The West has Picked a Fight with
Iran that It Cannot Win
by Simon Jenkins
www.guardian.co.uk/, January 18,
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
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,
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
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
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.
Central Asia watch