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Sunday, February 1, 2015
- A Dangerous Delusion is the work of one of Britain’s most brilliant political commentators, Peter Oborne, and an Irish physicist, David Morrison, who has written powerfully about the misleading of British public and parliamentary opinion in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War.
This book will infuriate neoconservatives, Likudniks and members of the Saudi royal family but enlighten all who struggle with what to think about the claim that Iran’s nuclear programme threatens the survival of Israel, the security of Arab states in the Persian Gulf, and global peace.
Writing with verve and concision as well as with the indignation that has been a feature of good criticism since the days of Juvenal, the authors spare the reader potentially tedious detail so that the book can be devoured in a matter of hours.
Their purpose, stated early in the work, is to argue that U.S. and European confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities is unnecessary and irrational. Insofar as some concern about Iranian intentions has been and is justified, that concern can be allayed by measures that Iran has been ready to volunteer since 2005 and by more intrusive international monitoring.
An international legal instrument, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has a starring part in the story. This treaty, one of the fruits of the détente following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, has been remarkably successful in discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons. Iran has been a party since the NPT entered into force in 1970.
In 1968 a senior U.S. official testified before the Senate that the newly drafted NPT did not prohibit the acquisition of nuclear technologies that could be used for military as well as civil purposes (dual-use).
It was assumed that parties would have an interest in complying with a treaty designed to limit the spread of devastating weapons and that those tempted to stray would be deterred by frequent international monitoring of the use of nuclear material.
Iran’s troubles began with India’s 1974 nuclear test. Although India had not signed, let alone ratified, the NPT and had used plutonium to fuel its device, the United States and Europe interpreted the explosion as evidence that the NPT’s drafters had blundered in failing to prohibit have-nots from acquiring dual-use technologies such as uranium enrichment.
They formed the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and set about making emerging states’ acquisition of such technologies progressively harder – in a sense, amending the NPT without the consent of most of its parties.
Then, in the 1990s, Israeli politicians began to claim publicly that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme and was only a few years away from producing warheads.
As a result, when Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic claimed in 2002 that Iran was secretly building a uranium enrichment plant, many U.N. members were ready to believe that Iran was violating or was about to violate the NPT. Such was the sense of danger generated by the United States and some of its allies that people overlooked the absence of evidence that Iran had even intended the enrichment plant to be secret.
Instead, Iranian admission that scientists and engineers had engaged in undeclared nuclear research led people to assume that Iran’s obligation to declare the enrichment plant 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material (and not earlier) would have been ignored had it not been for the opposition group’s whistle-blowing.
Iran’s travails since 2004 – condemnation by the IAEA Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council, ever harsher sanctions, U.S. and Israeli military threats in violation of the U.N. Charter – would have been both logical and rough justice if there had been evidence that Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons.
That is not the case, however, as Oborne and Morrison make plain. On the contrary, since 2007 U.S. intelligence estimates have stressed the absence of an Iranian decision to use its enrichment plants to make fuel for nuclear weapons; the IAEA has repeatedly stated that Iran’s known nuclear material remains in civil use; and the only nuclear weapon activity in Iran for which there is evidence is the kind of research that many NPT parties are assumed to have undertaken.
Trying to account for this irrational handling of the Iranian case, the authors posit a U.S. determination to prevent Iran from becoming a major Middle East power.
That view may be the most questionable of their judgements, as possible explanations exist elsewhere: intensive lobbying in Washington, London and Paris by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which see Iran as a regional rival and need to justify the strategic demands they make of the United States, the influence of counter-proliferation experts obsessed with closing an imagined NPT loophole, the Islamic Republic’s terrorism and human rights record, and antagonisms born of bitter memories.
The hypocrisy of politicians is, rightly, a target of the authors’ indignation. In 2010 then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, defending the imposition of sanctions, proclaimed: “Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government… without contributing to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.”
In 2012 President Obama, seeking re-election, boasted: “We organised the strongest sanctions in history and it is [sic] crippling the Iranian economy.”
But the authors’ fiercest indignation is reserved for the mainstream media, whom they indict for embedding in public discourse the idea that Iran has or is seeking nuclear weapons by ignoring facts and serving as a conduit for anti-Iranian propaganda.
By endorsing the proposition that Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be curbed by sanctions or the use of force, the mainstream media risk repeating their past mistake of failing to question the Bush/Blair case for war on Saddam Hussein.
A Dangerous Delusion was written before Iran’s June presidential election, begging the question of whether the re-emergence of pragmatic diplomatists in Tehran will encourage Western politicians to heed the “plea for sanity” with which Oborne and Morrison close.
“It’s time we [in the West] asked…why we have felt such a need to stigmatise and punish Iran….Once we do that…we may find it surprisingly easy to strike a deal which can satisfy all sides.”
*Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years following studies at the universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, ADRgAmbassadors, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems.