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Bush, Iran & the Bomb


In 2002, Kenneth Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq helped to persuade some Americans that, sooner or later (preferably sooner), the US would have to unseat Saddam Hussein in order to safeguard its own security. Pollack put his case more cautiously, and more adroitly, than many Republican proponents of “regime change” in Iraq, but he turned out, like them, to be wrong about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. He also failed, like them, to predict the grave repercussions of an invasion. In contrast to many hawkish members of the Bush administration, and a great many newspaper columnists and editors, Pollack had the grace to apologize for his errors. Now that the Bush administration is trying to decide how it should respond to a second hostile Middle Eastern state, Iran, which it suspects of seeking nuclear weapons, Pollack has written another long book, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, advising what should be done.

Although Pollack’s judgment has been found lacking, he is more qualified than most to write about US policy toward the Middle East. Besides serving as director of Persian Gulf Affairs and Near East and South Asian Affairs on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, he has variously worked on policy toward Iran (as well as Iraq) for the CIA and for several think tanks and universities. Iran’s recent efforts to acquire advanced nuclear technology justify his argument that now is the time to devote attention to the Islamic Republic. “If we do not take advantage of this window of opportunity to deal with Iran’s nuclear program,” he says, “someday we doubtless will regret not having done so.”

The US and other nations, notably EU member states, Japan, Canada, and Australia, are alarmed by Iran’s progress toward being able both to enrich uranium and to separate plutonium, processes that can produce fuel either for civilian power reactors or for nuclear bombs. Under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran ratified in 1970, the Iranians are entitled to develop these technologies for civilian purposes, but the covert way that they have done so has aroused the suspicion that they intend to produce bombs, as well as energy for peaceful use. As part of its adherence to the NPT, Iran signed a “safeguards agreement” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), allowing agency officials to monitor its activities regularly.

Beginning in the summer of 2002, however, in view of longstanding suspicions of nuclear activities that had remained hidden from inspectors, the agency brought the Iranian program under closer scrutiny. It has since established that Iran has egregiously breached the safeguards agreement which was designed to keep its nuclear activities transparent and limited to peaceful purposes. These breaches include Iran’s failure to report the purchase and development of nuclear materials, and to declare the existence of several of its nuclear sites.
Using the Iranian government’s past behavior as a guide, some of its critics expect more breaches of the agreements. They are convinced that the government is lying when it insists that its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes, and they believe that it intends to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb on short notice. To deny Iran that capacity, they are trying to persuade it to forswear the right, provided for under the NPT, to develop a nuclear “fuel cycle,” the series of industrial processes required to produce fuel from uranium or plutonium, which can be used to produce either electricity or nuclear bombs.

Suppose for a moment that America had managed to impose stability in Iraq and installed a pro-US government there. One wonders what effect this success would have had on Pollack’s thinking about Iran and its progress toward building nuclear facilities, and whether he and other former Clinton administration officials might now be arguing for the invasion of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps the only solace to be drawn from Iraq’s current wretched condition is that such questions need not be asked.

In any event, the Pollack of The Persian Puzzle is a chastened man. His final chapter, “Toward a New Iran Policy,” contains a section called “The Case Against Invading Iran,” which draws partly on the example of Iraq. It argues that “the threat of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons” does not justify “what would be an extremely costly and risky invasion.” Among the disincentives that Pollack cites are Iran’s considerable size and its inhospitable terrain, and the hostility that he believes the Iranians would show toward their occupiers.

In Pollack’s final chapter, he justifiably castigates European countries for allowing calculations of commercial advantage to influence their political approach to Iran. The Europeans, Pollack suggests, in the hope of better trade relations, like to offer the Iranians “carrots” such as the opportunity to enter a trade pact with the EU and strictly limited nuclear technology. On the other hand, George Bush, who in his first term included Iran in his “axis of evil,” wields a stick in the form of his administration’s hostility toward Iran, and its support for worldwide sanctions against the Islamic Republic, in addition to the trade sanctions the US now maintains. Pollack argues for a combination of the two approaches among the rich and powerful countries—a common resolve, in other words, to reward Iran if it behaves well, and to punish it if it does not. It is unfortunate that Pollack finished his book before November 14, 2004. He would have had much to say about the accord Iran signed on that date with France, Britain, and Germany.

The November agreement was designed as a first step toward allaying suspicions that Iran’s nuclear program is military in intent. Before the deal was made, France, Germany, and Britain, with the EU’s backing, had threatened to support US moves to have the Iranian program referred to the UN Security Council as violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Acceding to pressure, the Iranians accepted European demands that they suspend all activities related to enriching uranium and separating plutonium. Iran and the three European nations also agreed to start negotiations on “long-term arrangements” that would make it impossible for Iran’s program to be diverted to military uses, and they also agreed to start negotiations on “technological and economic cooperation, and firm commitments on security issues.” According to Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, the agreement may mark “a new chapter” in relations between Europe and Iran.

The odd thing is that this new chapter was supposed to be opened almost exactly a year earlier. On October 21, 2003, Iran and the same three European countries signed an almost identical agreement, aimed at allaying identical suspicions. Back then, too, the Iranians were close to having their nuclear activities referred to the Security Council. Under pressure from the US, as well as from the Europeans and the IAEA, Iran committed itself “to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.” This agreement would, it was hoped, prepare the way for “longer term co-operation” from which Iran would gain “easier access to modern technology and supplies in a range of areas.” The Iranians agreed to provide the IAEA with a complete accounting of their nuclear program to date. Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, declared October 21, 2003, to be “an important day…this will stabilize the region.”

