own governments to account for their role in nuclear proliferation. But I feel that his speculation on current Iranian activities leaves a little bit to be desired. He may actually be undermining his own aims by propagating the myth that Iran definitely or almost certainly does have a nuclear weapons program. It is important to fully acknowledge the fact that this accusation is a long way from being proven; not least because many thousands of lives may depend on how that question is answered.

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Blogger hi0u91e9 said...


I think the significant part of your article is--"nuclear ambiguity"

Iran may well be ideologically opposed to the bomb--they originally abandoned the Shah's nuclear programme on religious grounds.

However there is also a realist explanation for why Iran would not want the bomb. At present Iran has a competitive advantage in the region in terms of population, economic power etc. The moment Iran gets the bomb, its neighbours will be more inclined to go nuclear as well (possibly with US support) and Iran's advantage in these areas would be virtually meaningless.

"nuclear ambiguity" enables Iran to sit on its advantage while attempting to ward off a US attack.

There is a good discussion on this with Trita Parsi here

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I do somewhat agree with the above post, nuclear ambiguity is something that Israel has been doing for a very long time and if anything has stressed further need of the NPT. If Iran is using the same tactic (with nuclear ambiguity you don't clearly create an arms race in a region but the countries surrounding you are still terrified) no one should let it go on (that includes Israel).

I still doubt that Iran has Nukes, especially after I read Scott Ritters writing about the current 'evidence' regarding the issue (couple of days ago on Information Clearing House). But a whole load of what I(Or the 100 or so non-aligned countries) think, matters. So how can disaster be alleviated (with regards to a strike by Israel or the US)? Why not do what Libya did in 1992? Sue the US in World Court:


12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


But a whole load of what I(Or the 100 or so non-aligned countries) think, matters

should have been:

But a whole load of what I(Or the 100 or so non-aligned countries) think, hardly matters


12:35 PM  

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