Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Obama’s slow burn will bring Iran into line
The Times - February 22nd 2010

A sledgehammer approach to sanctions will not kill President Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions and might bolster his power

If you had to list the foreign-policy issues you would rather not have to deal with, what would be at the top? Probably Israel and Palestine would be number one, given the way that conflict is maddeningly both simple and intractable. Number two on my list, though, would be the closely related matter of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, a case that maddens in a different way, by being both complex and immutable.

This immutable problem fails to stay mute, however. Indeed, it is getting noisier, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, setting off an exchange of invective last week by accusing Iran of becoming even less co-operative, a trait that the IAEA said has made it even more worried that Iran is hiding a nuclear-weapons programme. Very soon, this will put the five permanent members (P5) of the United Nations Security Council on the spot over how and whether to punish Iran for this alleged transgression.

Moreover, Iran lurks in the background of almost anything odd that happens in the Middle East. The murder in Dubai of a senior Hamas official may have attracted most attention for its faked passports, tennis gear and supposed connections to Mossad, Israel’s secret service, but the important point to remember is that Iran is the chief backer of both Hamas, in Palestine, and Hezbollah, in Lebanon, so actions against either group are ultimately actions against Iran. Fear of Iranian subversion is everywhere, and not just in Israel, the state whose existence it has yet to recognise: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are just as concerned.

Yet Iran, feared though it may be, is a complex issue for a whole raft of reasons. One is that punishments such as economic sanctions have no obvious effect: indeed, they risk strengthening the Iranian regime by allowing it to blame outside aggression for its domestic woes. Another is that plenty among the P5 veto-holders on the Security Council want to protect their economic links with Iran: China buys 11 per cent of its oil from there, for example. So do lots of other important countries: India wants to buy Iranian energy too, and Western allies such as Italy and Japan both have strong interests there.

Quivering in the background is the question of whether the ultimate punishment could in fact be a military attack. Most people discount the prospect of American bombers suddenly arriving over the Iranian mountains, whatever Sarah Palin might say, for not only would it almost certainly fail to destroy all the nuclear facilities, it would also destroy all support for the Western position. Israel is the popular candidate to send in bombers, but that makes little sense either, for similar reasons.

Then there is the rather awkward, if encouraging, fact that Iran’s regime is facing its strongest, bravest domestic opposition movement since the overthrow of the shah in 1979. Do sanctions or other pressure over nuclear programmes help or hinder those protesting about last June’s rigged presidential elections? At best they may be irrelevant, but no one, surely, would want to do anything that hurt these brave Iranian protesters.

Last, but not least, there are the rather important matters of legitimacy and public support in the West, in Russia and in China.

Opposition to Iran going nuclear smacks to many as hypocrisy, given Israel’s well known but undeclared status as a nuclear-weapons state, and given the way both India and Pakistan have been forgiven for having come out of the nuclear closet in the late 1990s. “Why shouldn’t Iran have nuclear weapons?” many will and do ask.

It is in the answer to that question that a policy framework lies, however, one that even stands a chance of uniting the West, Russia and China, however narked the Chinese may be about Barack Obama shaking hands last week with the Dalai Lama. As a new report from the excellent International Crisis Group points out, China may not feel the same sense of urgency as the West over Iran, but it is still reluctant to harm its relations with America by blocking measures altogether.

There is, for sure, a strategic reason why it would be dangerous if Iran were to have the bomb. This is that an Iranian bomb would be likely to push Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps even some smaller Gulf states to begin nuclear programmes. And, whatever reassurance is gained from theories that mutually assured destruction will prevent nuclear weapons from ever again being used, the more countries that have them the greater the risk that those theories will be disproved.

Happily, though, there is also a legal reason. It is that Iran promised not to develop nuclear weapons when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1968. Israel, India and Pakistan never did so, and at least North Korea has had the decency to withdraw from the NPT. Iran could pull out too. But withdrawal would be a contradiction of all its solemn denials that its uranium enrichment programme has any military purposes.

President Obama has been much criticised for being ineffectual in foreign policy, as he was for accepting the Nobel Peace Prize before having achieved anything. But he has actually set up a potentially powerful trap both for Iran and for P5 members, such as China, that are reluctant to condemn Iran. He has done this by setting up two summits, in April and May respectively, to discuss nuclear security and to review the NPT — exactly the sort of initiative that was praised by the Nobel prize committee. These will, or should, put both Iran and China on some sort of spot.

Before then, a decision on tightening sanctions is likely to have to be made. Pushing for quick, tough sanctions would be pointless: they wouldn’t work, they risk strengthening the regime, and China might well block them. But a slower squeeze on Iran, playing for time until the nuclear summits but making a political point, would be more worthwhile.

Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s Secretary of State, has proposed that such sanctions be focused on the Revolutionary Guard, the hardliners close to President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Such sanctions are unlikely to have a big impact, given that the Revolutionary Guard runs a dense network of companies that would surely enable it to evade tighter controls.

Politically, however, this would be smart: cheering to the brave protesters and hard for China or anyone else to gainsay. It would still, though, leave a lot of heavy lifting to be done at the two nuclear summits. There is nothing enviable about having to deal with Iran.


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