Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Iran and the Principle of Mutually Assured Destruction

Like a cheap war pamphlet prodding a very susceptible bully president, the weekly The Economist had on its January 31 cover the question-headline “Has Iran won?” The Economist has lost much of its respect and has ceased to be a sober reference (remember the cover just before the Iraqi invasion saying “Why war would be justified?”) but the magazine’s articles on Iran are important because they spill the beans on the reasons for an attack – a rationale that is as irrational as it can get. There are several fallacies in The Economist’s article, and I am using the piece precisely because it repeats the average, lowbrow arguments with which we have been swamped in the days leading to the IAEA report on Iran. Let us not belittle the importance of a biased press – while not giving us the truth, they dutifully authenticate and spell out the day’s agenda. If recent news articles are any indication, we are no more than months away from an attack on Iran. Now, I have little fondness for Islamic republics or any religious republic for that matter. And yes, I would rather live in a world without nuclear weapons. But in the current setup of weapons distribution, Iran is only doing what it politically should, and what it is legally entitled to.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the most widely accepted arms control agreement in the world. According to the NPT, only five countries are entitled to own nuclear weapons: USA, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom. It is no coincidence that these countries are the permanent members of the Security Council – they are the most capable of destroying the world, and thus keep it on a leash. What happens if one of the permanent members wants to attack another? That is prevented, or so one hopes, by the principle of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. Countries are deterred more efficiently, it seems, by the certainty of their destruction. This logic is laid clear by the chronology of weapons acquisition. Allegedly out of fear of Nazi Germany, America was the first country to develop a nuclear weapon, efficiently tested on the Japanese. The US was then made, ad hoc, the world’s police not based on its prudence and justice, but on its power – and willingness – to destroy. Yet fear breeds dread and four years later Russia started building its own nuclear arsenal, as a defence against a possible US attack. Three years later, fearing the proximity of Russia, the United Kingdom also chose to have nuclear weapons, then it was France and then China. It’s worth noticing that this logic is at the core of the very right to bear arms in the US: citizens should have the means to defend themselves – even against their own government. If the monopoly of power was left in the hands of the state, citizens could be made hostage to an illegitimate ruler.

Now, if the US government can be seen as a potential threat even to its own people, it was therefore very na├»ve to imagine that in a multi-polar world all the rest of the non-nuclear countries would be fine with having five nuclear states dictating the rules. Hence, since the exclusive club of nuclear states was closed for membership, countries that wanted to go nuclear simply chose to not sign the treaty. To protect itself against China and Russia, India got its nukes. Pakistan felt threatened and started developing its own weapons program. Israel, which feels menaced by its neighbours, got its own nuclear warheads, also refusing to sign the NPT. Why, in this scenario, is Iran considered a rogue state, or, to borrow The Economist’s appalling words, should be made to “quake in its boots”? Here is where the whole story of nuclear proliferation gets even more sinister.

Iran is a subscriber to the NPT, and according to the IAEA, as of yet, has never failed to comply with the treaty itself. On the other hand, India, who did not sign the NPT, was rewarded by the American Congress with transfer of civilian nuclear material. The USA also mocks the NPT when it violates its first article by providing nuclear weapons to Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands, under the official excuse that those weapons are “under constant and complete custody and control” of the United States, being there only for storage. In fact, Iran started its nuclear program precisely when it was on good terms with America, under the shah’s government. Why is Iran now considered a bigger threat than Israel? What qualifies a state as ‘rogue’? Is it its ruler? Its people? Its rhetoric and pathetic rants? Shouldn’t a country’s actions, rather than words, determine its level of threat to the rest of the planet? Haven’t we learned that governments, even in supposed democratic states like the US, do not always represent their people, and sometimes are not even actually elected? How can one think America is the same America under Bush as it was under Jefferson, or under Carter, to find a more recent comparison?

Mohammed ElBaradei is doing a decent, technical and honest job at the IAEA, despite all the external pressure. A lawyer by formation, he has refused to skip due process and is sticking to the letter of the treaty. It is not his, or America’s job, to guess the ‘motivation’ of countries. Israel believes its soil belongs to the Jewish people, and that they have been chosen by God. This type of religious premise is as horrifying, though more dangerous, than India calling its first nuclear test the “Smiling Buddha” or Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust – something more pathetic than harmful. In politics, words mean very little. Actions, on the other hand, mean a lot. It is the IAEA, not the US, which has the means, competence and independence to decide Iran’s nuclear future. America doesn’t have the legal mandate to decide, much less the moral right – the one thing we expect from the police is that they are less criminal and corrupt than the thugs they are trying to protect us from.

Paula Schmitt

Op-Ed published in Executive Magazine, March 2008.

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