Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Nuclear Iran

By Richard Norman

The reaction to Iran’s 31 August declaration that it would continue to pursue “its inalienable right to the full nuclear fuel cycle” was met with the usual reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. The Americans pushed for targeted sanctions through the auspices of the UN; the Europeans (with whom Iran actually does trade) continued to put their faith in diplomacy.

For nearly four years now—since Iran’s secret nuclear program was revealed by the dissident, Alireza Jafarzadeh—the Americans and Europeans have busied themselves alternately attempting to frighten and seduce Iran into giving up its program (which Iran claims is for civilian energy uses only). For the last four years, in response to this cajoling, Iran has stalled and delayed all diplomatic entreaties, while simultaneously making clear statements that it has no intention of giving up its program.

It is becoming clear that the will simply does not exist to take serious diplomatic or military action against Iran. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest is the civil war now being fought in Iraq. Assuming the present course, the result will be, soon enough, a nuclear Iran. My question is: Why is this so terrible?

The United States is, for the most part, deeply ignorant of Iranian culture and politics, and tends to see Iran exclusively through the lens of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of more than twenty-five years ago (indeed, following President Ahmadinejad's election last year there were suggestions in the United States that he had been one of the actual hostage takers--though the CIA refutes it). Iran, though admittedly a theocracy, is not a totalitarian society; it has strong democratic tendencies and its citizens are nowhere near as dogmatic and illiberal as they are often portrayed. As the nuclear issue began to come to the world's attention, I spent several weeks traveling in Iran--from Tabriz in the north-west, to Tehran, and on to Esfahan--and was again and again reminded that the differences the people of Iran have with the United States and Israel are political and not personal or ideological (though they are admittedly encouraged by official progaganda). Nor is Anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment the product of irrational delusion: it is based on national experience and national interpretations of that experience. Though the United States and Israel are both widely hated and disparaged, there are few, if any, individual politicians or clerics who hope for war with them. What Iranians want is increased respect and self-respect.

There is a tendency among Iranians to see themselves as victims of the West, and not without reason. There are many public reminders of the devastating Iran-Iraq war in which the United States gave support to Saddam Hussein and European countries sold him chemical weapons which were used against Iranian civilians. This tendency, however, does not equal a desire for revenge; instead, it urges self-respect and empowerment. One would expect a vengeful, hell-bent Iran to be rapidly militarizing. In fact it has one of the lowest levels of defence spending per capita in the Persian Gulf.

A look at Pakistan and its nuclear program illustrates how hypocritical (and hysterical) many of the reactions to the “Iranian nuclear crisis” (as it is often called in the United States) are. Pakistan is a state that has sold nuclear technology to the highest bidder; allowed al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives safe harbour in its territory; and has a large, barely suppressed, population of Islamic fundamentalist (more militant than the Iranian mullahs) clamouring to kill the Pakistani president and take over the government. Yet the Americans and Europeans are happy to do business with Pakistan and make no complaint about its continued nuclear build-up.

So what is so bad about Iran? Evidently, not much, as neither the Americans nor Europeans feel inspired to do anything more than hand-wring and practice rhetoric.