Muddling through

Diplomacy Arms control Nuclear weapons testing Iran

THE CRISIS over Iran’s nuclear program is revealing three important lessons about world politics.

Lesson one is for Iran: atomic adventurism can be a double-edged sword, especially if it is linked with nationalism. Although exploiting nuclear patriotism offers political advantages to the Iranian leadership, it also complicates diplomatic deal making. It’s true that frightening foreigners into believing a bomb is just around the corner can buy diplomatic leverage, as well as kudos in places where standing up to America is applauded. But this comes at a price. Iranian leaders have recklessly made their country a symbol of the dark side of world politics, and a bigger target for punitive diplomacy. They say ‘trust us, we are good Muslims’ but their record of deception, evasion and inflammatory rhetoric leaves scant room for giving them the benefit of the doubt. It also raises the question of what they mean by being good Muslims.

Lesson two is for Washington. Events have shown how low its credibility and moral authority can fall. This is partly due to US hypocrisy. Think about its longstanding threats to use nuclear weapons against states like, well, Iran. US double standards don’t look good in this context. Then consider Washington’s playing of the ‘Iraqi WMDs’ card in 2003, a saga widely seen as equal parts conspiracy and fiasco. Unsurprisingly, US preaching on WMDs is now generally met with either a frown or a smirk. The invasion has bounced back to hurt Washington’s Iran policy - the opposite of what advocates of the war predicted. This overlaps with something else. For decades Washington has failed to read Iran properly. It’s as if America has been responding to a projected image of the country, rather than to what has really been going on inside the place.

Iran’s leadership is responsible for its own actions, and it shouldn’t be allowed to use questionable American policy as an excuse for its own bad behaviour. But it’s worth reflecting on the possible unintended consequences of US policy. Being on Washington’s target list has concentrated minds in Tehran, but not necessarily in ways intended by US officials. In the background is the fact that two of Iran’s neighbours have been invaded by the United States; moreover, Iran already has direct experience of US-backed regime change (from the 1950s, when a coup installed a semi-fascist government). It’s easy to see why Tehran might want a deterrent. And, after years of US hostility, some Iranians have probably pondered: ‘if we are doing the time, we might as well do the crime’. Past US policies may have turned Iran’s acquisition of a bomb making capability into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lesson three is broader: the very idea of an international community is in question. Pundits opposed to tough US action say the better alternative is for the international community to pull together. But what does this platitude add up to? When push comes to shove, what difference does this community make in a case like Iran? We are about to find out. The latest resolution from the International Atomic Energy Agency (15) is a step in the right direction, but the record hasn’t always been encouraging.

For want of better options, Washington is allowing multilateral diplomacy to take its course, at least for the moment. But US conservatives are not holding their breath. They tend to view the international community as a hollow concept. They see the idea as over-used, often as cover for European and Russian indecision and lack of principle. It’s frequently implied that chatter in Europe and Russia about the need for global consensus is an excuse for inaction, one motivated by a contemptible mix of cowardice and self-interest. Some hardliners are probably half-wishing for negotiations to fall in a heap. They assume this would vindicate their entrenched sceptism and cut through the contrived ambiguity of Tehran’s stance, providing moral clarity and clearing the decks for a more forceful strategy. What they fear is a cosmetic deal surrounded by diplomatic weasel words which would help naïve Europeans feel better about avoiding a showdown, but still allow Iran to creep towards the bomb.

Clearly, the international community faces a test when it comes to the spread of nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (11) has serious flaws, especially the way it allows ‘virtual’ proliferation. States can go some way to laying the ground work for a bomb without violating the letter of the treaty. This is a loophole that Iran is apparently exploring with its uranium enrichment plans and associated activities.

It’s a problem that should have been dealt with at a summit on the treaty held last year. But the meeting was a depressing failure. The ‘international community’ lacked purpose and leadership. To cut a long story short, it bogged down over whether the exercise should focus on strengthening either the letter or the spirit of the treaty. Both Tehran and Washington clung to their narrow self-interested reading of the letter of the deal while spitting at its spirit.

Iran pointed to a literal interpretation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, noting that uranium enrichment is not explicitly prohibited. Washington’s contribution came from another direction. For example, while there was almost universal endorsement of a nuclear test ban at the summit (a measure generally accepted as integral to the treaty’s future), Washington reserved its right to test, and so hit the idea on the head. Seasoned observers saw the train crash coming. After all, the two most culpable train drivers had been spotted behaving recklessly a long way down the track. Stubborn Iranian leadership ostensibly advocating sovereign rights, together with American neocons fostering a dogmatic dislike of multilateralism, helped derail any notion of the wider common good.

In the past it was hoped a fix to the Iranian issue would be found with Europe and Russia playing ‘good cop’ to the American ‘bad cop’. The treaty provided the framework for the approach. But the tactic turned into a sort of muddling through which stopped short of definitively resolving the matter. Now the status and worth of the treaty is in serious question.

A long-term solution to nuclear proliferation requires injecting the idea of international community with more substance. A chance to do this was missed last year, but perhaps it will resurface at the next Non-Proliferation Treaty summit in 2010. In the meantime, Iran should provide exactly what the International Atomic Energy Agency has asked for - irrefutable evidence of good faith. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be surprised if others think the worst, and it should be prepared to wear the consequences.

Andy Butfoy is senior lecturer in international relations at Monash University.

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