The new deal is similar, the parties are the same; but something clearly went wrong during the year that elapsed between the two accords. Although the 2003 agreement allowed the IAEA and its member states to learn a great deal about the Iranian program, it did not interrupt Iran’s progress toward a nuclear fuel cycle to anything like the extent that the Europeans had intended. The Iranians exploited ambiguities in the text—in particular, over what constituted “enrichment and processing activities”—and carried on, in the words of one US official, “kicking the can down the street.” They continued to assemble centrifuges, devices that enrich gaseous uranium by spinning it at high speeds. Later, under diplomatic pressure, they stopped assembling the centrifuges only to start again in the summer of 2004. They produced enough uranium and other “feed material” for the enrichment process to make several nuclear bombs, should they decide to do so.

The merit of the new deal is that its explicit and comprehensive definition of “enrichment related and reprocessing activities” makes it harder for the Iranians to be semantically evasive. If the Iranians produce more gaseous uranium, there is little doubt that the board of governors of the IAEA will refer their actions to the Security Council.
Many European diplomats complain that the US is obsessed with bringing Iran before the Security Council but it has not worked out what it wants to do once Iran is arraigned. These diplomats suspect that two permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia, do not want Iran’s case to come before the Security Council, and will try to divert the US and its allies from taking action to punish the Iranians.1 As one reads between the lines of the latest report on the Iranian program by Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director-general, issued on November 15, 2004, it is clear that he does not believe that there are grounds to bring Iran’s case before the Security Council.2 Before October 2003, he notes, he described Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA as being marked by “extensive concealment, misleading information and delays in access.” Since then, however, it has improved appreciably, he says.

ElBaradei’s apparently sanguine view contrasts with the mood of pessimism expressed by Iran’s most trenchant critics, and this contradiction reflects the subtly different approaches of the IAEA officials on the one hand and its members on the other. Whatever his private thoughts on the matter, ElBaradei is in no position to demand publicly that Iran give up its fuel cycle; under the NPT, a covenant that it is ElBaradei’s job to uphold, Iran is entitled to develop such a cycle. Furthermore, Iran signed its 2003 agreement not with the IAEA but with Germany, France, and Britain, and so its violation of the spirit of that agreement does not necessarily amount to a violation of the safeguards accord. During the past year, ElBaradei makes clear in his November report, the IAEA has resolved most of its doubts concerning the scope of Iran’s declared nuclear program. Iran has made, in his words, “good progress” toward correcting earlier breaches of its safeguards agreement. ElBaradei believes that the NPT needs to be amended to make it harder for countries to achieve fuel cycles. Until that happens, he can hardly demand that Iran abandon a goal to which it is legally entitled.

Within the frame of its accord with the IAEA, Iran is behaving better than before. In practice, Iranian intentions are more distrusted than ever.3 Because of its subversion of the 2003 deal with the Europeans, Iran’s critics on the IAEA governing board are even more convinced that the Iranians are determined to abuse their right to a fuel cycle, and to divert the fuel that it produces to military use. The critics’ failure to expose Iran’s recent breaches of the safeguards agreement has not lessened their suspicion that Iran is engaged in clandestine nuclear activities, or that, once it attains a fuel cycle, it may effectively be classified as a nuclear-armed state.

  1. 1

    In October, China agreed to buy a considerable amount of Iranian natural gas and to develop an Iranian oilfield; in return for providing energy to China, Iran expects, and will probably get, Chinese diplomatic support. Russia, which has provided Iran with nuclear technology and equipment, as well as civilian aircraft and arms, would be embarrassed if Iran is referred to the Security Council.

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    Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” report by the IAEA Director General, November 15, 2004. This report was critical of Iran’s past misdemeanors, but its generally optimistic tone infuriated the Bush administration, which has made no secret of its dislike for ElBaradei. According to The Washington Post, the Bush administration has eavesdropped on telephone conversations between ElBaradei and the Iranians, in an attempt to find evidence for the director-general’s allegedly pro-Iran bias, apparently part of an effort to have ElBaradei replaced when his second term as director-general ends this year. ElBaradei has the support of most of the IAEA member states and, perhaps for this reason, the Bush administration has not proposed an alternative candidate; some administration officials now predict that ElBaradei will stay in place. ElBaradei originally incurred the administration’s wrath when he questioned—with reason, it turned out—US intelligence on Iraq’s WMD programs before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. According to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based arms control policy group, “some in the Bush administration are simply seeking retribution.”

  3. 3

    Iran’s decision at the beginning of this year to accede to pressure and open its vast military complex at Parchin, outside Tehran, to inspectors, illustrates this difference in perceptions. To Iran, the decision is more evidence of Iranian openness. The Americans, for their part, have long maintained that the Iranians are trying to develop a nuclear warhead at the site and assume that the Iranians have now covered their tracks there. If the inspectors find nothing at Parchin, the Americans will not be convinced that the Iranians are telling the truth when they say that they have no warhead development program at Parchin.

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