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Kneejerk belligerence ignores Tehran's influence

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    The west has picked a fight with Iran that it cannot win Simon Jenkins Wednesday January 18, 2006 Guardian, UK
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 26, 2006
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      The west has picked a fight with Iran that it cannot win
      Simon Jenkins
      Wednesday January 18, 2006
      Guardian, UK
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,12858,1688938,00.html


      Washington's kneejerk belligerence ignores Tehran's influence and the
      need for subtle engagement


      Never pick a fight you know you cannot win. Or so I was told. Pick an
      argument if you must, but not a fight. Nothing I have read or heard in
      recent weeks suggests that fighting Iran over its nuclear enrichment
      programme makes any sense at all. The very talk of it - macho phrases
      about "all options open" - suggests an international community so
      crazed with video game enforcement as to have lost the power of
      coherent thought.

      Iran is a serious country, not another two-bit post-imperial rogue
      waiting to be slapped about the head by a white man. It is the fourth
      largest oil producer in the world. Its population is heading towards
      80 million by 2010. Its capital, Tehran, is a mighty metropolis half
      as big again as London. Its culture is ancient and its political life
      is, to put it mildly, fluid.

      All the following statements about Iran are true. There are powerful
      Iranians who want to build a nuclear bomb. There are powerful ones who
      do not. There are people in Iran who would like Israel to disappear.
      There are people who would not. There are people who would like
      Islamist rule. There are people who would not. There are people who
      long for some idiot western politician to declare war on them. There
      are people appalled at the prospect. The only question for western
      strategists is which of these people they want to help.

      Of all the treaties passed in my lifetime the 1968 nuclear
      non-proliferation treaty (NPT) always seemed the most implausible. It
      was an insiders' club that any outsider could defy with a modicum of
      guile. So it has proved. America, sitting armed to the teeth across
      Korea's demilitarised zone, has let North Korea become a nuclear power
      despite a 1994 promise that it would not. America supported Israel in
      going nuclear. Britain and America did not balk at India doing so, nor
      Pakistan when it not only built a bomb but deceitfully disseminated
      its technology in defiance of sanctions. Three flagrant dissenters
      from the NPT are thus regarded by America as friends.

      I would sleep happier if there were no Iranian bomb but a swamp of
      hypocrisy separates me from overly protesting it. Iran is a proud
      country that sits between nuclear Pakistan and India to its east, a
      nuclear Russia to its north and a nuclear Israel to its west. Adjacent
      Afghanistan and Iraq are occupied at will by a nuclear America, which
      backed Saddam Hussein in his 1980 invasion of Iran. How can we say
      such a country has "no right" to nuclear defence?

      None the less this month's reopening of the Natanz nuclear enrichment
      plant and two others, though purportedly for peaceful uses, was a
      clear act of defiance by Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
      Inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
      remain unsure whether it implies a secret weapons programme but the
      evidence for this is far stronger than, for instance, against Saddam
      Hussein. To have infuriated the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei takes some
      doing. As Saddam found, deviousness in nuclear matters is bound to
      arouse suspicion. Either way, the reopening yielded a strong
      diplomatic coalition of Europe, America, Russia and China in pleading
      with Ahmadinejad to desist.

      On Monday, Washington's kneejerk belligerence put this coalition under
      immediate strain. In two weeks the IAEA must decide whether to report
      Iran to the UN security council for possible sanctions. There seems
      little point in doing this if China and Russia vetoes it or if there
      is no plan B for what to do if such pressure fails to halt enrichment,
      which seems certain. A clear sign of western floundering are speeches
      and editorials concluding that Iran "should not take international
      concern lightly", the west should "be on its guard" and everyone
      "should think carefully". It means nobody has a clue.

      I cannot see how all this confrontation will stop Iran doing whatever
      it likes with its nuclear enrichment, which is reportedly years away
      from producing weapons-grade material. The bombing of carefully
      dispersed and buried sites might delay deployment. But given the
      inaccuracy of American bombers, the death and destruction caused to
      Iran's cities would be a gift to anti-western extremists and have
      every world terrorist reporting for duty.

      Nor would the "coward's war" of economic sanctions be any more
      effective. Refusing to play against Iranian footballers (hated by the
      clerics), boycotting artists, ostracising academics, embargoing
      commerce, freezing foreign bank accounts - so-called smart sanctions -
      are as counterproductive as could be imagined. Such feelgood gestures
      drive the enemies of an embattled regime into silence, poverty or
      exile. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote in these pages after a recent
      visit, western aggression "would drain overnight its still large
      reservoir of anti-regime, mildly pro-western sentiment".

      By all accounts Ahmadinejad is not secure. He is subject to the
      supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His foe, Akbar Hashemi
      Rafsanjani, retains some power. Tehran is not a Saddamist dictatorship
      or a Taliban autocracy. It is a shambolic oligarchy with bureaucrats
      and technocrats jostling for power with clerics. Despite a quarter
      century of effort, the latter have not created a truly fundamentalist
      islamic state. Iran is a classic candidate for the politics of subtle
      engagement.

      This means strengthening every argument in the hands of those Iranians
      who do not want nuclear weapons or Israel eliminated, who crave a
      secular state and good relations with the west. No such argument
      embraces name-calling, sabre-rattling, sanctions or bombs.

      At this very moment, US officials in Baghdad are on their knees
      begging Iran-backed Shia politicians and militias to help them get out
      of Iraq. From Basra to the suburbs of Baghdad, Iranian influence is
      dominant. Iranian posters adorned last month's elections. Whatever
      Bush and Blair thought they were doing by invading Iraq, they must
      have known the chief beneficiary from toppling the Sunni ascendancy
      would be Shia Iran. They cannot now deny the logic of their own
      policy. Democracy itself is putting half Iraq in thrall to its
      powerful neighbour.

      Iran is the regional superstate. If ever there were a realpolitik
      demanding to be "hugged close" it is this one, however distasteful its
      leader and his centrifuges. If you cannot stop a man buying a gun, the
      next best bet is to make him your friend, not your enemy.


      simon.jenkins @ guardian.co.uk

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