Wednesday, October 13, 2004

About Face on Iran?

Apparently, the Bush administration is considering positive incentives to encourage Iran to free its nuclear weapons development program. The story, found here, potentially represents a major shift in US policy towards Iran. It will likely be spun as a significant setback for the Bush team based on failed policies.

The problem with the blame game is that it ignores the real problem of dealing with states determined to acquire nuclear weapons. The closer they get, the options become grimmer and grimmer. Short of military strikes, what other choices is left to the Bush administration or a Kerry administration? The Clinton team, which talked very tough on North Korea, was forced into the Agreed Framework. Everyone knew it was a bad deal and had little chance of long term success, but what other choice was there? The costs were just too high for other alternatives.

In the case of Iran today, the likelihood of American preemption remains low. With US troops busy stabilizing Iraq, we cannot afford another major conflict in the Middle East. If anything, we need to keep relations on friendly (relative when speaking of US-Iran) terms with Iran to solve the problems of Iraq. Further, military strikes on Iran by the US would likely inflame nationalism in Iran and shore up the crumbling base of the ruling government there. The worst case scenario would be Israeli preemption on Iran's nuclear facilities.

When compared to the above, the two options are to do nothing and talk tough or to hash out the best deal we can for the time being. Make no mistake, Iran wants nuclear weapons and sees it as a strategic imperative to acquire them. They will go nuclear at some point, unless physically stopped by the US. It will be interesting to see whether, if Bush strikes a deal with the Iranians, he is hailed for his diplomatic coup as the Clinton administration was when the Agreed Framework was signed.

On a broader note, the old nuclear nonproliferation regime is crumbling. The NPT has taken hammer blows from nonmember states developing nukes (India, Pakistan and most likely Israel) and from member states (Iran and North Korea) using the treaty as a shield as they worked on nuclear weapons programs. The NPT recognizes five nuclear weapon states (NWS) - US, Russia, France, Britain, China - and now we can add India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and possibly Iran to that list. That represents a doubling in less than 10 years of the number of nuclear weapon states. South Africa, which developed nukes then gave them up, did so without anyone being the wiser.

A number of other states (Germany and Japan) could easily develop nuclear weapons if they so desired and do so in a very short time. Only their current security guarantee and place under the nuclear shield of the US renders this unnecessary.

In the case of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it is possible for states to develop nukes without physically testing a bomb. South Africa, Israel, and (most likely) North Korea have already done this.

The future is dark indeed when it comes to nuclear proliferation. The old regimes are failing in the aftermath of the Cold War. New measures are required. Preemption was held up by the Bush administration, but we have already seen its limitations and, dare I say, failings? Absent other effective policy options, short term agreements to delay rather than end a states nuclear aspirations might be the best we can hope for...