London, United Kingdom – US President Barack Obama addressed the opening of the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul:
“There is time to solve this diplomatically, but time is short. Iran’s leaders must understand that there is no escaping the choice before it. Iran must act with the seriousness and sense of urgency that this moment demands. Iran must meet its obligations.”
Amid heightening tension over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, and at a summit which brought together world leaders to tackle the threat of “nuclear terrorism” and the spread of nuclear materials, Obama seemed to be taking the bull by the horns.
Iran does of course have obligations. As a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Iran has committed to not seek nuclear weapons, in return for international assistance (and monitoring) in the development of nuclear power.
Iran has an obligation to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its nuclear facilities and uranium enrichment processes to ensure that they are being used for peaceful, civil purposes.
Furthermore, and leaving aside for now the matter of Israel’s nuclear weapons, the potential regional implications of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons are enormous and place a huge moral – as well as legal – responsibility on anyone who might consider taking that state down such a path. The risk of further inflaming the volatile international politics of the Middle East and potentially catalysing the development of nuclear weapons by other states such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt would be a retrograde step on the path to regional (and global) peace, disarmament and stability.
But Iran is not the only country with obligations. And to imply this is to only tell a part of the story.
The obligations of others
Maybe Obama’s statement could be seen as in keeping with his proclaimed vision of a world free from nuclear weapons – attempting to prevent further nuclear proliferation. But when the president responsible for the world’s largest nuclear arsenal preaches about the obligations of other states not to develop them, it is hard to deny charges of great power hypocrisy.
Article VI of the NPT, signed in 1968, commits the nuclear weapons states to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.
President Obama has, to his credit, made diplomatic moves towards reducing global nuclear stockpiles, most significantly through the rekindling of the faltering Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. The “New START” agreement, signed in April 2010, was lauded as a significant step in bilateral nuclear reductions and a crucial step in fostering the global conditions in which multilateral disarmament could make progress. Indeed it was seen as some justification for the controversial awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama in 2009, following his visionary Prague speech earlier that year.
Yet subsequent US actions have not lived up to the hope engendered by New START.
In October 2010, just months after signing the Treaty, the White House proudly declared its “enduring commitment to the US nuclear deterrent” with the announcement of $85bn to be spent on nuclear infrastructure.
The White House statement was explicit, and with no hint of the contradiction between the two positions. It praised Obama’s “extraordinary commitment to ensure the modernisation of our nuclear infrastructure”, reflected in “plans to invest more than $85 billion over the next decade to modernise the US nuclear weapons complex that supports our deterrent”. The significance of this move was made clear: “This level of funding is unprecedented since the end of the Cold War.’
Yet even this $85bn is dwarfed by the total projected spend of $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade by the US. The scale of expenditure is staggering: that’s around 150 per cent of Iran’s entire annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.
Rather than moving away from the escalatory nuclear policies of the Cold War, such skewed priorities only serve to entrench the positions of nuclear weapons states, while simultaneously encouraging non-nuclear weapons states to break from their NPT commitments.
The US is of course not alone here: global spending on nuclear weapons is now estimated to be more than $1 trillion per decade, with Russia committing $70bn over the next ten years on delivery systems alone, including eight new nuclear submarines. In Britain, despite the dismal economic situation, the government is ploughing ahead with plans to spend well over £100bn on maintaining and replacing its Trident nuclear weapons system through to around 2060.
Rhetoric, threats and intervention: the wrong policy
So it should be no surprise that when Barack Obama says “Iran must meet its obligations”, his words cut no ice in Tehran and much of the rest of the world.
This doesn’t make unease about a nuclear-armed Iran any less legitimate, but it does raise serious concerns about the way in which the issue is approached by the nuclear weapons states.
Indeed, the US has arguably been pursuing policies which will serve merely to push Iran towards developing nuclear weapons.
Firstly, rather than taking genuine global leadership in tackling nuclear proliferation, the US chooses to demonstrate its “enduring commitment” to maintaining nuclear weapons, as discussed above.
Secondly, the history of US intervention and manipulation in the Middle East (and specifically Iran) and its brazen pursuit of national interests in the region have built a foundation of distrust which continues today. From its role in the 1953 overthrow of Mosaddegh to the disastrous war on Iraq and beyond, the US has alienated and threatened states which fail to comply with US policy prescriptions.
Former President George W Bush infamously named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” and placed them on what came to be known as the “nuclear hit list” in the US Nuclear Posture Review. North Korea left the NPT to develop nuclear weapons, for which it said it had a deterrent need, and has not seen direct military threats like Iran and Iraq have. It does not require much stretch of the imagination to see the lesson of Iraq for its regional neighbour.
Meanwhile, the major regional power, Israel, enjoys the economic and military backing of the US, as well as an important privilege: the absence of controversy over its nuclear programme. Such double standards do nothing to draw Iran to the negotiating table.
Finally, when Iran is judged to be failing to meet its NPT obligations, the US and Israel raise the spectre of “preventative” military intervention.
The past decade has seen the tragic consequences which can emerge when genuine concerns over nuclear proliferation are hijacked for cynical gain. Supposed fears over Iraq’s possible development of nuclear weapons were ratcheted up and used as the catalyst for a US-led regime change operation. The parallels are clear, and while the jury is still out on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, only one conclusion can be drawn: there can be no military solutions to this problem.
Neither limited air strikes on key facilities nor a full-scale ground invasion are justified or conscionable.
Israel has touted the successes of “Operation Babylon” in 1981 – which saw the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, where Iraq was suspected of developing nuclear weapons. History has not only cast doubt on the veracity of those Israeli suspicions but, more significantly, the bombing campaign arguably accelerated Iraqi efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon in secret over the next nine years.
The more severe military option – a ground invasion – would be catastrophic on all counts. The human cost would be dreadful and the possibility of sparking a wider conflict in the region does not bear thinking about.
The only option is concerted, transparent and productive diplomatic negotiations.
Towards a WMD-free Middle East
A dispassionate look at the current tensions between Iran and Israel would surely conclude that the security concerns of each state must be acknowledged in order to move towards a peaceful and sustainable resolution.
Beginning dialogue on these issues is not easy, but this is precisely what needs to be done. The UN will this year be holding an important conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East.
Convened by the veteran Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajva, this conference aims to bring together all of the states in the Middle East to start building the groundwork for the realisation of this crucial goal.
While this conference has been in the pipeline since the mid-1990s, it was only at the NPT Review Conference in 2010 that the 189 member countries called for the conference finally to take place, with the date being set for 2012.
The conference has certainly been a long time coming. But with the prospect of Iran, Israel and delegates from all of the Middle East states being brought to the table for frank discussions on security and disarmament, hopes for genuine progress have emerged over recent months.
In the past month, however, Israel has declared that it will not attend the conference until there is “comprehensive peace in the region”. Israel’s UN Ambassador Ron Prosor stated that until this is achieved, Israel sees the conference as “absolutely not relevant”. The inverted logic is bewildering.
If the US really wants to see a lasting solution to the problems of the region, it needs to exert productive diplomatic pressure and not simply ratchet up the talk of military conflict. It could start by suggesting that Israel, as the only nuclear armed state in the Middle East, should attend this vital conference.
Dr Kate Hudson was chair of the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from 2003 to September 2010, when she became general secretary. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner nationally and internationally.