The decay of Australia’s nuclear ethic

Australia must use its new position in the UN Security Council to push for conciliation with Iran.

IAEA: Iran worked to develop nuclear weapon
The international community puts pressure on Iran's acquiring of nuclear energy while others with the same ambitions have the protection of key nuclear weapon states [EPA]

Within three days of Australia taking the chair of the UN Security Council committees overseeing “Iran’s WMD proliferation activities”, Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that Australia is to adopt severe economic sanctions against Iran that are “broadly aligned” with those already actioned by the US, Britain and European Union.

Thursday’s announcement is bitterly disappointing, for it draws to the fore a deep moral inconsistency in Australia’s recent nuclear dealings.

Simply put, Iran is alleged to have an active nuclear weapons programme, despite it having undertaken a number of international obligations – including the primary instrument of the nuclear regime, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

By contrast, Israel has never been a state party to the Treaty, and has possessed a nuclear weapons capability since the late 1960s, yet receives billions of dollars in funding from the US for its conventional weapons programmes a year. India – another liberal democracy – first acquired nuclear weapons in 1998 after it had signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, yet later scored a nuclear technology transfer deal with the US in 2008, followed by related moves by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to open up uranium sales to India only last year.

Put another way: Iran is under a greater level of scrutiny for allegedly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability than either Israel or India have been for having a readily-deployable nuclear arsenal. As Australian National University researcher and former assistant secretary-general of the UN Ramesh Thakur pointed out last week, economic sanctions like those outlined by Bob Carr:

… cause death and destruction through structural violence – starvation, malnutrition, the spread of deadly diseases, curtailed access to medicines that can exceed the cleaner alternative of war. John Mueller and Karl Mueller argued in Foreign Affairs that sanctions caused more deaths in the 20th century than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.

What of the ‘international community’?  

Carr’s statement would have you believe that Iran is acting out of step with “the international community”. The truth is otherwise. Apart from the allowances made to India and Israel, the five recognised nuclear weapons states (US, UK, China, Russia and France) have since 1967 left largely unfulfilled their disarmament promise under Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“The nuclear weapons states of the UK and US have not done enough to justify the continued double-standard which sees them using nuclear weapons as a daily deterrent.

For all the hope and swagger with which Obama called for “a world without nuclear weapons” when he assumed the presidency, very little has been achieved. The lofty heights that Obama’s words took the dreams of the world’s nuclear abolitionists are plain to see in fashion designer Issey Miyake’s heartfelt confession in 2009:

In April, President Obama pledged to seek peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons. He called for not simply a reduction, but elimination. His words awakened something buried deeply within me, something about which I have until now been reluctant to discuss…

On Aug 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on my hometown, Hiroshima. I was there, and only 7 years old. When I close my eyes, I still see things no one should ever experience: a bright red light, the black cloud soon after, people running in every direction trying desperately to escape – I remember it all.

Whilst much has been done in pursuit of a safer world since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is not enough.

The nuclear weapons states of the UK and US have not done enough to justify the continued double-standard which sees them using nuclear weapons as a daily deterrent, as well as increasingly permitting more and more agreeable members such as Israel and India within the nuclear club.

A significant many other states – Australia included – are protected under the umbrella of bilateral relations with key nuclear weapon states, or reside in regions where nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction such as biological and chemical weapons are all but absent. To be sure, many states capable of “breaking-out” and becoming nuclear weapons possessors in short time, such as Japan and Australia, have historically been recognised leaders in pursuing the disarmament agenda.

But the case of Iran is changing all that.

Iran: ‘Atomic energy for all, nuclear weapons for none’

Without question, Iran must be able to acquire nuclear energy without undue international pressure. Very few publicly contest that. The issue is that many contend that Iran is in fact seeking a nuclear weapon of their own.

We therefore find ourselves in an untenable situation not too dissimilar to that which Iraq faced under Saddam: prove that you don’t have what you say you don’t have!

Only dialogue based on a commitment to mutual understanding and the exploration of difference can awaken that deep-felt humanity. Economic sanctions targeted at Iran by ‘the international community’ must cease immediately.

Given its primary role in steering the UN Security Council’s Iran posture, Australia must not automatically calibrate its domestic position in line with those already enforcing economic sanctions that mostly harm the poor and ordinary Iranian citizen, rather than the political elite whom they are attempting to coerce.

China, in particular, has long called for a dialogue among civilisations between Iran and the West, but even the P5+1 talks that are underway are more about tabling set demands than anything that recognises Iran’s particular security concerns, which include threats of military action from both Israel and the US, security fears from other regional neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, a history of WMD usage by Iraq against Iranian citizens under the watch of the West, as well as concerns over the situation in Pakistan.

Furthermore, the focus on Iran’s support of Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria do not fully represent the totality of Iran’s foreign activities, as is commonly suggested in Western media. Indeed, it is too often forgotten that until the US and its allies manufactured the “Iran nuclear issue” as it is so often now called, the people of Iran protested in great numbers in support of America following September 11.

In my view, only dialogue based on a commitment to mutual understanding and the exploration of difference can awaken that deep-felt humanity. Economic sanctions targeted at Iran by “the international community” must cease immediately.

Threats of military action against Iranian nuclear facilities by many within Israel and the US must be replaced by an open and consistent call for the resumption of negotiations on a Middle East WMD free zone, as had previously been agreed by states parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in May 2010. Iran, in turn, must desist from antagonising Israel through the office of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or at least when he is succeeded in the June elections.

The people of Israel, Iran and the US in particular must rise up and display their common humanity, rather than leave the dialogue to the political elite which for so many years has variously shown itself – on all sides – to be incapable and unwilling to do so.

Australia’s moral decay

And yet despite the window of opportunity that Australia has open to it as chair of a number of relevant committees on the UN Security Council, Carr’s recent statements are devoid of any talk of global disarmament, or of a just dialogue between Iran, Israel and the West. The Australian government instead seems intent on reforging the policy bonds of the “Coalition of the Willing” which proved so morally, politically and economically disastrous in 2003.

 Which country has nuclear warheads

Julia Gillard must not continue to take Australia further down the path of moral decay in the area of non-proliferation and disarmament as I’ve elsewhere argued she has done. Now on the Security Council, Australia must use its role to push for what Prime Minster Gillard herself promised in the candidate brochure:

… a lead role in advancing disarmament and non-proliferation efforts and continuing our longstanding efforts to promote respect for international law.

And given the role of Australian media – and Rupert Murdoch in particular – in manufacturing the WMD threat posed by Saddam in 2003, reporting on “the Iran nuclear issue” must proactively solicit a range of opinions and expertise before again blindly calling for economic or military harm to be committed against the people of Iran.

There’s simply no other peaceful – or moral – way forward.

NAJ Taylor is a research associate at La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a doctoral researcher in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. 

Follow him on Twitter: @najtaylor